Coming off a disappointing playoff exit, the Los Angeles Lakers entered the season with renewed determination to win with their legendary leader before his play started to slow down. Joining him was a combination of holdovers from the last championship run and a new cast of big names — players whose best days might be behind them, but who still might offer a spark to help L.A. rediscover its greatness. Yet, despite those expectations, the team looks mediocre at best, with a sub-.500 record through nearly three-quarters of the schedule — the type of season that qualifies as a total disaster in Lakers-land.
What, you thought I was talking about the current Lakers? Sorry, I was recapping the 2012-13 Lakers season.
It is rather incredible how many parallels can be drawn between what can now fairly be called the two most disappointing superteams in franchise history.1 The 2013 version was able to pull together a stretch run good enough to make the playoffs, though it bowed out quickly in what was to be L.A.’s last postseason appearance for the next six years. The good news for this season’s edition is that it still has time left to overcome its problems. The bad news is that it might be in even bigger trouble than the star-studded Laker squad that flopped so hard a decade ago.
In both cases, the Lakers were retooling after coming down from a recent championship run. L.A. had won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010 with Kobe Bryant flanked by Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher. But that core was getting older — all were over age 30 by the 2011 playoffs — and it largely struggled in a second-round sweep at the hands of the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks (which also ended legendary coach Phil Jackson’s career on the bench). After a failed bid to acquire star guard Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets the following offseason, L.A.’s slide continued under new coach Mike Brown in 2011-12, as the team was easily ousted by the rising Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round of the playoffs.
It was clear that changes were necessary for the league’s proudest franchise. Those came later in the summer, in the form of a sign-and-trade deal that landed L.A. future Hall of Fame point guard Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns, then a league-altering four-team, 12-player swap that sent All-NBA center Dwight Howard to the Lakers as well. With Howard and Nash joining Bryant, Gasol and Metta World Peace in an opening-night starting five consisting entirely of current or former All-Stars, the Lakers had seemingly caught back up to the superteam trend that had recently netted championships for the Boston Celtics (2008) and Miami Heat (2012).
Shortly after the Howard trade, the Lakers were installed as co-favorites (with the defending-champion Heat) for the 2013 NBA title. But it quickly became apparent that those expectations were seriously overinflated. L.A. went 0-8 in the preseason, then lost three straight to start the regular season and four of five (all by a margin of at least 8 points), after which point Brown was fired. He was replaced by Mike D’Antoni several games later, and while the Lakers righted the ship enough to win more than they lost during November, they found themselves ending the year with a 15-15 record on New Year’s Eve and saw their record plunge to 20-26 — four games out of the Western Conference’s last playoff spot — by the end of January.
From there, L.A.’s performance ticked upward (it went 25-11 to close out the regular season), and the team managed to make the postseason as the No. 7 seed in the West. But with Bryant lost for the playoffs to an Achilles tear with two games left in the regular season2 and the mighty San Antonio Spurs waiting in the first round, the Lakers put up little resistance as their once-promising season slipped away. In four games, San Antonio swept them by an average margin of nearly 19 points per game.
Why did that Laker superteam fail? As one might have expected from the league’s oldest team, injuries played a major role in their undoing, with Gasol missing 33 games and Nash sitting out 32, while Howard and World Peace both missed isolated stretches — and Bryant was absent for what would have been, in retrospect, the final playoff appearance of his career. That much-ballyhooed All-Star starting five was intact for only seven games all year long. Further, L.A.’s defense was a huge stumbling block throughout the season, falling from 13th in the league in efficiency in 2011-12 to 20th in 2012-13 despite adding a recent three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard. And their big-ticket talent simply failed to deliver. While Bryant had his best regular-season RAPTOR plus/minus since 2009-10, Howard, Nash and Gasol each saw their RAPTORs drop by over 3.0 points per 100 possessions.
It’s difficult to say how the 2012-13 Lakers would have done if they had remained healthy — or if that was ever even possible given their personnel — but they may have been doomed from the start. The same might be said of the 2021-22 Lakers, who share many of the same faults as their predecessors and are, in some ways, even worse off.
|Through 61 regular-season games|
Like the 2012-13 team, this year’s Lakers went winless (0-6) in preseason despite being one of the betting favorites for the NBA championship. And through the first 61 games of the regular season, they have an even worse record (27-34) and average scoring margin (-2.0 points per game) than their forerunners (30-31 and +0.9, respectively). L.A.’s current Elo rating3 is more than 100 points worse than it was in 2012-13 (1428 versus 1537) at the same point in the season. It even bears mentioning that these Lakers are also the NBA’s oldest team, with an average age (30.6) nearly identical to that of the 2012-13 Lakers (30.7).
For this year’s Lakers, the downfall has come in equal measures on both offense and defense. L.A. ranks 25th in efficiency when it has the ball, compounding what was already a problem last season (when L.A. ranked 24th). A healthier LeBron James and Anthony Davis — an all-time pairing when at full strength — were supposed to combine with the offseason additions of Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony (among others) to at least power an above-average offense like what the Lakers had when they won it all in 2020. So far, that hasn’t happened: James and Davis have missed significant time, and Westbrook has been one of the least efficient offensive players in the league. (And he’s not the only Laker near the bottom of that list.)4 Add in a D that is barely better than average — a far cry from the league-best defense of a year ago — and it’s not hard to see why the Lakers have hit rock-bottom.
The big area where these Lakers might just one-up the 2012-13 version in terms of disappointment is in the playoff chase, where our model gives L.A. only an 8 percent chance of earning a ticket to the round of 16. Of course, the Lakers’ odds of making the play-in round for the second-straight year are higher than that, but from their current perch in the West’s No. 9 seed, they would need to win two consecutive do-or-die games just to get in. (This is why the consensus of sportsbook odds also has L.A. as -186 — or a 65 percent implied probability before adjusting for the take — to not make the playoffs.) Even if the current Lakers win 71.4 percent of their games over the remainder of season, matching the 2012-13 Lakers’ rest-of-season winning percentage from this point, they would finish the year with a wildly disappointing 42-40 record, which our model thinks would be good for no better than a tie for eighth in the West and a trip to the play-in tourney.
And that might represent the best-case scenario for the Lakers. In reality, this team is reeling and may not even be able to summon the same late-season push as its precursors did. The Lakers have lost six of their last seven games, haven’t won back-to-back contests since Jan. 7 and currently have their worst Elo rating of the entire season. Davis is still out for multiple weeks (at least) and, aside from a stray win over the tanking Blazers without him on Feb. 2, James has needed to play at a superhuman level to even have a chance at dragging L.A. to victory recently. To borrow a phrase from Rick Pitino, not even an aging, injured Gasol or Nash are walking through the locker-room door at this point. (Though Howard actually is, he’s 36 years old now and averaging 5.3 points per game.)
Just like the 2012-13 version before it, the theory of this year’s Laker superteam was that its sheer star power would be enough to pry L.A.’s championship window open for another deep run. But the results have fallen well short of the theory — and history seems to be repeating itself in a comparison that is hard for James, Davis, Westbrook and company to avoid.
Check out our latest NBA predictions.