There was a time when it was too early to hit the panic button on the Los Angeles Lakers. But at 23-24, it’s safe to say the panic button has now been beaten, battered, and broken about 12 times over.
Despite an All-Star trio of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook, the Lakers have shown no semblance of championship-worthy basketball. Whether’s it’s injuries, roster construction, or simply poor performance, LA is barely staying in the playoff picture.
That being said, not everybody is worried about the state of the Lakers. Shaquille O’Neal, a former star of the Purple and Gold, isn’t too concerned with LA being a game under .500. In fact, Shaq believes the disappointing Lakers are “right where they want to be.”
Nothing has gone right for the Los Angeles Lakers
In Oct. 2020, the Lakers were hoisting their 17th NBA championship trophy. A little over a year later, many are wondering if they can even win a playoff game.
LA is a mediocre 23-24 and all of its stats indicate the record is earned. Heading into Tuesday, the Purple and Gold are a dismal 24th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Their defense in particular has suffered in the weeks Davis has missed due to an MCL sprain, though the All-Star big man returned to action against the Brooklyn Nets.
Injuries can be blamed to a degree. Davis’ injury has obviously impacted the Lakers over the last month. But with James missing a handful of games early on due to an ankle sprain and groin injury, the “big three” has only started 16 games together.
But not even a depleted roster can make up for some of the poor play exhibited by several players. Many of general manager Rob Pelinka’s moves have backfired, but none more so than the trade for Westbrook. In fact, LA is already exploring options to move on from the former MVP due to his poor fit in Hollywood.
Shaquille O’Neal believes the Lakers are fine where they are
It’s hard to imagine the Lakers expecting to be below .500 47 games into the season. But according to O’Neal, the Lakers are content with how things have gone.
During Tuesday’s edition of Inside the NBA, Shaq explained how the veteran-led Lakers aren’t particularly concerned with being near the bottom of the playoff picture.
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that the Lakers are right where they want to be. When you’re older, you’re saying to yourself, ‘Wait until the playoffs.’ So even though they’re not playing spectacularly, they’re still in the eight-spot. So if I was them, I don’t want to play Phoenix or Golden State in the first round. We’re going for Memphis.”Shaquille O’Neal
In Shaq’s mind, the Lakers shouldn’t be desperately fighting to win the West. All they need to do is avoid the Suns or Warriors in the first round. That would likely mean securing the six-seed at worst if Phoenix and Golden State hold down the top two spots. It would also mean LA avoids the dreaded play-in tournament.
O’Neal then further explained how teams playing the Lakers care a lot more than LA does at this stage of the season.
“That’s how you think when you’re older,” Shaq said. “When you’re playing against a LeBron or Carmelo, the opponents are going to be playing way above their heads. If I’m playing against somebody, I’m not getting up for you the way you’re getting up for me. But then, when we know what’s at stake during the playoffs, they’re right where they want to be.”
The Lakers need to have all three stars to have a chance
Even if Shaq isn’t terribly worried about LA, there’s still some major cause for concern. The defensive issues have been highlighted over the last several weeks. Westbrook is who he is, and a trade looks unlikely. Meanwhile, there’s the looming possibility head coach Frank Vogel gets canned at any moment.
In order for the Lakers to secure the six-seed and actually be a threat come playoff time, LeBron, AD, and Russ need time together. Lots of it.
As mentioned above, Tuesday’s outing against the Nets is just the 16th game featuring all three superstars together. Ideally, James, Davis, and Westbrook would’ve figured things out over the first few weeks and be rolling by December. Instead, injuries haven’t allowed the trio to gel, leading to LA fighting off mediocrity over the halfway point.
Of course, staying healthy is easier said than done. Especially for the oldest roster in the league. But if LA can get its core together for the bulk of the regular season from here on out, only then will it stand a chance in the playoffs.
If not, Shaq’s proclamation will go down as more blustering about a Lakers team that never failed to meet expectations.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.