The Lakers aren’t going anywhere if LeBron James suddenly starts looking as old as his birth certificate says he is, so it came as some relief to them when the soon-to-be-37-year-old delivered his first age-defying performance of the season at the end of their recent five-city tour.
At the same time, it didn’t speak well of the team that it required a 39-point effort from James to beat the eight-win Indiana Pacers on Wednesday — in overtime, no less.
The Lakers could have easily gone winless on this the trip, and as much as Frank Vogel and his players make the case that Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn have yet to play a game, it appears they aren’t as good as they were last season when they were sneaked into the postseason via the play-in game.
Trading Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell for Russell Westbrook depleted their depth and made them worse defensively.
These are the deals teams make when they are trading from a position of weakness, a position in which they were bound to find themselves when they placed their franchise in James’ hands. Since then, they have been in a constant race with James’ biological clock.
The disappointing finish to last season obscured how well the Lakers played for the majority of the year. They were 14-6 at this stage. They had the second-best record in the Western Conference until Anthony Davis went down with a calf strain in February. They didn’t completely unravel until James sprained his right ankle more than a month later.
How last season unfolded pushed them to try to lessen their dependence on James, which resulted in them taking a gamble on Westbrook. Assuming the gamble doesn’t work, they’ll have to make another to have any hope at making another championship run, which, in turn, could compromise them even more.
That doesn’t mean the decision to build around an older player in James was the wrong one. The decision won them a championship and carried them out of one of the darkest periods in franchise history. But the same decision has also placed them in the predicament in which they are now.
The recent trip brought back memories of something Kobe Bryant said nine years ago, when a then-34-year-old Bryant was on the same team as a 38-year-old Steve Nash, a 36-year-old Antawn Jamison, a 33-year-old Metta World Peace and a 32-year-old Pau Gasol.
Asked about why those Lakers often lacked energy, Bryant replied, “Because we’re old as s—.”
The NBA is a league of runs, but the current Lakers have taken to that to an extreme, as their defense powers down for at least a quarter nearly every game.
They have stretches when they can’t stop anyone. They allowed 34 points in the second quarter of their loss in Milwaukee and 36 points in the first quarter of their defeat in New York. They were outscored, 100-70, over the final three quarters in Boston.
I know, this isn’t breaking news, the subject covered in the preseason to where it feels as if mentioning it again would be repetitive. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
It feels as if it’s just a matter of time before Frank Vogel is made the scapegoat for this mess, but that doesn’t mean he should be. He’s a defensively inclined coach who had many of his defensive weapons stripped from him. General manager Rob Pelinka should be careful of how he deals with this. If Vogel is removed from the equation, there will be no one left standing between Pelinka and the firing squad.
While at TD Garden last weekend, I ran into longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who gifted me a copy of his new book, “Wish It Had Lasted Forever: Life With the Larry Bird Celtics.”
It’s a fun read, Shaughnessy chronicling what it was like to cover the Celtics before the NBA was the global behemoth it is now, when reporters used to travel on the same planes as players, stay at the same unglamorous hotels as them and drink at the same bars as them. The book gives readers a feel of what players such as Bird, Kevin McHale and Cedric Maxwell were like, offering the kinds of details a reporter covering the league today wouldn’t be in position to provide.
(Disclaimer: Shaughnessy and I once worked together. By worked together, I mean he was the star of the Globe’s sports department when I was a lowly summer intern.)