By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
The team that you simply have to watch in the NBA right now isn’t the best team, nor the one with the strongest record or the best chance of winning the championship. It’s not the one with the hottest rookie or the next big star or the MVP frontrunner. It’s not the defending champion or the one that’s on an absolute tear.
It is the team that’s on the fringes of the fringe, on the cusp of being shoved outside the play-in tournament, a group that is no one’s idea of a looming threat and whose record is the epitome of mediocrity.
The Los Angeles Lakers.
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They’re not so much “must-see,” which indicates an attraction for all the right reasons. But they are definitely “can’t-miss,” and the reason you don’t want to let a game pass by without watching what goes down is because it is bizarre, extraordinary, puzzling and – of late – becoming a parody of itself.
LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony are as big a collection of superstar names as has ever been congregated on a single roster, yet they weren’t very good before Davis got injured and they’re significantly worse now.
Going into Thursday night’s clash with the neighborly Clippers, the Lakers have lost six of their last seven to slip to 27-34 and ninth in the Western Conference. If it was anyone else in that position, our attention span would have shifted elsewhere long ago.
Not so here. There is something unmistakably and confusingly compelling about trying to figure out how such a talented lineup — with James stacking up numbers at a frenetic pace — keeps on losing. Over and over and over again.
They’ve won only once since Feb. 5, a miserable span of nearly a month that got worse over the past week. Going further back, they’ve lost 10 of 13. On Friday, they were poor down the stretch and let the Clippers close one out. On Sunday, they got taken apart by the lowly New Orleans Pelicans on their own Crypto.com Arena floor. On Tuesday, also at home, Luka Doncic was heads and shoulders above every other player in the fourth quarter, taking over to seal a 109-104 comeback win for the Dallas Mavericks.
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The flashes of excellence are there, always. Every game, even the ones when he can’t stop turning it over, Westbrook does something – or several somethings – that remind everyone why he was the triple-double churning MVP five years ago.
James, averaging 28.9 points, 8.0 rebounds and 6.3 assists, doesn’t have many bad statistical nights. But as good as he has been this year, the Lakers’ season looks like it is drifting away into nothing.
There are words of defiance spoken, most recently from James, when he colorfully insisted there are no thoughts of giving up on the year, however bad it looks.
“We still have games to play,” he said earlier this week. “Until you stomp me out, cut my head off, bury me 12 feet under, then I got a chance.”
The Lakers would have a much better chance if they thrived when things were close. Over the course of the campaign, they’ve played more “clutch” games (37) than any other team, defined as contests where the gap is five points or less with five minutes remaining. They’ve lost 20 of those 37.
Watching them, it feels like things are destined to stay close because they’re not forceful enough to grind teams down, not good enough to streak away from anybody and have too much star power capable of injecting life to get blown out very often.
Their games are nerve-jangling sometimes, but if there is a feeling of inevitability associated with them at present, it’s a sense they’re probably going to mess it up again rather than turn it around.
The thing that keeps you coming back is the nagging sense that a revival could happen at any point. It probably won’t — but it could. There is a mountain of evidence that James and Westbrook can’t coexist on the same court, but how is that really the final word on the topic?
Is there really no possible solution, somehow, some way, that one of the greatest players ever and an all-time top-75 guy could be productive teammates?
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If it did ever happen that they clicked seamlessly, suddenly the Lakers, especially if Davis was to return strongly, would go from being complete outsiders to a team capable of doing some damage in the playoffs.
They don’t look anything like that now. They’ve tried different things and combinations. Westbrook has sometimes been taken off the floor late. James has tried to exert his control in different ways, at different positions. Nothing much has worked.
For now, they remain a curiosity, one that you can’t take your eyes off. A mediocre team that’s in perhaps its worst slump of the season, but is more interesting than ever.
If you’re a Lakers fan and you’re down about things, take solace in this … at least you’re not head coach Frank Vogel and tasked with the job of trying to fix it.
And if you are Frank Vogel, welcome to the column Frank, but sorry, we’ve got no answers for you here.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.
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