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The Los Angeles Lakers’ Lose-Now-Win-Later Program

The defense is getting scorched and the offense can’t finish games, leaving L.A. winless in three games this season. But this part of the Lakers season is about process over results? And when it’s this entertaining, who cares about the record?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here are a series of statements about the Lakers. They are true. The Lakers have real talent—from a host of young players like Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, to one of the greatest of all time in LeBron James. The Lakers play fast and are at the very top of the league in pace, which is exactly the way they planned it. The Lakers have played three games, each one more exciting than the last, each one producing countless highlights and memorable moments—like Monday’s home affair against San Antonio, when they were down eight points with just over a minute to play and came back to send it to overtime thanks to James draining a dramatic 28-foot running pullup.

These are some other true statements about the Lakers. The Lakers have been terrible on defense. They have given up a ghastly 131.7 points per game to the opposition. No one has surrendered more, not the Bulls or Hawks, not the Kings or even the Cavs team LeBron left behind in Cleveland. The Lakers have James, who willed them into overtime against the Spurs, but they do not have Patty Mills, the man who hit what ultimately proved to be the game-winner. It’s a play Mills said they run all the time, but “usually with Tim, Tony, and Manu.” Now they run it with Patty, who despite producing the desired result does not have quite the same one-name cache. That particular indignity—falling to a Spurs team that isn’t nearly as deep or flashy as the Lakers, and doesn’t much care about the latter quality—came right before James had another last-second opportunity for heroics, only to miss a long 2 over Rudy Gay to end the night. The Lakers have played three wildly entertaining games—and they’ve lost them all.

If misery loves company, only the similarly winless Bulls, Cavs, and Thunder know what the Lakers are going through right now. But then, it’s not nearly the same thing. Not really. None of those teams have James or the anticipation that comes with him. The Lakers spent the last few seasons stumbling through the darkest period in franchise history. That was supposed to change when they lured LeBron to Los Angeles. The growing pains were over. Magic Johnson vowed it. The oddsmakers concurred, putting the Lakers’ over/under win total at 48.5. FiveThirtyEight didn’t disagree; its preseason model had the Lakers winning 48 games and gave them an 84 percent chance to make the playoffs. But just a week into the season, that prediction has already dipped to 45 wins and a 70 percent chance.

The organization’s urge to transition was clear. So was the attendant implication: LeBron’s Lakers can’t be last year’s Lakers. It has to be different now. But after losing to the Spurs, James tried to pump the brakes a bit on the runaway squad goals. He insisted he didn’t “come here thinking we’d be blazin’ storm right out of the gate.”

Maybe not, but he probably didn’t expect to be 0-3 for the first time since his sophomore season in Cleveland. That was 14 years ago. Though, in fairness, these Lakers come with a fresher feel than some past LeBron teams that didn’t live up to early expectations. Despite the disappointing start, L.A. are young and fun, and they’ve treated us to a fight, a game-tying 3, flashy passing, dunks, and a turbo-button offense that keeps putting up points. Which might be why LeBron hasn’t seemed outwardly alarmed. While he toweled himself off in front of his locker at Staples Center, he told the media “We’ll be fine.”

“I know what I got myself into,” James said. “It’s a process. I get it.”

I’m not sure who he was trying to convince there—the media, the fans, his teammates, or himself. Maybe they will be fine, but at present they seem a long way from it. Here is another statement about the Lakers, one as true as those that came before it: It is not time for the Lakers to panic; it will be time for the Lakers to panic soon.

This is obviously not how the Lakers dreamed they would start the season. The flip side is that this is precisely how everyone who does not root for the Lakers dreamed they would start the season. The jokes are easy to make at the moment, and there are plenty of them.

Unless you’re a Lakers loyalist and you willingly leave the house dressed like every day is a purple and gold Halloween, it’s impossible not to have doubts about this team right now. I write that as someone who came prepared to mainline Lakers basketball this season and put them third in the Western Conference. It’s still super early. And they have LeBron. But while we wait for him to cape up and rescue the entire team the way he did in Cleveland a year ago, and the way he has done so many times in his remarkable career with so many squads, it’s fair to wonder what needs to change. Not surprisingly, NBA Twitter has some ideas about that, and quite a few of them have to do with Luke Walton. Maybe his seat isn’t exactly hot yet, but it’s not getting any cooler, either.

These are the kinds of moments—an early losing skid with a new superstar amid elevated expectations—that can inspire action in a coach. Or emotion. Or some approximation of those things. Walton perhaps sensed that after the Spurs loss and started out his postgame press conference by banging the table in front of him and complaining about the refs, damage to his wallet be damned.

As animated coach reactions go, it wasn’t exactly Pete Bell in Blue Chips wondering “How goddamn bad can it get?” and hurling a water jug across the room. But then that’s never been Walton’s style. He’s pretty chill. That is generally to his credit. It wasn’t long ago that he was applauded for being even-handed with some of this very same collection of kids.

But even with his act of performance art, Walton’s heart didn’t seem in it. Before long, he was propping himself and the Lakers up on empty platitudes. They “fought” and “competed” and “never gave up” against the Spurs. “Overall,” he said he was “very pleased with our guys.”

“That’s three games we’ve been in that we’ve had a chance to win,” he said. Then, perhaps hearing how that sounded when spoken aloud in a room full of people dutifully recording the remarks for posterity, he added: “Now obviously it’s about winning and losing at the end of the day here.”

At the moment, at least outwardly, the Lakers appear committed to the plan they outlined before the season began: play fast and see how it goes. It’s not going well.

On the morning after the Lakers rumbled with the Rockets—leading to a four-game suspension for Ingram and three games for Rajon Rondo—Walton said he thought the Lakers played well and that the things they’re focused on, like moving the ball and getting out in transition, were improving. These are points he keeps hammering home—process over results. He’s talked a lot about the Lakers getting better, which sounds suspiciously like something he might have said last year and the year before, when the Lakers lost 103 of their 164 games.

There’s a lot of that creeping, nothing-to-see-here, keep-it-moving mentality going around. Josh Hart—who was primed for a big year and has been one of the Lakers best and most consistent players—called the early-season woes a “learning experience” but swore “we’re good.” But he allowed that the Lakers still “have to get used to each other defensively,” which was a nice bit of underselling.

The Lakers have serious issues on the defensive end. They have given up 120-plus points in each of their first three games. Even accounting for the nobody-plays-defense-now scoring explosion across the league, that is astonishing and embarrassing. Missed assignments. Sloppy switches. A lack of communication. The Lakers have been guilty of all of it. No matter how fast they play, it will still be difficult for their overdrive offense to stay ahead of the competition on the scoreboard, especially if the Lakers can’t stop the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge from renting out space in their paint free of charge.

As anticipated, the Lakers are short on reliable, traditional rim protectors. After JaVale McGee—who has played well and is averaging 15 points, 7.3 rebounds, and three blocks in just over 23 minutes per game—they get awfully thin in the middle awfully fast. That’s led to James and Kuzma filling in as emergency centers just to eat up minutes. It’s been a steep curve for Kuzma, who, after getting victimized on defense by the Rockets in Houston, texted his head coach to tell him it would “never happen again.”

“It would be nice if it never did,” Walton said Monday night, “but I’m sure it will. But that’s his mentality. And then he comes in and he works and he works and he works. And he’s able to come in and have nights like [Monday]. It’s why we’re so high on him.”

With Ingram and Rondo suspended, Walton was forced to alter his lineup against San Antonio, starting Kuzma and Ball. Kuzma had 37 points (one off his career best and tied with the Spurs’ LaMarcus Aldridge for a game high), including four 3-pointers. Ball looked good too; he added 14 points, six rebounds, and six assists and made 3-of-7 3-pointers. Walton was quick to single out their shooting for obvious reasons: The Lakers need it. They’re taking 33.7 3s per game, which is smack in the middle of the league, but they’re only making 28.7 percent (as of Tuesday, only the Nuggets and Thunder were worse). A little increased shooting accuracy would go a long way—which is perhaps why Walton singled out Ball for having “some really big moments” in the last two games, including a catch-and-shoot 3-pointer in overtime against San Antonio that he launched without hesitation.

Ingram and Rondo’s suspension, and their imminent return, will give Walton and his critics data on a variety of different lineups There’s a school of thought that Ball is the better fit next to James because he offers more shooting than Rondo (in that he offers any shooting at all). Meanwhile, Hart has been considerably better than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at pretty much everything, which is why he’s averaging 32 minutes per game even though he’s coming off the bench, compared to KCP’s 21.3 minutes as a starter.

The Lakers play five games in the next eight days, including a back-to-back against the Suns on the road on Wednesday followed by the Nuggets at home on Thursday. It would be a slog for a good team operating under the best conditions, which is not the case for the Lakers. But the way Hart sees it, any early-season issues are sure to give way to late-season success. “We got a young team,” he said Monday night. “Down the stretch, we won’t be losing these games.”

That’s become something of a theme around these Lakers—the notion that losing now will somehow lead to winning later. A reporter asked Walton about that very thing after the Spurs beat them. The journo’s phrasing was incredible. He wanted to know whether there were big-picture things that prompted Walton to believe “these could be W’s in 10, 15, 20 games?”

“Yeah. Everything is. Really,” Walton replied. And here, again, he ticked off what he likes. The Lakers are “rebounding the ball better,” their “assist numbers are up where we want,” and their “pace has been great.” And all that while they “haven’t really even started hitting shots.”

Everything is exactly as the Lakers want it to be—except for everything that needs fixing. The same supposition was put to James in the locker room after the Spurs game. Did he also feel that the Lakers would win these games later on? (The question was asked without the “10, 15, 20 games” down-the-line caveat, which was smart because it might have caused LeBron to spontaneously combust.) His answer was a bit more direct—and as statements about the Lakers go, it was the truest of all.

“We can’t just say that. We don’t know.”