April 24, 2019

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With the Playoffs Out of Sight, What’s Left for the Lakers?

With the Playoffs Out of Sight, What’s Left for the Lakers?
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LOS ANGELES — To celebrate their first home win in 25 days, the Lakers on Sunday dropped streamers that had been collecting dust from the ceiling at Staples Center. The final lineup of the night included Alex Caruso, a 25-year-old guard who spent most of the season in the N.B.A.’s developmental G League.

Caruso knows things were not supposed to be this way. His mere presence — in a crunchtime situation, no less — was a vivid sign that the season had gone sideways for the Lakers, who will be watching the playoffs from various vacation destinations.

Caruso also knows that the Lakers are playing fairly meaningless games, including Sunday’s 111-106 victory over the Sacramento Kings. The Lakers (32-41) have nine more of these to go, starting Tuesday against the Washington Wizards. The buzz of LeBron James’s first season as a Laker is gone. The roster will be overhauled again this summer as the franchise, which has not been to the playoffs since 2013, rummages for solutions.

“But for me,” Caruso said, “these games are really meaningful.”

The Lakers are searching for motivation wherever they can find it, especially as they head toward an off-season of uncertainty. Coach Luke Walton’s job status is tenuous at best, and 10 players on the current roster do not have guaranteed deals for next season. Some of them, like Caruso, are trying to showcase their skills in hopes of acquiring N.B.A. work next season.

“I think this little stretch has been really good,” Caruso said, “because it’s finally allowed me to put all that work I’ve put in over the last two years and show how much I’ve evolved as a player. That I’m gaining confidence and making strides to get better and better.” In 16 appearances for the Lakers this season, Caruso has shot 44.6 percent from the field, averaging 6 points and 2.2 rebounds.

Even players who figure to be a part of the franchise’s future are focusing on personal growth. A team is always a collection of individuals, but the Lakers’ late-season emphasis on “me” is particularly understandable.

“I need to use these games to develop myself and play with the ball more,” the second-year forward Kyle Kuzma said recently.

The Lakers were not yet mathematically eliminated from playoff contention when they lost to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 17 — that would happen five days later — but Kuzma stood by his locker in a red leather jumpsuit after the game and spoke about the immediate future.

“I’m just trying to use these last 13, 14 games — whatever we have — to just try to develop good habits,” he said. “Season’s pretty much over, so that’s the only thing I can really do. Everyone knows I’m a good scorer and I can do that. I’m just trying to complete my game.”

Then there are the injured players who have largely disappeared from view: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart. For them, the end of this season is about rehabbing for the next one.

After all the losses, injuries and general dysfunction, Walton continues to preach the importance of team play. Same as ever.

“It starts with our effort and how we play and how we compete,” he said. “And our guys have been doing a nice job of that, even though we haven’t been winning games. Whatever lineups we’ve been putting out there, they’re giving what they have. So that’s the No. 1 thing.”

As for James, these are his first truly inconsequential games since his rookie season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, who finished well out of playoff contention. But even then, he could use the end of the season as an opportunity to hone his abilities and gain experience for future endeavors — such as eight consecutive trips to the N.B.A. Finals.

So it is a credit to James, even as the grease fire of his first season with the Lakers smolders, that he is out there — trying. Against the Kings, he finished with his 81st career triple-double: 29 points, 11 assists, 11 rebounds. How does he sustain the motivation?

“If he’s out there on the court, he’s going to give what he has,” Walton said. “That’s probably a better question for him, but I’m getting to know him, and that’s the type of person he is: He respects and loves the game. So if he’s going to play, he’s going to give what he has.”

James said he appreciated the fans who continued to show up. He also said he owed it to himself to play with genuine effort.

“I’ve always respected the basketball gods,” James said, “and if I’m on the floor, I got to try to play as hard as I can or do something to affect the game and not cheat the game.”

Still, times have changed for the Lakers, who have not been to the playoffs since 2013. Before that, they routinely fixated on the Western Conference standings and the number of wins they would need to make the playoffs. Now, the most important number in their universe is 3 percent — as in, their odds of winning the N.B.A. draft lottery.

Then again, the Lakers are not the only team that has so little at stake at this stage of the season. Look no further than the Kings, whose push for a playoff berth has deteriorated in recent weeks. Before Sunday’s game, Coach Dave Joerger held a brief news conference. No one had much to ask.

“I can give you some more stuff,” he said. “I mean, it’s sunny out. It’s spring. It smells like March Madness, Lent and the N.B.A. playoffs. Get the seedings, get it done. Exciting times.”

He paused again.

“Nothing else?” he asked.

Nothing else.



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