LOS ANGELES — The Lakers‘ eye toward clearing cap space and pursuing two superstar free agents next summer might be causing some frustration within the roster, and it could’ve played a role in the team’s lackluster 95-92 loss at home to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night at Staples Center.
Head coach Luke Walton noted how the Lakers did not play with the same effort and fight they have brought much of this season, and how some players on the bench were “pouting.” Veteran center Andrew Bogut says some players are clearly frustrated.
“Pouting? Possibly. Guys are frustrated,” Bogut said of the Lakers as Brandon Ingram sat out because of injuries to his quads. “There are some injuries right now, different rotations. Guys are frustrated, obviously. You would be lying to say that there are guys that are not frustrated on this team.
“Everyone knows what is going on with the salary-cap situation next season and all that. That is just distractions that we can’t let affect us. That is part of the league, the business decisions that front offices and coaches make. So if that is distracting guys, that is going to be like that your whole career. That is just the nature of this league.”
The Lakers are building around the two most recent No. 2 overall picks in the draft — Ingram and Lonzo Ball — and also have impressive rookie Kyle Kuzma. But to pursue potential free agents such as LeBron James and Paul George next summer, management will have to create cap space, and that could impact players such as Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson, two vets who have been excellent for the Lakers this season off the bench.
On Friday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Lakers and Dallas Mavericks had some “initial talks” involving Randle and center Nerlens Noel, but that those talks fell apart when Noel got injured. According to league sources, the Lakers have received interest in Randle and Clarkson this season.
The Lakers chose not to extend Randle’s rookie contract to keep their options open, and according to Walton, a motivated Randle, coming off the bench, has played “pissed off” for much of the season. Randle made 6-of-9 shots and had 16 points and nine rebounds Saturday, after going for 21 points and 10 rebounds at Golden State on Friday.
Clarkson, who has two years and $26 million left on his contract, has been one of the Lakers’ top players this season and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. He scored 18 points against Portland in 21 minutes but did not play in the final 6:18 of the game.
The Lakers (11-20) have lost five of their past six games and recently came off the most difficult four-game stretch in the NBA in the past three seasons, facing the Cleveland Cavaliers (24-9), the Golden State Warriors (26-7) twice and the Houston Rockets (25-6), whose combined winning percentage entering Friday was .787.
However, Saturday’s loss to a Damian Lillard-less Blazers team that also was playing the second of a back-to-back set felt much different. The young Lakers have been competitive and fought in almost every game this season. While they led by eight late in the third quarter and had chances at the end to either win the game or tie the score, the Lakers played what was, for them, a flat game.
“It was a different feel with this loss [than] all the other losses we have had,” Bogut said. “We haven’t had an effort like this for a while, and this was one of those nights where it was very easily fixable, but it kind of wasn’t. It wasn’t very professional.”
Walton said he knew his team had exhausted a ton of mental and physical energy playing against Cleveland, Golden State and Houston in the previous four games. But he sensed something different than his team just being tired.
“We’re gonna be tired,” Walton said. “It’s our job to be ready. I didn’t think we did a good job of that. I thought guys on our bench were pouting. I thought there was too much feeling sorry for ourselves as opposed to being professionals. The main thing that we do is always about our team and about what’s best for the team, how do we win as a team. Our guys have been great at that all year long. I just didn’t think we were very in character tonight. Maybe it’s this tough stretch we’ve been through. I don’t know. We just didn’t seem to be ourselves.
“It just didn’t feel like our normal group. There wasn’t a great energy. I just didn’t feel like our bench was jumping up and cheering guys on that were in and communicating and calling stuff out. It just didn’t feel like the same group that was locked in and bought into what’s been going on.”
Walton also was frustrated with the officiating, drawing a technical foul with 10:49 left in the third quarter. He was perplexed by explanations he received from the officiating crew and also upset about Ball suffering a bruised left shoulder while getting tangled up with Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic near the end of the first half. Ball (10 points, 11 assists and 8 rebounds) said he felt his shoulder kind of “pop,” but he remained in the game and says he will play on Christmas Day against Minnesota.
“I learned something new. … Every night I hear different rules about what’s a foul and what’s not a foul,” Walton said. “I got a technical tonight. I didn’t know that if you try to draw a charge and you flop, the flop is a defensive foul. I guess I was wrong on that. …
“It’s frustrating we’re trying to teach this young team how to play and what to do and do it properly and it just feels like every night it’s a different excuse on why we’re not getting calls. What the definition of verticality is. Kuzma shot a 3 late in the game and I’m sitting there watching, his whole shooting arm gets hit. He can’t even follow through. We’re up one. Three free throws. Maybe we win that way. We could have owned the game. It’s not their fault. We definitely did our part.”
Bogut says he and other players have talked about the distractions concerning the team’s direction in the future and about trying not to let it impact their play.
“We make light about it, we laugh about it, but you just can’t let it affect you,” Bogut said. “It is hard to tell young guys, 18, 19, 20 that come from a great college environment that are usually great cultures, that are built on team-first, and then you come into a situation like this sometimes where, kind of, guys don’t know if they are coming or going.
“That is just the way it is in professional sports. You have to just come in and do your job to your best ability. Tonight, collectively as a group, not just one guy, we just didn’t have that energy and focus.”