If the adage that we learn more in defeat than victory is true, the Lakers will have learned plenty from the 2020-21 season. LA started the year expecting to gain yet another title, becoming the outright most successful NBA franchise in history. Instead, it was a season of frustration and deflation. Let’s review why this was the case.
Let’s not bury the lead. By the far the most disappointing element of the Lakers season was how it ended. Finishing a comparatively lowly 7th in the Western Conference was nobody’s expectation, but at least the Lakers were still in the playoffs. From there, anything was possible.
Unfortunately, such possibilities included an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. The Suns are a fine outfit, and they finished 2nd in the 2020-21 Western Conference, but with all due respect, this is a franchise the Lakers should be conquering.
It’s not just that the Lakers failed to win, though. It’s how they fell to defeat. The Suns were in control for most of the series, and to the untrained eye would have looked like the reigning champions – not a side that has not tasted glory since 1993.
The development of Talen Horton-Tucker
As much as the Lakers enjoy seeing a bona fide superstar join the roster, it’s also exciting to watch a younger player make this mark. Talen Horton-Tucker is one such example.
Just 20 years old, THT made a real impression on the Lakers during the brief pre-season. Much like the Lakers themselves, much was expected from THT during the same season – and much like his team, the youngster failed to meet expectations.
That’s not to get on the back of a young player. THT has plenty of time to come good and become the star that many expect him to be. With so many senior pros underperforming on the court this season, however, many fans were hoping that THT would step up a little faster.
The shooting performance of Wesley Matthews
Wesley Matthews was hardly a gala signing for the Lakers, but Danny Green had to be replaced. Green was transferred to Oklahoma City Thunder, and then the Philadelphia 76ers, during the 2020-21 off-season. Naturally, he took his 3-pointer specialism with him.
Matthews was brought in as a shooting guard but offered little to cheer. His 3-point percentage dropped from .364 with the Milwaukee Bucks to just .335, and his field goal percentage from .396 to .353. Matthews’ defensive performances were average to passable, but more was expected from an attacking standpoint.
Injury problems throughout the season
For many Lakers fans, the 2020-21 season should be filed in the history books with an asterisk. Having endured an extremely short turnaround between the 2019-20 final and the launch of the new campaign, the players had barely any time to rest.
As a result of this, injuries decimated the season for the Lakers. The most damning of these saw the loss of LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the play-off clash with the Suns. James attempted to play on through a sprained ankle, claiming to be a maximum of 85% healthy for each game.
Davis, meanwhile, saw his season end in game 4 of the play-offs. This saw the tide turn, with the Suns coming back to win the game once the Lakers lost the focal point of their attack. This tied the series at 2-2 and the rest, as they say, is history.
The question remains, though. Would the Lakers have lost to the Suns – and even finished higher in the conference – with a longer off-season, and the chance to rest and recuperate? Injuries prevented fans from seeing what the roster was truly capable of this year.
Performances of the big men in the center
Spanish Olympian Marc Gasol rejoined the Lakers in the summer of 2020. We say ‘rejoined’ as Gasol was initially drafted by LA in 2007, traded to the Memphis Grizzlies before making an appearance.
Following a successful stint in Memphis, and two fine years with the Toronto Raptors, the Lakers picked up Gasol as a free agent – letting Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee leave in the process. Gascol was supposed to be the final piece of the Lakers’ defensive puzzle.
It would be harsh to label Gascol a disaster. His game certainly improved toward the end of the season. Initially, though, his performances were so concerning that the Lakers bought out Andre Drummond’s contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s never a good look.
Unfortunately, Drummond hardly pulled up any trees either. The Lakers may need to seriously reconsider their center-court starters for the 2021-22 season. There is no denying that many disappointments stemmed from that area this past year.
Record against the Clippers
While the Boston Celtics will arguably always be the Lakers’ biggest rivals, it sticks in the craw of any Lakers fan to lose to the Clippers.
Unfortunately for the men in purple, the two LA sides met three times across the season and the Clippers took the victory on each occasion. The encounter on May 6 was particularly damning for the Lakers, with the Clippers running out 118-94 winners.
To add insult to injury, the Clippers also outperformed the Lakers in the play-offs. While the Lakers limped out in the first round, the Clippers conquered the Dallas Mavericks and Utah Jazz on their way to a first-ever semi-final appearance.
The fact that the Phoenix Suns are putting the Clippers to the sword at the time of writing will offer a crumb of comfort to Lakers fans, but not much. They’ll still wish to reestablish city dominance over their neighbors in 2022.
Everybody affiliated with the Lakers will be keen to expunge the memories of the 2020-21 season as quickly as possible. That’s the great thing about professional sport – there is always another season coming to put things right. The Lakers have work to do to ensure that this season remains an anomaly, though. These disappointments must be learned from.