Road to Revival: The Lakers failed to adapt

“The playoffs are nothing like the regular season. They are two completely different sports.”

That was former Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers back in 2019 during the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The Los Angeles Lakers’ admirable postseason run to the Western Conference Finals validated Myers’ claim in many ways.

Myers is an underrated piece in the Warriors’ championship success over the last decade. Managing a winning squad is all about pushing the right buttons, finding the right pieces to fit the puzzle and acquiring the right players for the right roles. It’s built on an essential understanding of the game and what’s needed to succeed in the regular season versus the playoffs. Needless to say, Myers gets it. 

Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka has a similar understanding of what is necessary to build a championship team — he put together a defensive dynamo in 2020 for the Lakers’ 17th championship. But it is incredibly hard to win in the NBA, a nuance of the game often overlooked by fans. There are 30 teams and 450 players, but only one team hoists the Larry O’Brien trophy. From the front office down to the 15th player on the roster, so much has to go right to even make the NBA Finals, let alone win it all. 

Pelinka was praised for the Russell Westbrook trade he pulled off at this season’s trade deadline, adding D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt to thrust the purple and gold back into the playoff discussion. Down the stretch of the playoffs, though, the veracity of Myers’ statement came to light — all three regular season rotation mainstays were rendered unplayable. 

Specialists do not see consistent minutes in the playoffs. Beasley is a 3-point sniper but can’t guard a chair. Vanderbilt is a defensive workhorse but a complete zero on the offensive end. Russell is the best of the three because of his offensive capabilities, but his lack of lateral quickness and defensive awareness made it difficult for Head Coach Darvin Ham to keep him on the floor against the Denver Nuggets. 

Possessing one elite skill can get you to the highest level, but it can’t always win you games at that level — you must be able to play both ends of the floor. Guys like Stephen Curry, Trae Young or Luka Dončić are otherworldly offensive aliens making up for their defensive shortcomings. 

In the conference, Myers said, “The more dimensions you have to your game, the harder you are to take away.” 

The regular season and the playoffs are the same sport, but a different game. In the postseason, referees reduce the amount of ticky-tack calls. Coaches shorten their rotation to 6-8 players. Defenses get tighter. Offenses get slower. Every. Possession. Matters. 

There are 82-game players, who can keep a team afloat through the injuries and inconsistencies of the regular season. And then there are 16-game players who can play and adapt to those playoff tweaks. 

The Lakers failed to steal a single game against the Nuggets because they only rostered five of these such players — LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Rui Hachimura, Austin Reaves and Dennis Schröder. In a desperate attempt to salvage the sinking ship, Ham started his five best players in Game 4 for the first time all postseason, but came up short against the Nuggets’ seven 16-game players. 

While the feel of the playoffs is much different than that of the regular season, the latter still matters. Over those 82 games, teams develop habits, both good and bad. The Lakers were elite at getting to the line in the regular season — they lead the playoffs in free throw differential. The Lakers struggled to generate quality looks from the 3-point line — they attempted the second-lowest amount of threes in the playoffs. 

In the postseason, the superstars have to increase their level of play, intensity and urgency. The role players have to be net positives on both ends of the floor. The coaches have to win the game of adjustments while sticking to what’s working. And, of course, they have to get lucky.

The Lakers failed to check just about all of those boxes and let a chance at another banner in the rafters slip away in the process. 

Sahil Kurup is a rising senior writing about the Los Angeles Lakers and the endless drama that follows them. His column, “Road to Revival,” runs every other Wednesday.