The Los Angeles Lakers lost to the New York Knicks last night at Madison Square Garden. It's their fifth loss in their last six games. At one point, the purple and gold were down 25 points. The Knicks are no longer the butt of every joke in the league, but they aren't exactly a powerhouse right now either, sitting at 10-8. The Lakers made a second-half push to keep it close but every issue that has plagued their season thus far reared its ugly head.
Los Angeles was, of course, missing LeBron James again after he got suspended for a game in the wake of the Isaiah Stewart incident. LeBron's absence is a factor nobody can ignore when evaluating this Lakers team. He's played in only eight of his team's 19 games thus far. But his consistent presence will not solve the core issues of the Lakers, and it might be time to accept that the Lakers are just mediocre.
Right now, the two problems that are sinking the Lakers are inconsistent defense at all levels and a total lack of spacing. The latter issue was extremely predictable after the Lakers traded two of their best three-point shooters for Russell Westbrook, statistically the worst volume shooter in NBA history. But the former issue was supposed to be the bread and butter of this iteration of the Lakers. They were never going to score a lot of points, but they should be able to beat up opponents in the paint and make them regret driving to the hoop with annual DPOY candidate Anthony Davis holding down the fort.
Yet that hasn't happened. The Lakers' defense ranks 28th in the NBA in points allowed. Davis has been doing his best but every other player has been a turnstile. It doesn't help matters that Carmelo Anthony has been the only effective bench player to this point and hasn't been a good defender for over a decade. Los Angeles can't stop anyone from scoring and can't score enough unless Westbrook has one of his patented hot shooting nights that come around once in a blue moon.
LeBron's return will help the offense. He's one of the smartest players in basketball history and can manipulate defenses like few others we've ever seen take the court. But he isn't a deadeye shooter who can fix the spacing problems. More concerning is that the forward is not going to fix the defensive problems on his own. LeBron was a good defender during the Lakers' title run but it's been years since he's been a great one. His presence will mean lesser defenders won't be taking his minutes, which is a positive. But he alone will not catapult the Lakers into top-10 territory, which is where they need to be to compete with their offensive woes not going away anytime soon.
The Lakers had sky-high expectations coming into the season. That's the deal when LeBron James is on the team. But they haven't shown any signs of elite play at any point this year. They might just be average. The months leading up to the trade deadline will prove whether or not that's true.