The Los Angeles Lakers found a solution to their recent struggles—a matchup with the dismal Chicago Bulls.
Los Angeles notched a 107-100 victory on Tuesday at the Staples Center and improved to 24-21 overall and just 4-7 in the 11 games since LeBron James was sidelined with a groin injury. The rebuilding Bulls lost their eighth straight and fell to 10-34.
Lonzo Ball (19 points, eight rebounds and six assists), Brandon Ingram (16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists) and Kyle Kuzma (16 points and 12 boards) stuffed the stat sheet for the Lakers, while Lauri Markkanen countered with 17 points for Chicago.
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Tuesday was the perfect opportunity for a Lakers team in desperate need of a win to come out strong at home against one of the worst teams in the league.
Instead, the Purple and Gold slogged their way to a 44-43 halftime lead in an ugly display of basketball that saw Kuzma, Ball and Ingram shoot a combined 0-of-9 from three-point range. It was more of the same for a squad that has resembled the one that missed the last five playoffs instead of one that could challenge the likes of the Golden State Warriors in the West.
The short-term concerns with the James-less struggles are clear.
The Lakers entered Tuesday's matchup a half-game behind the Utah Jazz for the No. 8 seed and 1.5 games behind the San Antonio Spurs for the No. 7 seed.
Making the playoffs isn't even guaranteed when James returns, seeing how the talented Jazz made the second round last year, and the Spurs are an institution that reached the last 21 postseasons. Even if James rights the ship, seeding becomes a concern and could set up Los Angeles for a quick exit should it play the Warriors, Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets or Oklahoma City Thunder.
Still, the long-term picture and what the slump means for help that could eventually join the fold is more worrisome.
James is 34 years old, led the league in total minutes last season and has put an incredible amount of stress on his body going to eight straight NBA Finals. Even the all-time great will reach a point where age and durability become true issues, as this latest stretch helps prove.
It is fair to wonder how long the competitive window will remain open for the iconic franchise as he ages.
He has a player option in 2021-22 and surely won't be the same player he is today at that stage, but the young core was a reason for optimism entering the season. Theoretically, James could teach them how to win and challenge the best teams in the West for three or four years before Ball, Kuzma, Ingram, Josh Hart and Co. would take over.
There is also the possibility the Lakers could either sign or trade for a younger franchise piece who could battle for championships with James and then assume the role of primary playmaker when the King transitions into the final stage of his career.
The 25-year-old Anthony Davis seems like an ideal candidate, seeing how he could hit the open market following next season with a player option for 2020-21. Zach Lowe of ESPN.com suggested the New Orleans Pelicans "would have almost no choice but to open trade talks" if Davis turns down a supermax offer this coming offseason.
James added fuel to the fire earlier this season when he said it "would be amazing" to play with the big man, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com. However, the Lakers would almost certainly need to give up pieces of the young core in addition to draft picks to land a talent like Davis.
Marc Stein of the New York Times (h/t Nick Goss of NBC Sports Boston) reported in December, "the Lakers also dream of beating out Boston's well-chronicled treasure trove of trade assets in a pitch for Davis with some combination of L.A.'s own promising starlets: Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball."
Those pieces have looked anything but promising in recent weeks even with a win against the hapless Bulls, undercutting their trade value at an inopportune time. Rebuilding squads aren't just going to give the Lakers marquee players without accelerating their own process with young assets in return, and the Purple and Gold probably don't have enough in potential bidding wars.
Even the free-agency route is in question, as part of the lure of Los Angeles figures to be the chance to develop with the young talent outside of just playing alongside James.
Those assets around James are losing luster as their struggles continue, and it is difficult to envision Los Angeles landing a second superstar in the near future as it plays its way toward what seems like an inevitable early end to its season.
Both teams are on the road Thursday with the Bulls facing the Nuggets and the Lakers facing the Thunder.