Where these Lakers end up will depend on the health of a sidelined player who turns 37 next month.
This was always the case. This never changed.
What has changed is the degree of optimism regarding the team they can be without LeBron James.
A roster constructed to better withstand the breaks James takes during games has been forced to play without him altogether.
What’s transpired has been disheartening, even borderline disastrous.
The situation has raised the stakes of James’ return.
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll see.”
ESPN reported there is a “growing optimism” James could play against the Celtics in the second game of this five-game trip, but coach Frank Vogel continued describing his star player as “day to day.”
“I was hoping he was going to play each of the last seven games,” Vogel joked.
How the Lakers have played in James’ absence doesn’t feel like a joking matter, however.
Their loss to the Bucks marked their fifth defeat in eight games since James went down with an abdominal strain, but their win-loss record in this stretch isn’t nearly as deflating as the eye tests they have flunked virtually every time they have taken the court.
The Lakers can’t defend. They can’t shoot. Their effort is inconsistent.
“We put a team together and we haven’t seen it yet,” Anthony Davis said. “[Trevor Ariza] hasn’t played, [Kendrick] Nunn hasn’t played. Bron has played limited. [Talen Horton-Tucker] is just coming back. Malik [Monk] didn’t play to start.”
Their defensive indifference was highlighted by a particularly dreadful sequence in the second quarter when the Bucks’ Bobby Portis beat the slow-retreating Lakers down the floor and scored in transition.
A careless inbounds pass by Carmelo Anthony to Avery Bradley was stolen by Portis, leading to a failed three-point attempt by Pat Connaughton. Portis grabbed the offensive rebound. The Bucks missed another three, this one by Jrue Holliday. Portis snagged yet another rebound and made a short hook.
The Bucks outscored the Lakers in that quarter, 34-21.
The small lineup coach Vogel has fielded in recent games presented some problems in defending Giannis Antetokounmpo. The two-time MVP scored 47 points on 18-for-23 shooting.
“Our pick-and-roll coverages and switching some things allowed Giannis to get behind, and he’s going against [Rajon] Rondo or Wayne [Ellington], so it’s a height disadvantage for us,” Davis said.
“So we switched to the zone to keep everything in front, and it got us back in it.”
The Lakers narrowed their deficit to 85-83 by the end of the third quarter.
Like other teams before who played the Lakers before, the Bucks often double- and triple-teamed Davis in the post.
“That is my job to draw the double team and find our guys,” Davis said.
“We missed some timely shots that we usually make, but my job is to accept the double team, put two on the ball and find the right guy. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Except the shooters couldn’t take advantage of the opportunities.
The Lakers made only four of 23 three-point tries in the second half; they were
0 for 11 in the fourth quarter.
Carmelo Anthony finished the game two for eight from behind the arc. Ellington and Monk were each one for seven.
Davis was limited to 18 points, as he attempted only 15 shots and didn’t reach the free-throw line.
Jeered by the fans here with chants of, “Turn-it-over!” when he touched the ball, point guard Russell Westbrook had what Vogel described as his “best game as a Laker.”
Westbrook registered 19 points and 15 assists while committing only three turnovers.
The play of Horton-Tucker continued to be a highlight, as the third-year player finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds and prompted Vogel to say he was a candidate to remain a starter after James returned.
But these positives couldn’t mask the sinking feeling about this team, or the fear of how reliant they will once again be on James.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.