Column: Why can’t the miserable Lakers be more like the gutty Clippers?

Lakers forward LeBron James raises his arms and scrunches his face in dissatisfaction with a referee's call
Lakers forward LeBron James shows dissatisfaction with a referee’s call late in the game against the Clippers at Arena on Thursday.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Here’s a question that might never have come to mind before now but was entirely appropriate after the Lakers’ defensive malfeasance stretched their losing streak to four games and their latest slide to 11 defeats in their last 14 games:

Why can’t the Lakers be more like the Clippers?

Not in every way, of course. The Lakers aren’t giving up their championship banners or their glorious history, though those achievements seem longer and longer ago with each deplorable loss the Lakers absorb this season. And there have been many, including a 132-111 romp by the Clippers on Thursday that gave the Lakers’ not-for-much-longer co-tenants at Arena a sweep of the teams’ four-game season series.

But why haven’t the Lakers been able to band together after they lost Anthony Davis to an ankle sprain, as the supposedly less-talented Clippers have united since Kawhi Leonard underwent knee surgery last July and Paul George suffered a torn ligament in his right elbow in December?


Why have the Lakers (27-35) been such easy pickings not just for the Clippers, who were led on Thursday by Reggie Jackson’s game-high 36 points and a plus-44, but for wanna-be playoff teams like New Orleans and Portland?

Reggie Jackson scored a season-high 36 points to power the Clippers to a 132-111 rout over the Lakers on Thursday at Arena.

The Lakers have played 62 games this season and have used 31 lineups. The Clippers have used the same lineup in each of their last eight games. They’re 7-1 in that span, which began when Norman Powell fractured a bone in his left foot all of three games into his Clippers career.

“I mean, they’re a better team,” LeBron James said Thursday.

It’s impossible to argue that point.

But that doesn’t explain why the Clippers (34-31, eighth in the West) have been better or why they’ve been able to overcome adversity while the Lakers are still a hot, steaming mess at both ends of the floor and could fall out of a spot in the four-team play-in that will give the seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-place finishers in each conference an undeserved chance to reach the playoffs.

“To beat this team four times, that means a lot about what we are trying to do, what we are building,” Clippers coach Tyronn Lue said. “It was a great win for us because being up 3-0 this year, coming into the fourth game I wouldn’t expect to win by such a large margin.”

It’s not enough for All-Star guard Russell Westbrook to be good, the Lakers need him to be great, and it hasn’t been happening.

Jackson called Lue “the best coach in the league,” and he has a good case considering how much Lue has coaxed out of so little. That’s not to denigrate Frank Vogel, but the defensive identity Vogel persuaded players into adopting during the Lakers’ 2020 bubble championship run has crumbled in a hailstorm of turnovers, mistakes and lineup changes that transformed the Lakers from a team into a bunch of all-stars who were too far past their prime to muster the energy and effort required to play solid defense.

Vogel hasn’t helped his case much with some strange rotations and staying in a netherworld between playing big and small lineups. But it’s easier to fire coaches than to fire players, and it would be a shock to see Vogel return next season.

“Obviously it’s been challenging for us this year defensively and we’ve had a lot of breakdowns, and we’ve lost a lot of games because our defense has broken down,” James said. “But it’s also been because of our offense at times, too. Your offense can help your defense. You’re taking bad shots, or you turn the ball over or you take a good shot, but it’s a long rebound, and you’re not getting floor balance, and you’re not getting back, that can affect your defense as well.”

Lue, who’s 7-0 against the Lakers as the Clippers coach, has kept his team afloat despite losing Leonard and George, no small feat. Typically, he shared the credit. He has been able to keep a light touch, as he did Thursday when the Lakers went on a 14-0 run to end the first half and slice a 17-point Clippers lead to 66-63. He didn’t get angry at halftime. In fact, Jackson said, Lue was calm and smiling as he told his players they were in a great place.

“Like, if we stop turning the ball over, we’re in a great place,” Jackson recalled Lue saying. Seeing that Lue wasn’t angry — and knowing he was correct — helped the Clippers open the third quarter with a 26-2 push that turned into a 40-18 margin in the quarter.

Some say the Lakers should trade LeBron James after his veiled threats to leave, but they simply can’t afford to, writes The Times’ Dylan Hernandez.

“It’s not just me but our veteran players, our coaching staff, we do a good job to just make sure we’re keeping it loose and make sure we’re keeping it fun but also make sure we’re handling business and doing the right thing,” Lue said. “It was a struggle when we first lost PG because your offense is based around Kawhi and PG for the most part, and then you’ve got to figure out how to score.

“I think we struggled in the first 12 games, like scoring 87, 83. We beat Denver 87-85. We struggled to score, but once we were able to get a set rotation and understand how we needed to play, and we knew PG was going to be out for a while, we understood how we’ve got to play and these guys have bought into it. Whoever’s playing the best, whoever is playing well, they’re going to play. And our guys have bought into it. It starts with the veterans. ... The more they are vocal and the more they are playing every single night, the more they are practicing, it makes our young guys fall in line.”

Players are buying in.

“We understand what the narrative might be out there. We understand we got guys down, we know what the media’s gonna say at times,” Jackson said, “but for us, honestly, we’re just trying to do something special with this group.”

Lue called the Lakers “a really good team.” He added, “They just have to figure out how they want to play, but they’ve also got to figure out their health situation.”

Here’s a tip on how the Lakers should play: with the vigor, energy and belief the Clippers have consistently shown this season.