Where did Lakers go wrong? Suns vs. Pelicans is a tell-tale example

New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, left, drives as Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul defends during the second half of Game 5 of their NBA first-round playoff series on Tuesday in Phoenix. (Matt York / Associated Press)

You’re forgiven if you want to relax and watch the most exciting basketball of the season without allowing your mind to drift to some of the NBA’s most head-scratching hoops, but some of us don’t have those luxuries.

The Lakers cannot forget about their season. They cannot forget about the mistakes that happened before and during. And, if they have eyes focused on TV screens, the Lakers should be plenty aware of the difference between their group and the teams that made (and are still fighting) in the postseason.

Thursday, the series between Phoenix and New Orleans could end, a vivid reminder of where the Lakers could’ve been and where they absolutely are not.

The Lakers have bigger issues ahead — a coaching search and hire, a decision on Russell Westbrook and a possible trade that needs orchestrating, extension talks with LeBron James and a roster that will, again, need to be changed as quickly as motel bedding. But the decisions that need to be made must be determined by the NBA world around them.

And the Pelicans-Suns series in the West should be what’s haunting them most.

In New Orleans, the Lakers’ past and problematic future are on display. As Brandon Ingram continues his transformation into one of the NBA’s best tough-shot makers, like DeMar DeRozan with Kevin Durant’s measurements, the Lakers and their fans have to reflect on the deal that netted Anthony Davis.

Yes, that deal led to a NBA title, but the fallout has been two injury-filled seasons, just two playoff wins and heaps of uncertainty. While a title, in a vacuum, is more than worthy of any of the headaches that have followed, the Lakers/Davis’ championship happened inside a TV studio built in Orlando — a scene more suited for “Black Mirror” than for championship basketball.

The circumstances, although not making the accomplishment less impressive, certainly affected what that title has meant to Los Angeles fans, a group of people who have seen the Lakers win one playoff game on their home floor since signing James in free agency.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram looks to pass as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton defends.

New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram looks to pass as Phoenix Suns center Deandre Ayton (22) defends during the second half of Game 5 of an NBA first-round playoff series on Tuesday in Phoenix. (Matt York / Associated Press)

Whether or not the Lakers “won” the deal with New Orleans is ultimately immaterial — it can’t be undone and getting and keeping Davis healthy is now at the forefront of the organization’s goals for the next handful of seasons.

But the cost of that deal is still, in part, at stake. And the better Ingram and the Pelicans are, the more that price goes up.

In addition to the first-round picks the Lakers sent to New Orleans, the Pelicans also have the right to swap firsts with the Lakers in 2023. And the better the Pelicans are, coupled with real possibilities that the Lakers could struggle again, the more that swap could sting. The Lakers could be knocked out of the lottery pool.

Maybe Ingram blossoms to an All-NBA level and maybe Zion Williamson gets healthy, and the Pelicans grow into true title contenders under Willie Green.

The Suns, though, are the best team in the West and favorites to reach their second straight NBA Finals. And they’ve done it by acting in almost the opposite matter of the Lakers.

While the situations aren’t exact — Devin Booker was deeper into his career than any of the baby Lakers were when James joined the team — the Suns did manage to pair a late-career star in Chris Paul with a young core and figure a way to make it all work.

Stressing about this is wasted energy and the Lakers’ front office will be focused on the future. Besides, the Lakers already have accomplished what the Suns and Pelicans are chasing. The trophy is in their building.

But in the quest for the next one, the Lakers have to feel further behind the Suns, the Pelicans and any of the other teams still competing for a title this season. The Lakers don’t have that chance. They can only watch.

And that can’t sit well with them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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