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'Man, I'm hurting...I want to run this back so bad': On the Lakers' early playoff exit and what comes next.

Alex Regla

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LeBron James' high ankle sprain was just one of many injuries that plagued the team.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As various members of the Los Angeles Lakers roster and staff fielded questions during their exit interviews, each shared an eerily similar morose tone to their voice. An air of disappointment resonated even over Zoom's virtual screen. Nostalgia for something that had just ended, and also never occurred.

The season -- and its eventual conclusion -- did not go as planned. The quest for banner number 18 and bringing the city yet another back-to-back, was foiled by a surprisingly early first-round exit to the Phoenix Suns. 

A deciding Game Six saw star Anthony Davis, play only five minutes before being forced off the floor due to his groin injury. Guard Alex Caruso, would also depart after suffering a left ankle strain. The lack of bodies, most notably the prominent ones, ultimately buried the club's chances at a repeat. Also encapsulating a year marred by injuries and 'what ifs.'

"That was just kinda the storyline all year, which was unfortunate," Caruso said to the media Friday afternoon. "Outside circumstances taking away from the potential that I think this team had."

This was seen no further than the fact that the Lakers' star duo of Davis and LeBron James missed a combined 63 of the 72 game season. For context, according to Cleaning the Glass, Davis and James were only on the floor together for 1224 possessions. In comparison, the tandem tallied 3069 possessions last year en route to a championship.

To their credit, the roster and coaching staff did their best to wrap bandages over their wounds and clawed into the playoffs where despite all the injuries and time missed, were still considered favorites with Davis and James back in tow. 

Unfortunately, between needing to expedite the acclimation process of new players, a game Suns' squad, and Davis once again going down, they simply were too far into a hole to dig themselves out.

"Man if it was up to us we would never be hurt," Alfonso MicKinnie said semi-jokingly to reporters. For McKinnie, who entered the year vastly seen as simply salary cap fodder and an end-of-the-bench option, he proved to be just one of many players tasked with filling voids. 

McKinnie would even go on to play in more games than Davis would. "But we had a great team this year...we had a great team, and I think without the injuries, I think we're in a different position." 

While the outcome did not shape up like many had envisioned or hoped for, a majority of those who spoke to the media on Friday shared a singular mantra: "unfinished business." Some players going as far as publically announcing their desire in returning to try it once more.

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Arguably the loudest voice in this sentiment came from the usually soft-spoken 11-year-veteran, Wesley Matthews. 

Also missing significant time of his own during the year, the hardnosed player shared a personal dialogue he had with James following the team's postseason elimination that potentially hinted at how the club may approach the offseason.

"It was tough. It was absolutely tough. I remember the conversation, I think I told him first 'man, I'm hurting. I just wish...I want to run this back so bad.' And just like in general, and he said what he told you guys (about never getting to see this group whole). And it's true. We all felt that way."

There is viability in 'running it back' given before the injuries, the team was 21-7 and had the second-best record in the Western Conference. Current Vice President of basketball operations, Rob Pelinka, also alluded to thinking the same.

"I'm convinced that, again, without some of the unforeseen circumstances this year, the challenges that we had to face, that we'd be a championship-caliber team," Pelinka said during his exit interview. "So the goal is to try to keep that core group together."

Whether or not the group is given a second chance is still up in the air as an offseason looms, as does the temptation of breaking things up and making a splash to align the team back on the tracks of another championship. 

The front office has difficult decisions to make with several key players heading into free agency, a tight cap book, and also a first-round pick this year they may or may not choose to trade elsewhere.

This team and year, may ultimately be looked back upon as one of the more memorable 'what if's in recent basketball memory. Or, it can simply be yet another prelude to the next successful installment of Los Angeles' sports history.

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Alex Regla is a writer and Los Angeles native. His work covering the Lakers has been featured in SB Nation, Bleacher Report, KCET, as well as other places.

Los Angeles, CA
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