Lakers end Staples Center era with ugly loss to Spurs

Lakers forward LeBron James posts up against San Antonio Spurs guard Tre Jones in the second quarter at Staples Center Thursday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Lakers will again play basketball inside this saucer-topped building. The banners and the retired jerseys will still hang. The statues in the courtyard won’t be relocated. The memories won’t be erased.

All that’s changing is a name, a new corporate sponsor replacing the Staples Center signage that provided a dateline for the last 22 years of Lakers basketball.

Come Saturday, it’ll be called the Crypto.com Arena thanks to a massive naming-rights deal that will help fund a fresh round of repairs and renovations in the building where the Lakers play. It’s the kind of formality that’s been met with a mix of corporate cynicism and a fresh batch of nostalgia for a franchise with as good of a last 22 years as anyone.

The next 22 days? That could be pretty rough.

At halftime, the Lakers brought the six trophies they’ve won here since the building opened, continuing to look back at the good old days because the present, and maybe the future, all look pretty bleak.

A new name on their building won’t come close to fixing these Lakers’ problems, ones that are even more pronounced on nights where their stars play well. It didn’t matter that LeBron James had 36 points. It didn’t matter that Russell Westbrook added 30. On their good nights, the Lakers aren’t close to being good enough, losing to the sub-.500 Spurs 138-110.

“It’s just the unknown, man,” James said. “Listen, we’re just without so many people. We’re without our head coach as well, so, that’s another leader to our group. Another bunch. So, it’s survival of the fittest.”

Needing useful players to fill out their roster around James and Westbrook, the Lakers were dealt another blow pregame when Trevor Ariza entered the health and safety protocols.

Ariza, who had made every one of his shots in his two games this season, will now have to find a rhythm all over again after missing their first 30 games because of an ankle surgery.

“After two great games, right?” interim coach David Fizdale said with some exasperation. “He just comes in and fills his role very well. You can see why he’s here and what he’s here for. And then obviously this. Yes, it’s difficult. I can’t stress how difficult it is.”

It looks it.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook fouls San Antonio Spurs forward Keita Bates-Diop.

Lakers guard Russell Westbrook fouls San Antonio Spurs forward Keita Bates-Diop in the first quarter at Staples Center Thursday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Nothing has been easy for the Lakers this season, even before a COVID-19 outbreak kept knocking out players and members of the organization. Now, short-handed, the team’s weaknesses have been on full display.

The Lakers were still without coach Frank Vogel, guards Avery Bradley, Austin Reaves, Malik Monk and Kent Bazemore as they tried to keep from losing their fourth-straight game — all coming since Anthony Davis sprained a ligament in his knee.

Defensively, they were largely a mess, giving the Spurs plenty of clean looks at the basket and trips to the free-throw line. Just like Staples will be removed from the court, the Lakers’ defensive progress have mostly come unglued with Davis stuck in sweats.

And there’s no guarantee that it won’t get worse.

Former Lakers players Robert Horry, Metta Sandiford-Artest, Luke Walton, Byron Scott and Gary Payton pose.

Former Lakers players Robert Horry, left, Metta Sandiford-Artest, Luke Walton, Byron Scott and Gary Payton pose with Lakers championship trophies during a tribute to Staples Center on Thursday. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

With Brooklyn coming to town for Christmas and the schedule about to significantly toughen, maybe a name change was as good as time as any to focus on something else.

Fans attending the game found shirts replicating the ones given out before Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal punctuated the win with one of the most famous alley-oops in franchise history.

They received commemorative tickets and watched in-game testimonials from fans sharing their favorite moments. And at halftime, former Lakers Byron Scott, Robert Horry, Luke Walton, Metta Sandiford-Artest and Gary Payton stood by the trophies celebrated in Staples Center.

The path to the first one in the NFT era? It might take a bit.

The Lakers were just five of 27 from deep, their shooting going cold at the worst possible time. With their depth decimated, the Spurs’ reserves clobbered the Lakers, outscoring them 69-20.

James continues to play great offensively, one of the NBA’s best problem solvers with a doozy in front of him.

But it hasn’t been enough, the Lakers left looking back at the past for the good news while they simply try to survive the present.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.