The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of the Los Angeles Lakers season (so far)!!
I predicted before the season began that the Lakers were going to struggle for the first quarter of the season and that’s exactly what has happened. Just like any team LeBron joins, like the 2015 Cavaliers, or the 2011 Miami Heat, they struggle for the first 10-20 games. There’s only so much you can make out of the first 10 plus games, but here are my thoughts on the Lakers so far.
Trying To Do Too Many Things At Once
The biggest problem people need to be aware of with the Lakers is they are trying to accomplish a lot of goals in one season. Right now they are trying to compete for a title, figure out what young players are worth keeping and who might need to be traded, and they are trying to develop a good culture that will bring in top free agents this offseason. A normal team would usually set one of those goals, maybe two at max, but the Lakers are trying to do all three of them and it’s going to cost them some wins here and there. When the game is tied with two minutes left there are going to be some nights where they run their offense through Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, or Kyle Kuzma instead of LeBron, which may seem strange, but it’s what you have to do when you have young talent. If you have a bunch of young talent on a team, the worst thing you can do is take the ball away from them and limit their opportunities. If the Lakers don’t get more players involved and let LeBron do everything, then it’s going to be the 2018 Cavaliers all over again, where you get players not able to do the smallest things like George Hill shooting free throws and J.R Smith not knowing what the score is, because they are so used to playing off the ball. The Lakers will struggle for the first quarter of the season, but it will benefit them tremendously after because LeBron will have some players that can impact the game when he’s not on the court. The Lakers tanked for five years and it would be a waste if they gave up on their young talent and just let LeBron takeover. There’s a time and a place for LeBron to take over, but right now it’s about finding what rotations work well and getting the young players involved. You’ve got to realize these prospects can play. Kuzma made the All-Rookie first team and became the first ever to get 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 130 three pointers in their rookie season; Lonzo made the All-Rookie Second Team and became one of three players in NBA history to average 10/7/7 in their rookie season (Ben Simmons and Magic Johnson); Brandon Ingram saw his stats improve nearly everywhere in his second season; and Josh Hart won Summer League MVP, averaging over 22 points.
Little To No Defense
Just because your team is young and athletic doesn’t mean they are going to be good on defense. That is the case with this Lakers team. Before LeBron showed up in Los Angeles, the Lakers hadn’t made the playoffs for the past five years and their best season was winning 35 games. You can’t expect a young team to simply flip the switch on defense in an offseason. That’s exactly why they’re tied for 27th in opponents points per game right now. The addition of Tyson Chandler has helped a ton on that side. Before Chandler arrived, the Lakers ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency and opponents field goal percentage. Over the four games since, they ranked fourth and third in those two categories. It’s a small sample size and the chances of it continuing are slim, meaning that the whole team including LeBron has to step up on that side of the floor (unless they trade for someone) in order to be a top team in the West. Another problem about their defense is they haven’t found the right small ball lineup. What made teams like the Warriors and Rockets great last year is when they went to their small ball lineups they were still great defensively because they had guys like Ariza, Chris Paul, P.J Tucker, Durant, Iguodala, Draymond, and Klay on the floor who can make stops. With the Lakers, their small ball lineup has Kyle Kuzma at center sometimes, and Ingram at the small forward or power forward, where they both have a hard time holding their own. If I’m being completely honest, the Lakers most consistent defender right now is probably Lonzo Ball. JaVale McGee’s stats might look good but he’s not a good defender. McGee is great at coming from the weak side and blocking shots like Hassan Whiteside and Karl Anthony Towns do, but when it comes to low post defense and defending players one on one, he’s very below average. If a player like him scores 16 points and has three blocks in 20 minutes, he should be playing 40 minutes a night but he doesn’t because a lot of his work looks good on the stat sheet but doesn’t necessarily translate to wins. If you don’t agree with me just look at Tyson Chandler. Chandler completely changed the Lakers defense, but doesn’t have nearly the same stats as McGee because he’s a team player and knows what it takes to win games. The problem with McGee is that he tries to block a lot of shots and this results in the team rebounding numbers to drop, as he’s unable to get the rebound after he tries to block a shot. We all talk about how bad of a rebounder Brook Lopez was for the Lakers last season, but if you compare him to when he was off the court and on the court, last year’s team with Lopez on the floor rebounded at a higher rate (78.6% defensive rebounding rate) then when he was off the court (77%). Despite how Lopez wasn’t a good rebounder for his seven foot size, the team was never better when he was off the court, which gives you a good idea of how McGee helping the weak side on every play leaves a negative impact. I’m not saying McGee is a bad player. My point is that he should only be playing 20 minutes a game, because he only grabs 17.6% of the defensive rebounds. To give you a better perspective Lonzo Ball gets 15.4% and Lance Stephenson gets 16.4% of the defensive rebounds. McGee could become a much better rebounder, he just needs to have a better idea of when to help and when not to help, instead of trying to block every shot because with him playing the way he is the Lakers are a better rebounding team with him off the court (3.3% better defensive rebounding rate). To be fair to the Lakers defense, they have had to play the Spurs twice, Portland three times, Minnesota twice, Denver, Toronto, and Houston. Despite the tough, schedule they still need to improve their defense in order to compete.
Lack of a Second Scoring Option
If you take a look at each championship team every single one of them had two legit go to scoring options. Durant and Curry, Kyrie and LeBron, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, Wade and LeBron, Paul Pierce and Garnett, Kobe and Pau Gasol, the list goes on and on. The Lakers have LeBron, but nobody has solidified themselves as the second best scorer. It’s going to be between Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma; both of them have shown flashes, but they haven't be consistent enough. Ingram is a former second overall pick back in 2016 and improved on both sides in his second year. It’s time for him to become the all star caliber player that he is suppose to be, because based on his skillset and physical attributes, there's no reason he can’t be an all-star in this league. If you take a look at Ingram’s draft class, you see Ben Simmons has turned into an all star type player and is nearly averaging a triple double; Jaylen Brown is one of the better two way players in the league; Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield are 20 points per game scorers now; Kris Dunn is a top perimeter defender; and Caris LeVert, before the injury, was having an all-star type year. It’s time for Ingram to take that step and become a game changer, because the Lakers need him to. The problem for him is he needs to be more aggressive at getting to the basket and he has to be more consistent. He scores at an efficient rate; for him it’s all about having that “dog” mentality and thinking I’m going to go to the basket and nobody is going to stop me. Out of all the young players on the Lakers, the best one right now, considering how consistent he’s been, is Josh Hart. Hart is shooting over 44% from deep, averaging 11.5 points per game, and is a very solid defender (1.5 steals per game). I mention it alot, but the value of “Three and D” players like Otto Porter, Trevor Ariza, and Hart is off the chart, because you can put them anywhere on the court and they are going to be effective, especially in small ball lineups. You can see with the Houston Rockets, the reason they are struggling right now is they gave up versatile wing players in Luc Mbah a Moute and Ariza and swapped them for Carmelo Anthony who just got released from the team.
Difficulty Maximizing everyone's potential
The Lakers roster has many unique players and trying to find a playing style that fits all of them is hard. With a young roster, you’d think having a fast pace would be the best option, but it doesn’t work as well as you think when your best player (LeBron) is in his 16th season and has been used to playing in a half court offense rather than running up and down the floor. In the 351 minutes, LeBron has been on the floor for the Lakers, they have a -4.8 net rating and in the 134 minutes that he’s been on the bench the Lakers have a +6.7 net rating. In total, throughout the first 10 games of the season the Lakers are +9.7 on offense and +1.8 on defense. Any basketball fan with a right mind would know that adding LeBron to your team doesn’t make you worse, so changing the pace they play at will have to be something they talk about. With LeBron having the ball most of the time and Lonzo Ball playing as the starting point guard, it limits Lonzo because he’s one of the best playmakers but now he’s being used more as a spot of shooter then distributor. Lonzo right now is shooting better from deep this year (above 36%), but him not having the ball as much does restrict the impact he can make as a ball handler. The same can be said about Ingram. Kuzma is a better spot-up shooter than Ingram, so he can play off ball to LeBron, but Ingram isn’t a great three point shooter and needs to dribble the ball in order to get the majority of his points. What makes this team so hard to coach is they want to compete now, so it’s not like you can play Kuzma, Ingram, and Lonzo 35 minutes plus every night and see how they do. Some of their more effective lineups might involve veterans such as Lance Stephenson, Rondo, or Chandler, which is tough because you want the young players out there to develop, but there is lot of pressure not just on LeBron, but Luke Walton to make the playoffs and have a deep run, or else this season is considered a disappointment. The lack of a quality rotation has shown negative effects in games. Lakers are -11.9 in the first quarter, +11.3 in the second, +7.6 in the third, and -12.6 in the fourth. Starting off slow and not finding a good lineup to close out teams has cost the Lakers most, if not all of their losses. This is what happens when you have a completely new team; it’s going to take some time to figure out the lineups, so I don’t expect these problems to continue after the first half of the season.
High Pace Offense is a Success
Coming into the season, the Lakers were questioned as one of the worst shooting teams in the league and rightfully so. That concern has now been answered with the Lakers tied for 14th in three pointers made per game, despite Ingram shooting 32% and Kuzma shooting under 30% from deep, and having the fifth best offense averaging just under 117 points per game. It helps to be a good three point shooting team, but if you are scoring 117 points a night, it really doesn’t matter. They have four of the top 50 points in the paint scorers in LeBron (12.4, 10th), JaVale (11.8, 13th), Kuzma (11.6, 14th), and Ingram (8.0, 49th). I don’t know if their lack of three point shooting will eventually hurt them, but presently their offense is great and they can run up and down the court with some of the best teams.
Like I said in the beginning, there’s only so much you can take from the first 10 or so games. Maybe the problems I mentioned will go away, but judging by what I’ve seen so far, their season is going to come down to at least being an average defensive team and their young players (especially Ingram) making that next step.
By Seth Ritsma
Stats via espn.com, nba.com, and basketball-reference.com