To start the season, there's no doubt that the key word for the 2014-2015 Los Angeles Lakers is "struggle". Offensively and defensively this team is absolutely grasping at straws, issues that have been no doubt made worse by injuries to core role players in Steve Nash, Nick Young and Julius Randle. If you were to grade this team right now, it's not a stretch to say that the Lakers look like one of the very worst teams in the NBA.
But are they truly as bad as they look? With just two weeks of NBA action under our belts, is it too early to say that the Lakers are all that bad? Should we be waiting a month, until the end of November, when they play two teams that will presumably not make the postseason (contests against the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves)?
It pains me to say it, but yes, the Lakers really do appear to be that bad. The defense in particular has the potential to be historically bad, and I would be shocked if this didn't end up being the worst defense in team history. There's a complete depletion of players that you could describe as "good" defenders, and on top of that, let's just say I have not been impressed with the defensive schemes that Byron Scott appears to be putting in place. On offense, things will be dire also. Even if Kobe plays like Kobe, there's just not much else there. Oh, and the most exciting part of the roster, rookie Julius Randle, is out for the season. The Lakers have bad offensive talent, horrible defensive talent, an incompetent head coach, and play in the crucible that is the Western Conference. So... things could be going better.
It is probably not too early to say that the Lakers are as bad or worse than they have looked. As Mambino mentioned in his intro, this team has struggled on both ends of the floor, and essentially requires a Kobe Bryant scoring explosion to even stay competitive with teams. While it is not impossible to imagine that the Lakers could require more time to gel as a unit, that some players returning from injury could help, or even that Byron Scott could implement some schematic changes such as taking more threes, or rotation changes such as benching tank commander Carlos Boozer; it seems unlikely that any of this would move the needle all that much in a positive direction just because of the large talent disparity that this team has to overcome almost every night.
All of this is before even mentioning the possibility of an mid-season trade, or the elephant in the room that no one wants to mention, the very real possibility of an injury to Kobe. Last week I tried to find silver linings after Randle went down, and this week held up Kobe as the main reason left to watch the Lakers this season. If the Mamba misses any extended period of time (and he is 36 years old so it would be tough to be surprised by such an event), it would be really hard to find reasons other than fandom or sadomasochism to even watch this team.
The more optimistically inclined among us could take the month before judging how good this team really is, but I personally don't see this team even sniffing the playoff race at any point. At least that gives us a reason to watch college basketball this year, right?
The Lakers are bad, playing worse than I imagined and with a bleaker season-long outlook with Julius Randle's injury. They're horrendous on offense, and the only thing worse on the court nightly is their defense. I'd say yes, they are as bad as they look, and no, I don't see this having some incredible swing for a miracle run to the playoffs.
This season is a wash, and it may have always been that way. For the most part, the two big things this year were Randle's development and Kobe's return. Randle's development has been put on hold, and Kobe Bryant looks like a lot of different things at this point. He looks good for someone at this point in his career, after one devastating injury and one major setback. He looks capable of being a primary option on a championship team. He looks like the scorer we've loved in Los Angeles for so long. But even on his hottest nights this season, it hasn't meant anything.
So he also looks like a mirage. The Lakers' offense is bad, rarely generating the kind of looks an above average team can find. In turn, it's become the "Kobe show", and there's little he can do about that. I don't blame Kobe for the Lakers' offensive efficiency; ultimately that comes down to the coach and talent on the team. There seems to be little hope of expecting Byron Scott to flip a switch on offense, or the players around Kobe to suddenly play above their ceilings.
We can talk about many different things that are wrong with the Lakers, and we can point to whatever we'd like, but the record tells the story thus far. 0-5.
We're only five games into the season, but there's probably enough evidence that the Lakers are the worst team in the Western Conference. Thank goodness for the East.
Nonetheless, even though the Lakers might not win a game until the end of November (they definitely shouldn't be favored in a game until the Pistons come to town in December), the Lakers should look better than they have to start the season. The home games against the Clippers and the Suns proved that this team at least has a little fight, and the late-game execution can only improve as the season goes on. Ideally, Kobe will feel a little more comfortable letting Jeremy Lin run the offense, enough to maybe take fewer than 60% of the team's shots during crunch time. It's hard to say if Kobe will ever truly have his legs in the fourth quarter at the age of 36, but let's hope he's still getting into shape after missing essentially all of last season. He did look surprisingly winded at the end of Tuesday's game.
Ed Davis and Jordan Hill are reason enough to be interested, if not altogether excited, for the near future. Twitter damn near erupted at the sight of Hill's jumper (7 of 11 from 10-16 feet thus far), and Davis is proving that he's valuable not just because he replaces Carlos Boozer. He's a competent rim protector and the Lakers' offensive rating increases from 100.0 to 110.2 when Davis is on the floor. Wayne Ellington, who still looks like a pretty decent shooter, has worked his way into the rotation; that, along with the return of Ryan Kelly and the long-awaited arrival of Nick Young, should mean more threes for the offense and a little more room for Kobe post-ups and Lin drives.
Admittedly, the defense will be a train wreck all year long, and the West is so stacked that a 15th-place finish is almost assured. But it's almost unimaginable for the Lakers to be as bad as they've looked thus far for a whole season. Some bright spots have to be on the horizon, even if they don't show up in the win column.
The Great Mambino
These Lakers, as we see them feebly standing before us, are just as bad as they look. Most of that look? It has to stem from their league-worst defense. Currently ranked dead last in the league in defensive efficiency by a staggering 5(!) points, the Show has racked up five losses in five games while giving up no less than 108 points and an average of 116 points. Their average margin of loss is just shy of 16 points, due in part to the 49.3% shooting they give up each contest. The Lakers simply do not have the requisite pieces to cobble together an effective defense--their leading shot blocker Ed Davis is also their leader in personal fouls, while Kobe Bryant and Carlos Boozer play major minutes, but on just one end of the floor. For the most part, this is an athletic young team, but even the physically able players like Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Clarkson and Wayne Ellington seem to routinely get lost amidst even the most rudimentary of opposing offense. Until the Lakers can become even merely bad defensively instead of historically horrendous, they're indeed as bad as they look. With a D like this, they cannot compete in any game. Period.
The other parts? As I wrote in my piece the other day, these Lakers are full of mismatched parts that don't complement each other on either end of the floor. Nick Young's return as a healthy contributor will help open up the offense a bit and will slightly improve the defense, but until the Lakers don't have a 16-point differential in offensive and defensive efficiency, it won't matter. More to the point, we have to hedge on how much Swaggy will make the team better upon his return--no player ever comes back during the season 100% healed from injury, let alone one that is on the thumb of his shooting hand. It may be months before we see a "healthy" Young making the Lakers better.
The Lakers are bad. So far, only three teams have a negative, double-digit point differential. One of them is missing two All-NBA players (Oklahoma City), another is losing on purpose (Philadelphia), and the third is losing without direction (the Lakers).
With Julius Randle out for the season, there's not really much to look forward to this season. They're losing by an average of 14.8 points per game, placing them last in the NBA, which should be familiar territory as the season progresses. Kobe Bryant ranks first in scoring (27.6), but he's averaging five more shots per game than anyone else. He's on pace for the worst shooting season of his career (40.2), and he's already taken 37 shots in a single game. The season started a week ago!
Normally, this is where we lean on Kobe righting the ship, or get that twinkle in our eye when discussing Randle's exciting potential, or remember the days of Carlos Boozer not dropping every pass thrown his way, but nothing can really save the Lakers this season. Bryant and a healthy Nick Young are the only good wings, and neither of them are defensive stalwarts. Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis have been pleasantly effective -- Davis especially -- but they're not shifting an entire franchise's fortunes, especially with Kobe in town.
The only positive is that top-five protected draft pick, which requires another 77 games of inefficient isolations, head-scratching rotations, frustrating blowouts, and the occasional close-but-no-cigar moral victories. While many, including myself, expected this team to be an improvement over last season, injuries and Byron Scott's questionable philosophies and rotations have mitigated what little room for error the team ever had.
This is a complex question because it mostly depends on how Byron Scott adjusts his rotation appropriately to his personnel and works to engineer a system that's more tailored for the roster. As of now, the team has certainly been less than the sum of his parts and Byron's system has been a significant contributory factor in this regard. The team continues to hunt for long twos unnecessarily, fails in establishing effective spacing, and has actively misused quite a few of the players on the roster. These system problems have been compounded by the manner in which Byron has managed his rotations, the relative lack of playing time he has afforded Ed Davis being the foremost issue.
There isn't much that the Lakers can do at this juncture to improve their woeful defense, as they simply lack the personnel to be effective on that end, but we can see a method for how they could field a serviceable offense. We've seen the synergy that Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis have had in the pick-and-roll, and Byron's refusal to milk this for all it's worth has been rather surprising. Jordan Hill has surpassed expectations with his surprising accuracy from midrange, so both he and Davis should be able to play together, putting the Lakers' best rebounding and defensive frontcourt out there. Add Kobe into the mix as an occasional initiator of the offense and (very frequent) shooter coming off screens and pindowns -- although the actions that the Lakers have used to get him shots are way too slow-developing -- and banish Carlos Boozer to the end of the bench in favor of Ryan Kelly's floor spacing and better defense, and we start to see the foundation for better results.
Again, however, this is incumbent on Byron adjusting a system that, as many have noted, goes strongly against the principles of what modern offenses are supposed to look like. As one might divine from the above paragraph, the Lakers basically should be running Mike D'Antoni's system with this personnel, but given that Byron has shaped the narrative of himself as the anti-MDA of sorts, it's hard to see that change occurring. So back to Mambino's question: yes, the Lakers could be better, but this very well might be how the team looks for the rest of the season because of how the coach has managed the roster.