It is finally time to acknowledge that the Lakers are not who we thought they were. Regression to the mean is a complete understatement — Mitch Kupchak and Luke Walton need to make major changes before another season goes completely to waste and the Lakers brand takes another hit. The Lakers should look to trade...
Ok, let’s try this one again.
The Lakers are fine. If you had told me that with all the injury trouble the Lakers have had, playing one of the hardest schedules in the NBA with a rough road trip in between, that the Lakers would be winning around a 40 percent clip I would’ve been ecstatic. The Lakers this season got their tenth win on November 30th. Last season? February 2nd! Perspective is important — had the Lakers started off slow, rather than hitting a losing streak now, the mood in LakerLand would be far more positive.
Part of what made the start of this season so remarkable was how Luke Walton and his staff had constructed the perfect rotations to maximize the talent of the roster. It was a very delicate balance of veterans and young players on the floor, the right mix of talent and experience, and the minutes were consistent for every individual. Each player knew their role, and each player was put into the best situations to succeed. The injuries, most notably to D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young, have thrown that balance out entirely. For a team like the Lakers that is so inexperienced, the margin of error was already low — with injuries it’s relatively zero. Players like Marcelo Huertas are being given more responsibility than they can handle, Jordan Clarkson has had trouble being more of a facilitator after starting the season as a bench gunner, D’Angelo Russell’s ability to run pick-and-rolls with Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov are being missed — leading to poor starts.
One thing that the Lakers have not done, most importantly, is show any quit or make excuses. Yes, the Lakers should have been able to pull out a victory against the Suns on December 9th, but what’s more important to me at this stage was their ability to push through and give themselves a chance to win. The most difficult thing to do for a young roster and a new coaching staff is to continue to trust the system and the process even when things are going poorly. The team is learning to do so, and the early returns are still positive.
In terms of the players that are healthy, a player like Jordan Clarkson who hasn’t been able to rise to the occasion as much as he himself or the coaching staff may have expected can use this tough stretch to understand how to get better as well. Clarkson’s regression as a playmaker is concerning, but the increased minutes he’s getting in that role currently will hopefully allow him to visualize his shortcomings and improve.
What should concern the players and coaching staff, however, is the defense. Opponents are exposing the Lakers lack of defensive cohesion, and the miscues and lack of focus on the defensive end have only gotten worse since the season has started. The Lakers currently are virtually tied for 30th in defensive rating, 29th in points allowed off turnovers and rank last in points allowed per game in the paint. Until the Lakers can climb out of being the worst in defense, they will be susceptible to stretches like this where the losses pile up. No team, not even a historically great team like the Warriors, can win on a nightly basis solely based off their offensive efforts.
Bright side: The Lakers will soon be healthy again. D’Angelo Russell is close to being back, Nick Young will be back soon thereafter and the Lakers rotations will fall back into place. In addition, the Lakers schedule should ease up:
NBA 2016-17: Average Opponent Strength to date, until the All-Star break, and for the rest of the season. pic.twitter.com/zUHoMAH4Gw— Ed Küpfer (@EdKupfer) December 9, 2016
This team has two options on how to respond to this temporary stretch of losses: crumble apart, or come closer together to continue their improbably success this season. Given the leadership and spirit of this team, I choose to bet on the latter.