It’s a weird time to be a Lakers fan.
After six years of missing the playoffs, a post-Christmas meltdown last year, and a reunion with an embattled former enemy, not even the promise of pairing Anthony Davis with LeBron James was enough to generate supreme confidence heading into this season. Combine that with an opening night loss to the Paul George-less Clippers, and there was sufficient anxiety in Lakerland to start the year.
Thirteen games later, the team has rattled off 12 wins to sit atop the NBA standings. The defense is suffocating, the coaching staff is pushing all the right buttons to get consistent contributions out of role players, and Davis and James look like honest-to-goodness superstars. One month removed from their opening night disappointment, this Lakers squad now inspires hope rather than trepidation, suggesting that the team might finally be emerging from an endless rebuild.
It’s almost hard to reconcile so much positivity after the way the past few years have transpired, or even the way this current offseason began, and the best part is the Lakers believe they’re just getting started.
“Looking at the China trip, and understanding how that could have sort of put us behind the 8-ball a little bit and delayed our growth and our progress to start, I was concerned about getting off to a slow start,” Frank Vogel said earlier this week. “Thankfully we’ve been able to sort of overcome that and lay a solid foundation for what we can be. But it’s still at the foundation stage, and we’ve got to keep growing.”
A favorable opening slate (which ranks about average in ESPN’s strength of schedule) combined with multiple preseason dates against the worse-than-expected Golden State Warriors gave the Lakers the opportunity to show out to start the year. Given that the team returned only six players from last year, developing chemistry early has been important.
That cohesion is perhaps best demonstrated on the defensive end, where the Lakers have the third-best rating in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass. The twin towers at center, in tandem with a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Davis, a more engaged James and size at every position have enabled the team to use its length to stifle opposing offenses.
But even a group this locked in has weaknesses, as demonstrated by star wings (Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam) going off in both of the Lakers’ losses. Furthermore, the full-time presence of a traditional center means the team concedes a higher volume of threes; opponents currently aren’t making them, but that aspect of defense has historically been a matter of luck rather than skill. The Lakers also rank 23rd in transition defense, and are particularly bad at recovering after live-ball turnovers.
The low-hanging fruit on the defensive end that the team can readily clean up means that even a top-five team defense has room for improvement.
“We didn’t think our defense would be as good as it is right now, but we picked it up pretty well,” Danny Green said Tuesday. “That’s the scary thing, and that’s what we’re excited about too. We knew we were doing well, but we still have so much more we can improve on. We have so much more potential.”
Whereas the defense could use some fine-tuning, the offense has the capacity for a more substantial upgrade. The team hasn’t shot particularly well from anywhere on the floor except for the rim, ranking in the bottom half of the league in every zone away from the basket. That includes the free-throw line; not only are the Lakers shooting 75% on free throws, but they are 24th in the league in free-throw rate.
But the team expected their offense to lag behind their defense. Lack of continuity, limited practice time, the trip to China Vogel alluded to earlier and key personnel missing games to start the season have all played a part. Defense is more effort-based, but teams still have to learn how to play with one another on the offensive end. The Lakers have assuaged some of those concerns recently, and with the returns of Kyle Kuzma and Rajon Rondo, they have jumped to third in offensive rating over the past two weeks.
That hasn’t solved the team’s key problem on offense — getting Davis going. Even though Davis ranks 8th league-wide in PER, he hasn’t shot the ball well relative to his career norms, and it often just looks like he has to work so hard to generate shots.
“I’ve got to continue to work on making things easier for Anthony. He’s having to create on his own too much, and we need to get him the basketball more in movement,” Vogel said Tuesday.
Thus far, 24.6% of Davis’ offensive possessions have been post-ups, compared to 18.3% last year. He only scores 0.95 points per possession on these plays, which is well below a league-average offensive rating. Meanwhile, 13% of his possessions have been as the pick-and-roll roll man, but he is scoring 1.24 points per possession on those looks.
Figuring out how to optimize Davis’ shot profile could be the simplest way to jump-starting the team’s offense, though Davis notes that execution, pace, and movement in the halfcourt can all get better.
A year ago around this time, as the Lakers rounded in to form, it was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped, and the team’s holes were exposed. Now, the Lakers appear to have set a baseline of success that they can build on moving forward.
“When I look at 12-2 and I look at all the mistakes we make on the court, that’s when I think of how good we can be,” Vogel said Thursday. “We’re winning without playing to our best, and that’s an exciting thing. When you’re doing that, you know you have a high ceiling.”
The ceiling of the last few seasons never came close to being achieved. This year, if the Lakers can continue their progress to this point by addressing some basic weaknesses, their promise may actually be realized. That might be seem strange to say about a team with the best record in the league, but like I said, it’s a weird time to be a Lakers fan.