The Los Angeles Lakers have been a completely different team since Christmas. LeBron James went down and with him went, well, every positive attribute of the style of basketball the Lakers wanted to play. Aspects of the game they struggled with got worse, and strong-points of the team fell off a cliff.
With 25 games left of this season and a three-game gap to make up between them and eighth and final playoff spot of the Western Conference, the Lakers have to turn things around.
James spoke to the media after what he called a “good” practice Wednesday afternoon, and made it clear that the Lakers will have to turn things around if they want to reach the franchise’s first postseason in half a decade, but that he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“We’ve got to win games. It starts with us not turning the ball over, and us being better from the free-throw line,” James told reporters after the Lakers’ first practice since the All-Star break. “We’ve turned the ball over and just allowed teams to get points off turnovers, and then when we got to the free-throw line we haven’t been able to knock them down consistently.”
The Lakers rank last in the league in free-throw percentage (68.7), and second-to-last (29th) in turnovers (15.9 per game). But not mentioned above was maybe the team’s biggest issue of late: Their defense. It’s also possible James just considers turnovers and free-throws larger issues. Seeing as he’s been tasked with running the offense, that just might be his focus.
But if the Lakers are indeed going to be able to pull off a run that gets them to the playoffs, it will likely have to start on the defensive end. Since Christmas (when James went down with a strained groin), the Lakers are giving up 110.5 points per 100 possessions — a distinct jump from the 106.5 points per 100 they held heading into that win over the Golden State Warriors.
Maybe James thinks the defense is fine. The Lakers boast a positively staunch defense (108.4 defensive rating) compared to his last two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers (110 defensive rating last year and 109.7 in ‘17). Still, the year James’ Cavs miraculously beat the 73-win Warriors for a championship, Cleveland held a 103.9 defensive rating.
James should grasp the importance here. He’s too smart not to.
Now, in fairness, James wasn’t specifically asked about defense, but when he did reference it, he seemed to point to the Lakers’ injury woes and not their lack of effort, which doesn’t really do much to even start to solve the issue.
“I think injuries has played a big part of our team, as far as continuity both offensively and defensively. But I think we can get back to it. We look forward to being challenged on that side of the floor, and we got a lot of great teams that’s going to challenge us,” James said before referencing the “100 points a game” James Harden is currently scoring.
The problem with excusing defensive effort because of injuries is that, well, there’s no guarantee the Lakers will ever get fully healthy. Lonzo Ball is still out, and did not practice Wednesday. Neither did Tyson Chandler, who is apparently dealing with a sore neck. Josh Hart and Mike Muscala practiced, but both are dealing with injuries of their own.
Mike Muscala has been downgraded from probable to questionable for tomorrow night's game. Tyson Chandler is also questionable, while Josh Hart remains probable.— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) February 21, 2019
It’d be one thing if everyone magically came back fully healthy after a week off (and having forgotten what went down during the trade deadline), but that obviously isn’t the case.
No, the Lakers will have to actually refocus themselves mentally and physically and put forth the type of effort they were giving before James — and seemingly everyone else — got hurt. While Ball remains out, more will be asked of everyone all over the court, but especially on defense given the impact Ball is capable of on that end.
This was just one post-practice scrum and as I said earlier, James wasn’t initially asked specifically about defense. But that doesn’t change how critical it is that the Lakers figure out the problem with their defense and fix it. If they don’t, it won’t really matter how many free-throws they miss.