After the Lakers’ latest loss, an entirely predictable 115-100 defeat to Utah on Wednesday, the following postgame exchange took place between Spectrum Sportsnet’s Mike Trudell and Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma:
Trudell: “How do you think the continuity — they’ve (the Jazz) had the same lineup for a couple of years now — how much does that play into it and how much has that been a challenge for you with these different lineups all year?
Kuzma: “It’s a huge part of it. When you have your team in the first year, you kind of put things in and then you start building layer on layer on layer. So, you get teams like this, the same with Denver now, or how Golden State was earlier, where you continue to get deeper into those levels. When you have as many injuries as we’ve had this year, you’ve got to keep it pretty basic, sets and options out of it.
The Lakers have had a host of problems this year, and a lack of continuity deserves a place on that expansive list. It might be most obvious when facing off against teams that have been together for years, but this is an issue that has reared its head throughout the season.
According to Basketball Reference, 54 percent of Los Angeles’ regular-season minutes have been played by players returning from last year’s roster. That’s the sixth-lowest amount in the league, only ahead of Memphis, Phoenix, Atlanta, New York and Washington. Suffice it to say, none of those teams other than the Hawks have had what would be considered a successful season — and Atlanta’s expectations were deliberately low.
Incredibly, this is the second-highest roster continuity the Lakers have had in the last seven years. I’ve written before about how signing players to one-year deals was a poor exercise in asset management. That practice not only failed to generate any value for Los Angeles, but it also resulted in a vacuum of identity.
This is what Kuzma was addressing on Wednesday. Playing a team like Utah poses challenges, beyond the obvious absences of LeBron James and several other key Lakers, because the Jazz have an understanding of how to play with one another on the basketball court. That enables them to run more complex offensive sets and have a higher defensive ceiling because of their connectedness on that end of the court.
The Lakers don’t have any of that. The organization has operated for years under the belief that talent will overcome roster turnover, but that creates a problem when the team can’t attract enough talent. There are other ways of achieving organizational consistency, but Los Angeles also has failed to follow any of those paths.
Teams can build continuity without retaining the same roster provided the head coach has a strong conception for how the team should play. Brett Brown’s teams in Philadelphia during The Process had a certain style of play. No matter how many players cycled through the 76ers over those years, the type of basketball they played was recognizable.
Brooklyn under Kenny Atkinson has developed an identity as well, despite suffering many of the same challenges as Philadelphia did. Even when the Nets were among the dregs of the league the last few seasons, Atkinson created a system for the team that has reaped dividends with better players this year.
It helped that those teams had organizational stability even as there was roster turnover. If the front office at least has a vision and the power to execute that vision, that papers over some of the problems that may present themselves. Unfortunately for Los Angeles, four years into the rebuild, the Lakers fired their president of basketball operations and general manager, and the new duo has spent much of their tenure trying to erase any memories of the previous regime.
Another way of achieving continuity is by bringing in veterans who have been around the league and know how to establish a stable and hard-working locker room. The Lakers’ front office decidedly went against “stable” when picking out its veterans this offseason. Regardless of talent, rather than sign players who were strong leaders, the Lakers picked veterans universally regarded as wild cards. You don’t get to be called “The Meme Team” without some baggage.
It’s too late for the Lakers to develop the type of continuity that other rebuilding teams achieved during their years in the lottery. With LeBron around for at least another two seasons, the team has to start winning now and can’t preach habits over results. There has been so much tension within the locker room that wiping the slate clean feels preferable to bringing back players just for the sake of skipping past the introductory phase next year. Furthermore, reports suggest that the coaching staff will likely be on its way out, or at least significantly modified, by the time the 2019-20 season tips off.
Even still, it’s telling that some of the best basketball that L.A. has played in recent weeks has come when the lineups include mostly South Bay Lakers. Those players have a history with each other, and that manifests itself on the court. Short of stocking the roster with players from its G-League affiliate, the Lakers will have difficulty replicating that camaraderie next season. There’s a reason Josh Hart played through pain for so many weeks and James refuses to shut down for the season — the minutes they spend together now could help them down the line.
If Los Angeles has to build a mostly new roster this offseason, the Lakers should try to heed the example of teams around the league. Give players some stability, even if that means multi-year contracts, and seek out veterans who can build a positive environment in the locker room. Find a coach who doesn’t just defer to LeBron and who actually has a plan for how to build team cohesion.
The Lakers weren’t that far away from being a really good team this year, but when faced with adversity, they spiraled. That can’t happen again. A good way to avoid unraveling again next year would be to start the season with an identity, something to hold on to when times get tough. L.A. has been missing that for far too long.