After the Lakers finished up their preseason slate of basketball nearly three months ago, I published a column with a similar headline as the one you are currently reading. Within it, I tried to sift through what were essentially small-sample size exhibition contests to unearth some aspects of this team that were worth keeping an eye on during the year.
The positive takeaway was that LeBron James and Anthony Davis were a dream pairing that was as good as advertised. So far, that has checked out. See: win totals, all star votes and an endless barrage of dunks.
The negative was multiple players being used in suboptimal fashions. That has improved, but is still arguable for a few names. And finally, I pondered how the point guard rotation would shake out. While the pecking order is more certain now, the depth and effectiveness of the position continues to be hotly discussed.
In this edition, I will again try to pick and choose noteworthy characteristics, data and storylines surrounding this team, this time with almost the entire first half of the season in the books. Let’s go.
The Good: Resiliency
Resiliency is a word that is often loosely thrown around in sports. Most commonly defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness,” the Lakers have shown on multiple occasions that not only do they warrant such a description, but that they have this attribute in spades.
Individually, Dwight Howard and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are the epitomes of this.
When it was originally reported that the team and Howard had potential interest in a reunion — and even after the corresponding signing — the groans from many within the fanbase could be heard from miles away.
There was understandable fear that Howard’s locker room reputation might come to fruition and fracture the Lakers’ team chemistry. There was also skepticism about if he or his body could withstand a full season anymore given his recent string of injuries. And of course, there was just plain old bad blood given how his first go-round with the team went and ended.
But as of this column, Howard has proven to be exceptional in nearly every aspect imaginable. He has not only seamlessly ingratiated himself to the team and the fanbase, but has also proved pivotal to the Lakers’ success. The boxscore numbers ultimately fail to quantify how much his toughness, energy and enthusiasm have helped craft the identity of this team.
For Caldwell-Pope, he also faced ire from segments of the fanbase when he re-signed with the team, and then again when he struggled mightily on offense to start the year. But like Howard, and through the constant support of his teammates, he has bounced back, most notably as a shooter.
In his last 15 games, Caldwell-Pope is converting his 3-point chances at a staggering 50% clip. And on the season, his 43.3% conversion rate ranks seventh-best amongst players who have attempted at least 100 threes on the year. It’s a drastic turnaround from his 22% shooting to start the campaign.
So whether it’s players withstanding internal and external issues to help the team, or finding ways to win contests without one — or even both — of their stars, this group has proven time after time that they should not be counted out of any fight.
The Bad: Non-LeBron Minutes
Sitting at 32-7, reeling off a list of negatives ultimately feels nit-picky in the aggregate of how the season has gone so far. But, there is one distressing issue that continues to nip at the club’s heels — surviving the minutes when James is on the bench.
On the year, the Lakers are a tremendous +11.9 in nearly 2,700 possessions with James on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. While impressive, it’s also not entirely surprising given how unbelievable the 35-year-old has performed. In his 17th season, James is currently sporting his highest usage (36.7%) and assist (48%) rates of his career.
This degree of responsibility on offense has come mostly out of necessity. As currently constructed, the Lakers lack an additional on-ball creator that is consistently capable of both creating a basket for others and themselves. It’s left James to shoulder those duties on his own, and as a result the offense crumbles when he sits.
While James catches his breath on the sideline, the team has posted a -2.2 net rating, an offensive rating down nearly four points compared to when James is on the floor, and the team shoots six percent worse at the rim during those minutes.
To be clear, this is likely the case for every team that is built around a singular driving force/creator, but given who are the alternative options on the roster, it feels much more necessary that the team finds James some help sooner rather than later. Fortunately, it sounds like they are already looking.
The Curious: Small Ball
Heading into the year, a lot was made about Davis not wanting to play center full time, even if he’s felt that way for the majority of his career. And although it was deemed inflexible by some in the moment, given how well he, the team and its center depth have all performed thus far, it is difficult to criticize his request at this stage.
With that said, there is still a level of mystery regarding how often the team will turn to their “small ball” lineup with Davis at the five spot during the rest of the year, and how effective it actually is. Especially come the playoffs, when so much rides on having players who can both guard multiple positions and space the floor.
On the season, the big man has played 65% of his minutes at power-forward, according to Cleaning the Glass, matching a career-high. But in the instances in which he has played center, the team actually has a better overall net rating (+8.7) compared to when he plays the four (+7.8). That’s a smaller sample size, of course, but a potentially encouraging sign and possible ace in the Lakers’ sleeve if and when they choose to deploy it.
Kyle Kuzma ultimately will play a big role in unlocking this lineup, given that he’s the only player on the roster not named LeBron James with the ability to slot into multiple frontcourt positions, namely the four, while also providing the perimeter shooting necessary in order to allow Davis to feast within the interior.
Individually however, Kuzma has not fared all the well next to Davis. Although the team sports a positive net rating with the duo on the floor, Kuzma’s true shooting percentage is more than eight percent worse with the Brow on the floor compared to off.
It will be interesting to see how much Vogel turns to this versatile group the rest of the way, or if he strictly continues to use it in matchup dependent situations, as well as whether or not the team can better incorporate Kuzma into the fold given how important his skillset is in terms of unlocking the full potential of this squad.
All stats per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.