At the NBA All-Star break, the Los Angeles Lakers own the best record in the Western Conference with 41 wins and 12 losses. They’re one of three teams in the league with at least 40 wins, and the other two teams — the Milwaukee Bucks (46-8) and Toronto Raptors (40-15) — play in the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, four games separate the No. 2 seeded Denver Nuggets and the Lakers.
Simply put, the Lakers are in a great spot, but in spite of all of their success, they aren’t considered the favorites to win the title, and that doubt is fueled by their record against top-five teams this season. The Lakers are 2-6 against top-five teams this season, with a loss against each of them, including two against their rivals from across the hall, the LA Clippers. The Nuggets are the only top-five team the Lakers have beaten this season, and they’ve done so twice.
But while the Lakers haven’t performed well against top-five teams this season, it’s lazy to say they’re simply not as good as the opposition. I mean, you don’t win 41 games in 53 tries by being just slightly above average. Plus, of the six games they’ve lost to top-five teams, only two of their losses have been by more than 10 points.
They’re fine, but there’s work to be done, and the games they’ve lost have been good indicators of the types of adjustments that need to be made to the roster. Unfortunately, with the luck the Lakers have had in the buyout market (or lack thereof) those adjustments will likely have to be made with the talent they already have.
Here are a few ways Frank Vogel and his staff can do that.
Re-evaluate the point guard rotation
The Lakers employ arguably the greatest floor general in the NBA in LeBron James, who’s averaging a league-high — and career-high — 10.8 assists per game this season. When James isn’t on the floor, though, they can look a little discombobulated.
In theory, Rajon Rondo replicates some of the playmaking the Lakers lose when James is on the bench, but his limitations as a scorer and defender have put a cap on his value, and that cap isn’t very high. While the solution may not be to give Alex Caruso the keys to the second unit given how much he’s struggled as the primary ball-handler this season, it’s worth seeing how different the Lakers would look with Caruso that was the first point guard off of the bench instead of Rondo, with Rondo stepping in to the specialist role Caruso’s currently playing.
Additionally, the shot creation they’re looking for could be on the bench with Quinn Cook. Cook has been limited to just 34 games this season, and he’s averaged just 11.4 minutes per game in those games. Cook may be worse than Rondo is defensively, but he’s shown that he can be an offensive spark off the bench when he’s been called upon this season. He scored a season-high 22 points when Rondo was sidelined last month.
In the end, the current iteration of the guard rotation may be the best version, but it’s not good enough for Vogel to not experiment further before the start of the postseason. If nothing else, he should consider playing Caruso more.
Give Kyle Kuzma the ball
Kyle Kuzma hasn’t been the third star to LeBron James and Anthony Davis like Lakers fans and Kuzma himself had hoped he’d be going into the season — not even close. But while Kuzma has opened himself up to criticism with the way he’s played this season, he hasn’t exactly been put in the best position to succeed.
At his best, Kuzma is a crafty and versatile scorer that can create something out of nothing with his footwork and tough shot-making ability. In order to create his own shots, though, he needs to have the ball in his hands, and with how much time he’s spent on the court with Rajon Rondo this season, he hasn’t had the opportunity to handle the ball as much as he has in the past. To put things into perspective, Kuzma has spent 80 more minutes on the court with Rondo than anyone else has this season. That’s not to say Rondo is entirely to blame for Kuzma’s disappointing season, but the type of player Rondo is has undoubtedly played a role in Kuzma’s struggles.
In Kuzma’s first two seasons, his point guard was Lonzo Ball, who’s a much lower-usage point guard than Rondo is, if for no other reason than Rondo is a better ball-handler than he is. In Ball’s two seasons with the Lakers, 45.3% of his possessions had zero dribbles. That’s a stark contract from Rondo, who dribbles the ball 3-6 times in 29.3% of his possessions and more than seven times in 28.9% of his possessions.
Rondo’s ball-handling ability holds some value for the Lakers, but not more value than Kuzma’s shot creation and his upside as a playmaker. Sooner or later, Vogel’s going to have to choose between the two.
A lot has been made about the Lakers’ need for a player that can defend big wings, and rightfully so.
If the Lakers are going to make an appearance in the NBA Finals this season, there’s a good chance they’ll have to see the LA Clippers, who have good depth at both forward spots with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green. Then, if they make it past the Clippers, they’ll likely have to see the Milwaukee Bucks, who recently added Marvin Williams to their All-Star duo of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton. Suffice to say, a little extra size on the wing wouldn’t hurt.
In an ideal world, that help would come in the form of Maurice Harkless, who was traded from the LA Clippers to the New York Knicks at the trade deadline. However, it doesn’t sound like Harkless is in a hurry to leave the comfort of his hometown. If Harkless doesn’t become available, the Lakers’ next-best option may be to experiment with lineups featuring both Kyle Kuzma and Jared Dudley.
Neither Kuzma nor Dudley are going to lock up Leonard or Antetokounmpo, but if we’re being honest, no one is — they’re unguardable. What they can do together, though, is slow them down when James and/or Davis are on the bench.
The sample size is small, with Kuzma and Dudley having only played 77 minutes together this season — the fewest amount of minutes Kuzma’s played with anyone — but it’s not hard to see them being successful together on both ends of the floor. Dudley is a fantastic help defender, which would make it easier for Vogel to play Kuzma down a position. Plus, with Dwight Howard patrolling the paint and Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the perimeter, the Lakers have enough defense in that lineup to make up for Kuzma’s shortcomings on defense.
Is is the perfect solution? No, but it’s a better solution that sticking Caldwell-Pope on Leonard again.
Agree? Disagree? Have other suggestions for changes? Let us know in the comments below, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @RadRivas.