“We have a team that is confident that we can beat anybody, but we have a lot of room for improvement. The newness of our group still gives me a great deal of concern in terms of what the stretch run is going to look like, and the battles we’re going to face in the playoffs.
“Just because we’re ahead in the standings, I don’t necessarily feel like we’re a finished product by any stretch. We haven’t accomplished anything as a group. To me it’s all in front of us.”
That was head coach Frank Vogel at Wednesday’s practice. Vogel, you see, isn’t just a head coach who wants to keep his team grounded, he’s also greedy. After beating the Warriors on Thursday, his team is 45-12, at the top of the Western Conference and the clear favorite to remain that way through the end of the regular season. He wants more, though.
In this way, Vogel very much sounds like a regular old Lakers fan. Fans, appreciative of where this team is while also being especially fickle, are always looking for things the team can be doing better.
Better, of course, is relative. The Lakers have won seven straight games. As noted, they’re the West’s No. 1 seed, and one of the favorites to win the championship. They can certainly sharpen their habits and improve on the margins, but there’s not going to be some wholesale shift from them in this final stretch of the season.
In that spirit, then, here are five things I’d like to see from the Lakers in their final 25 games as they gear up for the playoffs.
1. More Alex Caruso
While the calls to unleash Alex Caruso have been consistent for what feels like months, his recent level of play calls for a more serious examination of what his role should be as the playoffs approach. His offense is improving, particularly in the areas of ball handling and decision making. He’s flashing a better ability to beat his man at the point of attack, and it’s translating to easy shots for himself or teammates at the basket (whether that’s off dump-off passes or offensive rebounds).
Defensively he’s one of the team’s most impactful players, with a well-rounded skillset that allows him to affect the game in a variety of ways. He can pressure the ball, fight over and get around screens, deny passes all over the floor, and is a master at closing out with his hands high and his feet under control to not only bother shooters but also contain penetration when they try to drive by him as he’s chasing them off the line.
Combine his improved offense and top-level defense and he just needs to play more than he is. He’s already proving to be a great complement to LeBron and Anthony Davis, and with more minutes he’ll almost surely show that same compatibility with the rest of his teammates. I’m not asking for Caruso to make the leap from 18-20 mintues a game to 35, but I do think him settling into a 24-26 minute a game player isn’t too much to ask. If Vogel can find a way for Caruso to get two, 6-minute shifts each half with a fair amount of overlap in the LeBron/AD lineups, I’d be thrilled.
Not only because I think it can really get this team rolling in these final regular season games, but because I think it will be a key to their playoff success.
2. A Longer Leash for Kyle Kuzma
If you’re familiar with my work, you might mistake me for the president of the Kuzma fan club. While I really do like him as a player, I can assure you that’s not the case. I too get frustrated with his up and down nature and would like him to find more consistency. Believe me, I can be found cursing at my TV screen just like you do.
That said, Kuzma has shown that in order to get the best out of him, there needs to be a certain consistency with his minutes, with his touches, and with a commitment from coaches and teammates put into his success. In saying that, then, I’d really like for the coaches to find ways to get Kuzma more involved and for them to allow him to fail a bit more within the opportunities they present to him. If he really is going to play more on the wing now that Markieff Morris is on the roster, give Kuzma more P&R chances, run him off more screens, and use him more as a screener off the ball in order to give him opportunities to cut and slip into open creases of the defense.
To be clear, I’m not arguing Kuzma’s minutes should go unchecked and he be allowed to simply play to whatever level he wants and stay on the court. I want Kuzma putting in the requisite effort level; I want him to compete when he’s getting opportunities. That said, Kuzma’s minutes are often tied to Rajon Rondo and while that connection has had its flashes, they seem to rise and fall too often together. I’d like for Kuzma to get more opportunities absent of Rondo acting as the main ball handler, giving the third-year forward more a chance to be a self-creator or the type of off ball worker who can have actions flow to him rather than be at the mercy of a point guard who has an idea of how he wants the play to develop before the action even gets started.
3. More Rest for LeBron
It might seem counterintuitive to say that on the one hand, I want the Lakers to begin to gear up for the playoffs and start to fine-tune their roles and then, on the other hand, say that I want LeBron resting more. After all, LeBron will not be resting more come postseason time and, if anything, he’ll be playing even more when the stakes get higher.
But that’s exactly why I want him getting a bit more time on the bench now and why I was perfectly fine having him sit out an entire game vs. the Warriors on Thursday. LeBron’s workload is about to skyrocket and, beyond the likely minutes increase, the high leverage situations he’ll be placed in will be more taxing than regular season games. Giving his body more rest as the team plays out this final stretch can be a nice way to help get him ready for the test that awaits.
Further, we all understand how much the Lakers have suffered this season when LeBron has been on the bench. Those numbers are well publicized and are a key reason LeBron is such a compelling candidate to win the MVP award. So, if I’m the Lakers, I’m looking at some extra rest for LeBron — either in games or by sitting out entirely — as a way to give players (particularly Caruso and Kuzma) more reps as primary ball handlers and/or offensive initiators and shot creators in the halfcourt to, hopefully, give them a bit more seasoning for when the playoffs come.
You never know when those guys may need to be called on to spell LeBron in the playoffs and, if it’s for longer than expected, I’d like it to not be as foreign.
4. More Small-Ball Lineups
One of the real benefits of adding Markieff Morris in the buyout market is that it now enables the Lakers to play multiple small-ball lineups that can benefit their top players. For example, I’d like to see some lineups like:
- Bradley, Green, Kuzma, LeBron, AD
- Caruso, Green, LeBron, Morris, AD
- Caruso, KCP, Green, LeBron, AD
- Bradley, KCP, Kuzma, LeBron, Morris
With Morris now in the mix, the Lakers now have real options to mix and match both their guard/wing players as well as their big men in order to play small, which should, in turn, give them more of an ability to find the right combinations to flank LeBron and Davis with the right mix of defense and shooting to not only match up better with other teams, but to dictate the matchups they want.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the Dwight/JaVale center rotation is still a strong option on most nights. The Lakers thrive as a huge and physical opponent that controls the paint on both sides of the ball. There will certainly be matchups, both in the remainder of the regular season and in the playoffs, that will skew heavily in the Lakers favor because other teams simply cannot match their size. So this is not me advocating the team to fully abandon this approach.
That said, what’s also clear is that the Lakers not only have the ability to go small, but that those lineups have real versatility to overwhelm teams, too. Also, their small lineups still have the ability to be physical and imposing, particularly when the frontcourt trio is LeBron, Morris, and AD. Now, imagine adding Caruso and Danny Green to that group? Or KCP and Caruso? Or Bradley and Green? Or KCP and Green? The defensive versatility the Lakers have in their backcourt to throw different looks at teams and match up with whatever kinds of strengths opposing guards have — when combined with their frontcourt versatility — can end up being a nightmare for opponents.
The time to start to refine that is down the stretch of the regular season in order to have confidence and data points on which combinations work (and which ones don’t) for the playoffs.
5. Re-establish your Defensive Habits
This is straightforward and obvious so I won’t waste too much of your time here. The Lakers currently rank third in defensive efficiency, so I’m not going to act as though they’re some disaster on that side of the ball. They remain one of the better defensive teams in the league based on talent, desire to execute, smarts and scheme.
However, there are still long stretches of games where the Lakers let go of the rope defensively and feel all too comfortable matching baskets with the other team, knowing that, over the course of the game, they’ll be able to keep up and then turn up their defensive intensity enough to get a win. It’s a formula that’s worked well so far, so I’m not going to act as though they’re wrong.
Even though this has worked, I’d very much like them to use this final stretch of the season to begin to ramp back up their defensive intensity for longer stretches in order to re-establish their mindset of being a dominant defensive team. It’s easy to forget now, but early in the season the Lakers weren’t just in the top five of the NBA defensively, but their entire identity was built around how smothering they could be on that side of the ball. Through the first six weeks of the season, the Lakers had a defensive rating 2.5 points better (102.9) than they currently do now (105.4). So, from Dec. 1 through today, the slippage has been real even if, relative to the rest of the NBA, it’s not been that noticeable because they remain ranked in the top five.
This team has the ability, when focused and playing hard, to be a top-flight defensive team that is flying all over the court to contest shots and force turnovers, and then turn those misses and miscues into easy baskets going the other way. I understand they’re not going to play that way for every minute of every game, particularly in the regular season. But as they inch closer to the playoffs, I’d like the percentage of plays they show that effort on to gradually go up from game to game so they are firing on all cylinders when the results really count.
Darius Soriano has covered the Lakers for 12 years at forumblueandgold.com, co-hosts the Laker Film Room podcast and writes a weekly column for Silver Screen and Roll. You can follow him on Twitter at @forumbluegold (just don’t ask him to change his avatar).