How much have the Lakers practiced this season? To hear Kyle Kuzma tell it, they haven’t.
He’s being hyperbolic, but only slightly. After a season in which they became notorious for skipping shootarounds all year and practiced during the playoffs so rarely that LeBron James credited their ability to adjust using only film as one of the keys to their success, the Lakers have taken things up a notch as they go through the shortest turnaround in NBA history and an expedited 72-game regular season. In addition to trying to get extra rest during games, the team has given players even more time off on non-game days, only having mandatory practices six times since the regular season started, and mandatory shootarounds just twice before their 20 games so far.
The result? Games that often seem like they’re being treated like scrimmages, because that’s essentially what they are.
“With this season, it’s very difficult to get those practice minutes on the floor and know what works and what does not work,” James said on Thursday. “A lot of our games are like big practices for us too. We have to learn on the fly.”
That’s why the Lakers are experimenting with lineups that aren’t working and they know aren’t ideal, and giving such groups more time than they would if winning was their only goal. That’s why Alex Caruso is playing less so that Frank Vogel can look at other players.
But these players are competitors, and so it clearly isn’t always easy for them when things don’t work, but they also seem to understand the logic behind the plan, and know that this season — more so than others — will be one large adjustment process, like a months-long training camp.
“That’s just the beauty of the regular season. I think from a media, fan perspective, obviously there’s something to talk about when you lose two in a row and guys are struggling, but when you’re in the trenches of the organization, in the foxhole with the team and the staff, we like to use the regular season as a rehearsal for the playoffs,” Kuzma said, crediting Lakers assistant coach Jason Kidd for instilling that mindset in him last season.
“He’s always said that the regular season is just rehearsal for the playoffs, and you’ve just got to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Especially for a team like us,” Kuzma continued. “Everything is all film-related because we have a lot of high-IQ guys that can translate something from a TV to the court. So a lot of times during the regular season, our practice is sometimes the games, and this is how we figure it out. That’s how we figure it out.”
One of the aforementioned side effects of this process, however, is that the Lakers are playing a ton of different lineups, and not all of them are working. The only lineup to play more than 100 minutes together is the Lakers’ normal starters of James, Anthony Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schröder and Marc Gasol (203 minutes).
The next closest? The so-called “Lineup of Meh” — featuring James, Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris — that has played 66 minutes and posted a net rating that has recently improved to “only” getting outscored by 12.4 points per 100 possessions. Of the Lakers’ five most-used lineups, two are basically getting blown out whenever they’re on the floor.
“We are definitely all adjusting to playing with different lineups. We’re all getting minutes with lineups that one game you might not log with, or it could be a few games in a row, so it’s kind of learning on the fly,” James said, continuing to repeat that idiom. “We’re all learning on the fly with the lack of practice time.
“And coach is still learning different lineups and seeing what combinations work, what combinations don’t,” James continued. “Myself, I’m out there playing with certain lineups I don’t play with (much), certain lineups I do play with, so I’m logging a lot of minutes with guys that I may not have logged with in a couple games. But like I said, it’s all a learning experience and all of us are trying to figure it out.”
That’s obviously not easy for competitive players to go through in the moment, and takes a mental toll at times. You can hear it in James and Kuzma talking about it, and see it on and off the court. Most notably, Anthony Davis has kicked over a drink cart in frustrating with the Lakers’ “shit” defense and said he sucks. Still, they all clearly understand the bigger picture in mind, even if it’s not always easy to focus on what’s in the distance when the present isn’t perfect.
“You don’t want to dwell on it, because the best thing about the NBA is you play 72 games,” Kuzma said. “So we get another crack at it in 36 to 48 hours. But it kind of just is what it is. We’re a brand new team, we’re playing like 14 people. So it’s a tough situation. Obviously we’re working through things, the coaching staff is trying to figure out rotations, and figure out what works best with what players, what players can play with certain lineups, and that’s just the point of the season we’re in.”
Unlike Davis, James hasn’t lashed out, verbally or on some unsuspecting drink cart. Unlike Kuzma, he’s keeping his thoughts on things a little more subtle. But it’s also easy to see he’s not exactly enjoying the process right now.
When asked by Dave McMenamin of ESPN — a reporter James has been comfortable enough in the past to tell that the Cavaliers “need a fucking playmaker,” make a fart sound to describe Magic Johnson’s roster building and admit that it would be “amazing” to play with Anthony Davis when he has been frustrated over the years — how he’s staying patient with the process this season, he bit his tongue while letting a bit of his annoyance still seep through.
“I’ll let you know,” James said following a pregnant pause that came after he waited nearly an hour to talk to the media in the wake of Thursday’s second consecutive loss. He stopped for another long pause, smiling and laughing behind the sunglasses he wore despite it being after midnight in Detroit, using the mini verbal filibuster to transparently try and calculate how much he wanted to say before ultimately just repeating himself.
“I’ll let you know.”
If the in-game practices don’t start to make perfect soon, it’s not hard to imagine he very well might start to get a little more candid over the weeks and months to come.