The Lakers have essentially been in cruise control to start the season. They are still in possession of a 5-2 record thanks to their prodigious talent, but have oftentimes lacked the intensity that came to define their 2019-20 iteration. What’s remarkable is that even as they remain far from their peak, the Lakers are solidly in contention to repeat as champions.
To make that possibility more of a reality, there are little things I’d like to see more of from the Lakers. And since it’s a new year, or at least the first work day of said new year, now is a perfect time to set some resolutions. Nothing major, just incremental improvements to make the Lakers even more fearsome than they already are.
For Anthony Davis, get deeper post position on entry passes
It’s pretty easy to tell when Davis isn’t fully engaged on any given night, and that’s by where he catches a post entry pass (his face-ups are a different story). If Davis is committed, he’ll have at least one foot in or near the paint, giving himself the ability to get to the basket in one move, fade into a close-range jumper, or command a hard double that leaves one of his teammates wide open.
When Davis isn’t as locked in, those catches will come 20 feet away from the basket, to the point where it’s unclear why he even tried posting up in the first place. It gives the defense an opportunity to double him with the sideline as a third defender, and Davis is so far away from the action that it can result in turnovers.
Davis makes no effort to seal Derrick Jones Jr. on that first possession, and the extra ground he has to cover results in a turnover. But when he wrestles DeMar DeRozan for his space in the paint in the ensuing clip, it’s a guaranteed two points. Davis is basically unstoppable if he’s less than 10 feet from the basket; it behooves him to make sure his possessions start closer to the hoop.
For LeBron James, just keep doing what’s working
All James has done since turning 36 years old is average nearly 25 points, 10 rebounds, and nine assists per game while leading the Lakers to three wins, one of which even required some crunch-time heroics. Even for the purposes of a theoretical exercise like this one, it seems silly to assign any resolutions to James, who continues to flip the switch whenever he desires and assert himself as the best player in the league, 18 years after coming into it. The best thing James can do is keep being himself.
For Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, rest that ankle as long as possible
It was jarring to see Caldwell-Pope, the team’s iron man for as long as he’s been in a Lakers uniform, sprain his ankle and come up hobbling. His availability is one of his best skills.
KCP sat the last two seeding games in the bubble as the Lakers rested guys in anticipation of the playoffs, but he hadn't missed a game due to injury prior to today since January 2018 - a streak of 214 straight games. One of the most durable players in the league.— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) January 3, 2021
When he’s on the court, the Lakers need Caldwell-Pope’s speed, both in the half court chasing through screens, and on the break running the length of the floor. That speed becomes more difficult to access if Caldwell-Pope isn’t at 100% health. Fortunately, the Lakers have enough guard options to let KCP recover from what he says is the first ankle sprain of his career. He just has to be willing to take the time off, which can’t be easy for a guy who is always on the court.
For his part, Caldwell-Pope seems to understand that he has the luxury of waiting, even if it’s not his default setting.
“My ankle is feeling great. I practiced today, got a little movement in, still not 100% but hopefully I can get out there tomorrow depending on how I feel,” Caldwell-Pope said at the team’s media availability Monday. “I feel like our bench is deep enough for me to take my time coming back. I know we’re also missing AC (Alex Caruso), which he’ll be back pretty soon, but we’ve just got a group of guys who had this concept last year, the next man up mentality, and we still have that mentality here. I feel like just taking my time and making sure I’m 100% (is important).”
Let’s hope KCP keeps to his word.
For Frank Vogel, play Kyle Kuzma and Marc Gasol together more
It’s no secret that Kyle Kuzma thinks of himself as a starter and tends to show out when he is placed in that role. But Kuzma’s success at the beginning of games this year isn’t just about being on the court when the ball tips, it’s about sharing the court with Marc Gasol. Kuzma’s off-ball movement has already found a nice synergy with Gasol’s passing, which has a distinct style relative to the other playmakers on the Lakers roster.
Kuzma has a higher net rating playing with Gasol than James, Davis, or Dennis Schröder, all players who could theoretically create for Kuzma but don’t do so quite like Gasol. He seems to react better to passes coming from a stationary hub rather than on the move, and that’s Gasol’s specialty. Five of Gasol’s 18 assists have gone to Kuzma this season, all in games when Kuzma was in the starting lineup.
The way Vogel runs his rotations hasn’t given Gasol much time with the bench this season, but there should be some consideration to at least play Gasol and Kuzma together, given their obvious connection thus far.
For Markieff Morris, keep walling off the basket
Morris’ physical profile and style of play don’t exactly scream rim protector, but he’s been really good in his Lakers tenure at limiting shots at the basket, and then challenging the shots that are taken. Opponents are only taking 25.9 precent of their shots at the rim when Morris is on the floor and shooting 53.3 percent on those attempts. The league averages for those two figures last season were 35.2 and 63.5 percent, respectively, so the Lakers have excelled defensively in both the low volume and poor quality of close-range shots they allow when Morris plays.
Morris has been a really sound positional defender who can play next to any other big on the roster, and it’s been good to see that his bubble performance wasn’t a fluke in that regard. He has the best defensive rating of any Laker by a large margin. All Morris has to do is continue to play within himself and shine in the shadows.
For Alex Caruso, tighten up the passing
At the start of the season, Vogel was giving Caruso meaningful point guard reps as the only lead guard on the court. It’s not a role the Lakers were totally comfortable with Caruso playing last year, as only 11.5 percent of his playoff minutes came without James or Rajon Rondo on the court, and most of those were when Rondo was injured.
However, the regular season is a time for experimenting — after all, the Caruso/Davis 2-man game that emerged in the Portland series was a good time — and that means Point Caruso.
The problem with that so far is that Caruso’s turnover rate is out of control. He’s giving the ball up on about a quarter of his possessions. He is allowed some leeway at this early point of the season, but a closer look suggests that familiarity with his teammates isn’t the problem; it’s his delivery. Caruso was getting into real trouble on the baseline trying to thread passes in between defenders.
As he gets more experience — and presumably more time with Lakers assistant and renowned skills development guru Phil Handy — Caruso’s decision-making will improve. For now, this is simply the growing pains phase.
For Quinn Cook, shoot with Caruso after games
Cook and Dwight Howard were famous shooting buddies after Laker games, but exclusively from 3-point range. Now that Howard is in Philadelphia, Cook theoretically needs a new partner, and it would be nice to get Caruso some more confidence shooting from distance. Those shots will be available for him, and they’ll make him an even more indispensable player for the Lakers.
For Talen Horton-Tucker, improve the tunnel vision
Horton-Tucker was a beast at attacking the basket during the preseason. His frame allows him to finish from a variety of angles, and it seemed like he was unguardable when the rim was in his line of sight.
Now that defenders are actually trying to stop him during the regular season, THT has to be a bit more judicious about when to take the ball all the way to hoop and when to pass it back out. His instinct to get to the basket is correct, because good things happen when he collapses the defense. He just has to get better at recognizing when the best outcome is for him to score and when it’s more beneficial to create for someone else.
For Montrezl Harrell, keep boxing out
Harrell’s usage has suffered a large drop-off compared to his last three years with the Clippers, and the new Laker has taken that change in stride. All he’s done is improve his efficiency and continued to be a force around the basket. The best thing Harrell can do now is remain impactful on the glass.
On the offensive end, the Lakers aren’t really running plays for Harrell, so putbacks and second-chance points are his primary method of scoring. On the defensive end, Harrell is not quite as big as some other centers, so out-jumping them isn’t necessarily within his skill set, but he is strong enough to box out anyone. That’s a real source of value to the team, especially when Davis doesn’t want to do the grunt work of playing center.
This is just really great individual effort by Harrell here to battle with the bigger Jonas Valanciunas for position, front, get in box out position and then come over to help protect the rim. pic.twitter.com/XOJxvAXjQy— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) January 4, 2021
One last resolution for the Lakers as a whole would be to increase their effort and consistency on the defensive end, but it’s a long season, and the Lakers have earned the right to conserve their energy if need be, so we don’t have to harp on that too much yet. As things stand, the Lakers have shown that they still have the bones of a championship team, even if improvements can be made on the margins.
But that’s the point of new year’s resolutions, or at least the ones that stick. They’re not about fundamentally changing who we are; it’s just a matter of trying to get a little bit better every day.