In the moment, losses like Wednesday’s feel seismic. The Lakers blowing a 26-point lead to a Thunder team that will almost certainly finish near the top of the lottery standings is a bad loss, no matter how early in the season it came.
But as the saying goes, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I’ve covered multiple NBA teams in recent years, some of them good, most of them bad. But the common theme is that each one of them has ugly losses. It may not be in the form of blowing a 26-point lead, but each year, every team has games they need to flush.
The 2019-20 Lakers lost by 17 to the Grizzlies with a rookie Ja Morant in late February, a time when they should be rounding into shape. Similarly, the final game before the pandemic shut the league down was a loss to Kevin Durant- and Kyrie Irving-less Nets team at home. Last season’s Milwaukee Bucks lost back-to-back games in the same weekend to the Pelicans and Hornets (I mean, who loses to the Pelicans?).
The key for those teams, and for this Lakers team, is determining what led to that loss, and figuring out how to avoid having it happen again. In that sense, there are some trends arising around the Lakers, albeit with a wildly small sample size, that are noteworthy.
Perhaps most notable is the debate of playing two bigs. As has been the case for Anthony Davis’ entire time in Los Angeles, it’s been one of the main topics of discussion this season.
But while the eye test has shown an offense bogged down without spacing when Davis plays alongside DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard, the numbers don’t bear out the same results.
When AD plays next to DeAndre Jordan: net rating of +2.9, Defensive Efficiency of 104.7— Darius Soriano (@forumbluegold) October 28, 2021
When AD plays next to Dwight Howard: net rating of +4.5, Defensive Efficiency of 102.2
When the Lakers made their run against the Spurs in the fourth quarter on Tuesday, it came largely with Howard and Davis in the frontcourt. And the last two games have also been the two best individual games for Jordan in purple and gold.
Still, there are mitigating factors in numbers like the ones above. A chunk of the sample size has come with LeBron James sidelined the last two contests. The selection of minutes overall is also small enough that the aforementioned comeback against the Spurs would weigh heavily into those numbers, a game in which Davis and Howard had a net rating of +39.2 together in eight minutes.
But there is some validity to playing two bigs, particularly when it comes to the defensive end. Davis spoke about the differences defensively for him when playing the 4 or the 5 after practice last week.
“I think when I’m at the 4, we have another guy — Dwight or DJ out there — defensively, it allows me to roam a little bit more so I can get the weak side blocks and weak side steals and things like that,” Davis said. “Then, at the 5, I’m usually in the paint a lot, or in a pick and roll. So, if a guy’s coming off and swings it, I’m not usually there to help as much. So that’s the main difference, but also, it helps us with our defense when I’m at the 5 where we can just switch everything and keep guys in front.
“When I’m not (playing center), then we have the other bigs who we don’t want to switch with and, now, we have rotations,” Davis continued. “That’s a thing that we’re looking at on the defensive end, trying to figure out what helps us best. A couple of seasons ago, we played big with JaVale with Dwight and midway through quarters, we switched to me at the 5, so that’s something we’re also looking at. I think it’s going to take a couple of games to see what’s most beneficial for our team and go from there.”
Defensively this season, there’s been a stark difference when Davis is at center versus at power forward. Teams are shooting 57% from on two-point field goals with Davis at center. That number drops to 48.3% when Jordan joins him, and drops even further to 45.5% with Howard alongside him.
Perhaps the more concerning larger picture takeaway involving Davis, though, is how ineffective he and James have been as a combo this season. In 84 minutes together, the pair have a net rating of -7.4. It’s not entirely a Westbrook problem, either, as the two of them sans Westbrook have a net rating of -3.9 in 23 minutes. That’s a small sample, and unlikely to continue all season, but the point is that regardless of lineups, rotations, two bigs, no bigs, shooters alongside them or ballhandlers, if the Lakers aren’t winning the James-Davis minutes, it’s all irrelevant.
Part of the issue right now is the lack of variety of players available to the Lakers. Injuries to Trevor Ariza, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, specifically, have limited how the Lakers can build lineups. Add in James’ own ankle soreness that has sidelined him and the Lakers’ roster in San Antonio was three bigs who all are best at center, one forward in Carmelo Anthony and SIX combo guards. Very few teams are going to win games like that in 2021.
So while injuries have allowed players like Malik Monk and Austin Reaves to stand out and flourish, it’s also forced head coach Frank Vogel into using players that shouldn’t be in the rotation like Rajon Rondo, DeAndre Jordan and Avery Bradley. There could be criticisms of the roster construction and the lack of wings on the roster, but to lose both Ariza and Horton-Tucker — the team’s two best wings — before the season even starts was a blow no team can properly prepare for.
The Lakers, though, knew this would take time. That’s why they constantly preached patience before the season even started. While they certainly didn’t expect to blow a 26-point lead to the Thunder, they expected speed bumps along the way this year. This is just not a complete Lakers roster, and it’s still too early and too harsh to judge it accordingly.
All that noted, it’s never too early to take note of trends early in the season. Quite simply, the Lakers must be better when James and Davis share the floor, and that could still be with another big alongside them, or it could be in small groups. They don’t have a definitive answer yet, and won’t for a while. Vogel, James and the Lakers are clearly still sorting out the pieces to this freshly unboxed puzzle.
Out of the box and scrambled up, puzzles can look like a daunting mess that often leads to dead ends. For now, the Lakers are in the process of flipping over pieces and finding patterns. In a handful of weeks, they will start being assembled. Until then, we shouldn’t judge them for not looking like the picture on the box, at least until they’re closer to intact.