If this point of the NBA season was a middle school science project, most groups around the league have already tackled the necessary paperwork, gathered up their beakers and have even begun sculpting their volcano out of papier-mâché. The Lakers, on the other-hand, are still in the pre-planning stage, trying to figure out which group members are doing which job, missing class and procrastinating like no one’s business.
At 14-13, it’s fair to say the team’s season has not gotten off without a hitch. The injury bug has smacked them hard, resulting in them already using 252 different 5-man lineup combinations — the third most in the league, as of this article.
In the games those smorgasbord of lineups have played, they’ve given up big leads to mediocre teams, lost multiple contests they should have won and approached their on-court work until this point with what Frank Vogel has repeatedly described as a “casualness.”
“We feel like it’s going to happen, we keep getting disappointed when we think it’s there (or when) we think we’ve had that moment,” Vogel said following the team’s recent 108-95 loss to a Ja Morant-less Memphis Grizzlies squad.
“Our biggest battle, our biggest problem this year is consistency. Once we take one step forward, we fall back and have a disappointing performance. We got to find a way to catch ourselves from that.”
While it is difficult to quantify casualness or consistency in a catch all metric, anyone who watches basketball with any consistency typically know what both look like, and can point to a few areas where effort and attention to details usually reveal themselves. Because as easy it is to scapegoat when things are going sideways, to try to find the sole root of the problem, it’s the devil in the details — the game within the margins — that continues to humble a team that is trying to skip steps and get started on trying to make their proverbial volcano erupt before assembling all the necessary supplies
One of the areas where the Lakers are continuously losing the rope is the battle on the glass. Despite having no shortage of center options on the team, the Lakers are currently tied for 25th in opponent’s ORB% (27.2%) — what % of misses they allow their opponents to rebound.
Most recently, they gave up 33 offensive rebounds in their last two games alone, including 19 to the Thunder, who are tied for 23rd when it comes to success on the offensive glass.
The art of rebounding, and the reasons why the team is failing to end possessions on defense, are twofold. It takes both effort and technique to secure those misses, aspects the Lakers are continuing failing to do consistently.
In these instances, there has been a trend to how the opposition has been able to constantly steal away second chances. As is usually the case, there have been breakdowns in terms of focus, whether in players losing track of their man from the corners, veering too far away from the play, or simply not battling. The lack of a second, third, or sometimes even just a singular jump has been a big culprit.
From a technique perspective, the Lakers have also simply been woeful when it comes to boxing out. According to the league’s tracking data, the team’s 149 total defensive boxouts are tied with Oklahoma City for the fourth-fewest in the league. And when it comes to the percentage/frequency of box-outs on that end, they are dead last (72.3%), according to NBA.com.
Too often, Lakers players are simply getting sidestepped when it comes to going after the ball, not making contact at the right time and wanting to get out in transition instead of securing the miss that will let them run first.
There is also a roster angle to the team’s rebounding struggles that is worth noting, namely being small in the back-court and on the wing.
Their lack of size on the perimeter has been magnified even further when they’ve moved Anthony Davis to center (opponents’ ORB% jumps from 27.2% to 27.7%), as this has put more of an onus for the team’s non-bigs to crash in, box-out and battle with players with clear height advantages. But this is a trade-off the team has likely accepted with their current roster, given the disadvantages they have experienced when playing two traditional bigs this season. Even if it puts players in unfamiliar and suboptimal positions.
One of the other facets of the game where the team’s lethargy has reared its ugly head has been turnovers — lots and lots of turnovers. On the season, the Lakers have already coughed the ball up 434 times, the second most in the league, only trailing the 8-17 Houston Rockets.
“You just have to play the game with a little of ball security to win a basketball game,” Vogel said of his team after they turned it over 22 times against the Grizzlies. “So we’re going to continue to have disappointing losses if we turn over the ball like that.”
“Well, tonight turnovers killed us,” LeBron James echoed following that loss. “That’s been our Achilles heel before... and tonight it bit us in the butt.”
And although turnovers in and of themselves are almost never a good thing, they do come in different shapes and sizes, and it has been the types of giveaways that have been a frustrating staple of the club this season. There have been too many instances where passes have been either lazy, sailed past their intended target or simply represented a sheer lack of ball-security overall.
For a team that is also still trying to solidify their defense (16th in defRTG), the amount of easy chances they’re serving up to the opposition in the form of breakaways continues to stunt their growth on that end. Not only is the group 24th in opponent’s transition frequency (26th in opponent's transition points added off steals), they’ve also already given up 446 total points off turnovers, the fourth-highest tally in the NBA as of this article.
When it comes to either allowing second chances, or giving the ball away, there is always going to be a degree of focus that is necessary to prevent both issues, which in theory is an attribute that a veteran heavy team like this one should have down pat. However — like the fact that they’ve fought for only the fifth-fewest loose balls indicates — that focus, hustle and downright want, fluctuates. And at times, this team of future hall-of-famers with few career try-hards among them appear to think such grinding is beneath them.
“I’ve seen it happen with our group this year,” Vogel remarked when asked if he’s been surprised with the casualness and slippage that leads to blown leads from a team full of veteran players. “We have to keep our foot on the gas and continue to play. You’d hope that it’s not like that, and that’s not the case, but we have seen it with this group. And we’ve just got to find a way to prevent that from happening.”
There are enough glimmers on-the-court to believe the Lakers are close to turning a corner. Like being in possession of the eight-best net rating in the league since the start of December, and handily beating the exact inferior Thunder team they fell to twice this season, despite being without Davis in the lineup.
“Yeah, I’m really proud of our group for taking the lessons of last night’s game (vs. the Grizzlies), where we failed to make the simple play, and to see the open man in front of us, and try to force things to certain guys,” Vogel said on Friday night after the team’s win.
“We really bought into this morning’s film session and tried to have carryover into tonight’s game... so I am really proud of our guys for applying the lessons of last night.”
But like most things in life, a team is unable to build upwards, or move towards their desired destination without having the stable footing to get started. This base, and prerequisite work, could be everything and anything from boxing out your man, valuing the extra pass, and ultimately just comes down to respecting your opponent and executing the fundamentals of basketball on a consistent basis, while also learning from past mistakes. And to do so every night. Not just after an embarrassing loss.
There is plenty of context as to why the Lakers are not currently playing at up to the level many — including themselves — expected to at this stage. And while acknowledging the reality of injuries, a new roster and acknowledging this is an older team is important, it often comes back to those details within the margins that make the biggest difference.
As of now, the Lakers are getting a taste of what death by a thousand cuts feels like, and if they want to actually turn their season around rather than just constantly talking about it, it will be up to them to bandage up and finally get to work.