This past summer, the Los Angeles Lakers put a clear emphasis on adding more offensive firepower around their superstar duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, even going as far as trading for another star in Russell Westbrook, a.k.a. “Mr. Tripe Double.” The drastic shift in style and sheer number of new additions has created a learning curve for just about everyone on the team, but no one has been affected more than Frank Vogel.
Vogel, who’s in the midst of his third season as the Lakers’ head coach, came to Los Angeles in 2019 with the reputation of being a defense-first coach, and the roster he was given in his first season reflected that. In his second season, he had less defensive talent to work with on paper, but the culmination of his team’s continuity and defensive scheme led to them ending the regular season with the best defense in the NBA.
This season, they’ve have struggled on both ends of the floor.
Through 23 games, the Lakers are ranked 22nd in offensive rating (106.2) and 16th in defensive rating (107.9), which gives them an overall net rating of -1.7, the eighth-worst net rating in the league. The only team with a worse net rating in the top-half of the Western Conference is the Memphis Grizzlies (-4.6).
The offensive struggles are nothing new for the Lakers. Last season, they ranked 24th in offensive rating (109,8), and one of two teams with a positive net rating (+2.9) and a bottom-10 offense; the New York Knicks were the other.
The difference between last season and this season is that they no longer have the benefit of familiarity or the defensive talent to bridge that gap. That’s probably why Vogel has relied so heavily on Avery Bradley this season: He knows the scheme well and, if nothing else, his effort on defense is consistent.
But Vogel can’t depend on Bradley like he did in the 2019-20 regular season, nor can he play DeAndre Jordan in the JaVale McGee role. For better or for worse, this isn’t the team he won a championship with, and regardless of if it’s fair to him or not, he needs to adapt quickly, starting with his first five.
The Lakers’ starters, when healthy, have been decent. To be more specific, since Vogel has rolled out 11 different starting lineups due to his team’s injuries, the starting lineup of Westbrook, Bradley, James, Davis and Jordan hasn’t been bad.
In the 28 minutes they’ve played together through three games, they’ve posted a net rating of +4.9, which is the fourth-highest net rating of any Lakers lineup that’s played at least 20 minutes together. It’s a small sample size, but so are the sample sizes for just about every lineup the Lakers have played this season. In fact, only nine lineups have played more than 20 minutes together this season.
But the question with the Lakers’ starters shouldn’t be “are they good?” — it should be “can they be better?” And the answer to that question is “absolutely,” particularly on offense.
The aforementioned starting lineup has posted a defensive rating of 93.4, which, make no mistake, is really good — like, “best defense in the NBA” good. The problem is that they play like the worst offensive team in the league when they share the floor, and when you look at the numbers of who’s in the starting lineup, it’s not hard to see why.
Bradley, in 21 games for the Lakers, has posted the second-worst offensive rating on the team at 98.6, including 95.9 in 16 games as a starter, the latter of which is the third-worst offensive rating of any guard that’s started at least 10 games this season. Per 100 possessions, the Lakers are 10.6 points better on offense with him on the bench.
And the worst part? His defense isn’t much better. In fact, the Lakers give up 109.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, which is 4.1 points more than they give up with him on the bench. Combined, it’s all why the team is never better in terms of net rating than when he sits, and never worse than when he plays. Even if Vogel thinks those numbers don’t reflect reality or exaggerate Bradley’s struggles, they certainly aren’t good.
He’s not the worst defender on the team — Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington and James all have worse defensive ratings than he does — but his combination of bad defense and bad offense makes him the least-impactful player on the team by a lot. The only player that comes close is Jordan.
Jordan, though slow-footed, has actually been solid for the Lakers on defense as a whole. Yes, his defense (or lack thereof) in pick-and-roll situations is as frustrating for fans as it is costly for the Lakers, but he grades out surprisingly pretty well on defense.
Per 100 possessions, the Lakers give up 4 fewer points on defense with Jordan on the floor than they do with him on the bench. When you cut out garbage time minutes, that number jumps up to 6.5 points, which is his highest defensive point differential since 2016-17 season, when he was an All-Star and an All-NBA defender, per Cleaning The Glass.
Jordan’s defense isn’t the problem, or it at least isn’t the main one; it’s what the Lakers’ turn into on offense with him on the floor. In the 863 minutes the Lakers have played with Jordan on the bench, they’ve posted an offensive rating of 108.3, which is 11.4 points more than what they score per 100 possessions with Jordan on the court. 11.4 points more!
To put things into perspective, the Detroit Pistons, who own the league’s worst offensive rating (99.8), score 2.9 more points per 100 possessions than the Lakers with Jordan on the floor. With Jordan on the bench, the Lakers have been in the middle of the pack in terms of offensive rating.
There was some logic in Vogel wanting to see if Jordan, a three-time All-NBA defender, just wasn’t utilized properly in his last few stops — after all, he did salvage the careers of Bradley, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo in his first season — but enough time has passed to where we can confidently say that his supporting cast in Brooklyn wasn’t the problem.
Fortunately, it sounds like Vogel has come to that realization too. Jordan only played a hair over four minutes in the Lakers’ 117-92 win over the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday and after the game, Vogel praised Howard for the energy he played with and his defensive discipline.
“He’s more familiar with what we do,” Vogel said. “He came in and just really set the tone with physicality, with effort, communication, and obviously helped us on the boards. And you see his plus-minus was +27, so just a hell of a night for him.”
It’s certainly possible that Vogel gives Jordan another chance when the Lakers play his former team, the LA Clippers, on Friday, but it would be a decision worthy of heavy scrutiny. Howard was tremendous against the Kings, and there’s recent evidence that suggests that he can provide that type of production on a consistent basis. The same can’t be said of Jordan.
Vogel clearly wanted to plant some of the seeds of success that he had with the 2019-20 team by starting Bradley and bringing Howard off of the bench as an energy guy — and with only six players from that roster on this year’s team, it’s hard to blame him — but he hasn’t had enough success with this roster to get comfortable. A quarter of the season has gone by, and the Lakers hardly look more cohesive than they did on opening night.
Plus, there are just better flat-out players at his disposal. This roster isn’t perfect, but it’s not hard to imagine the starting lineup looking better with Malik Monk and Howard starting in place of Bradley and Jordan, respectively. Jordan’s mobility alone makes the Lakers more dynamic on defense, and Monk’s a better shooter than Bradley from just about everywhere on the floor.
It’s also worth noting that Monk is one of only two players with a positive point differential on both offense and defense. Austin Reaves is the other, and both of them are upgrades over Bradley.
Now, is it fair to pin all of the Lakers’ struggles on just two players? Of course not. Basketball is a team sport, and they’re not the only ones that have hurt their team this season; they’re not even the only starters with negative point differentials. Davis, whose -4.1 point differential is by far the worst of the big three, deserves as much criticism as anyone.
But when you look at this roster and what can be fixed, Bradley and Jordan stand out as two players that can be replaced with relative ease; the same can’t be said of Davis, or even Vogel, for that matter. Hopefully, with Bradley sidelined and Jordan seemingly sliding down the pecking order, Vogel can give other players extended looks with the starting unit while they wait for James to return so they can try to have some better answers to hit the ground running when he’s back.