Maybe, just maybe, the Lakers are starting to figure things out. Since a humiliating triple-overtime loss to the lowly Sacramento Kings on Black Friday, the Lakers have won three of the last four games, and the latest rumblings about Frank Vogel’s are cautiously optimistic for Vogel.
The turnaround has come as Russell Westbrook has elevated his play, LeBron James has remained healthy despite a false-alarm COVID-19 scare, and the Lakers have continued to employ the “bigger, faster, stronger” tempo-pushing approach led by their two superstar ballhandlers.
The Lakers initially hoped that their style of play would be reminiscent of the bruising approach that carried them to a 2020 NBA championship, but that team had an incredibly stout defense that led to fast breaks off of misses and turnovers. These Lakers have a defensive rating of 108.4, 15th in the NBA and a huge part of why the team was just 10-11 after that loss to the Kings. The Lakers ranked third in defensive rating in 2019-20 and memorably had the NBA’s best defense last year despite missing James and Anthony Davis for huge chunks of time.
This year, though Vogel’s squad has not only struggled to find consistency on defense, but also consistency in general, prompting the coaching staff to consider some drastic alterations in their style of play, per Dave McMenamin of ESPN:
The Lakers’ 13-12 start to the season has already caused Vogel’s job to be questioned. They’ve cycled through 12 different starting lineups in those 25 games, the second most in the league, behind the Philadelphia 76ers. The injuries and inconsistency have led the coaching staff to put everything on the table and ponder whether they have to change their high-paced plan on the fly, sources told ESPN.
And pushing the pace wasn’t just an attempt to get back to what worked during the Lakers’ last title run, but also get the most out of James and Westbrook at the same time, according to McMenamin’s report:
The organization’s thinking was that to maximize two great open-court players — and keep the teammates happy who signed up to surround them — L.A. would push the pace, with Westbrook as the catalyst.
“What it takes care of is shot attempts for everybody,” Lakers assistant coach David Fizdale, who was on the Miami Heat’s staff a decade ago when James and Dwyane Wade attempted their own two-man tango, told ESPN. “You don’t have a guy very often saying, ‘Man, well, I never touched the ball.’ Well, we got 125 possessions, 130 possessions in the game. You should have.”
The Lakers are averaging only 101.32 possessions per game, but that number is still higher than anyone else in the NBA, other than a rebuilding Houston Rockets team. Unlike that young Rockets roster, however, these Lakers — as you have probably heard by now — are old, and already struggling to maintain depth with key offseason pickups Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn yet to step foot on the court this season.
The Lakers have also been criticized for being turnover-prone, but teams with lots of possessions typically account for lots of turnovers. While the Lakers’ 15.8 turnovers per game is the third-highest in the league, they don’t turn the ball over quite as much per 100 possessions (15.2), and that mark is only ninth-highest in the NBA, just above the Clippers. Regardless, the Golden State Warriors rank above the Lakers in both categories, and they more than compensate for those issues with a similarly successful combination of high-volume offense and fastbreak-creating defense.
That brings us to the central tension of this entire Lakers roster — this team is built to score and score fast, but it’s a lot harder to score fast when your defense can’t get stops on the other end. And for as good as James and Davis are on the defensive end when locked in, it’s hard for any unit that’s reliant on guys like Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and the ghost of DeAndre Jordan to get stops. And how Vogel navigates the conflict between who the 2021-22 Lakers are, and who they’re intended to be may very well determine his future as Lakers head coach.