50 games into the season, it’s safe to assume that this year has not gone the way the Los Angeles Lakers envisioned. Coming off arguably the hardest championship run in NBA history (at least according to LeBron James), Laker fans had high hopes entering this season.
And can you blame them? The team was blessed with a stacked roster in the offseason, making on-paper upgrades in free agency and in trades that had the majority of fans and pundits thinking they were once again the favorites to win it all. LeBron James looked like he was only getting better, while Anthony Davis was expected to take another leap after a spectacular playoff run last season.
Little did Laker fans know they were about to experience painful days, almost unwatchable games and moments when all they can do is let out a huge sigh. From the famous “Lakers in 5!” — a phrase that seems to trend on Twitter often as the team limps towards the playoffs — to “wait till AD and Bron get healthy” this season has been spent searching for theoretical reasons to celebrate more than actual celebrations, thanks to the injury bug.
But it’s not over just yet. If there’s one thing the defending champions know how to do it’s rise above adversity, something they did quite well last season.
Unlike last season however, the main adversity the team has dealt with this year is the amount of injuries they continue to endure. Now that the Lakers have played a handful of games without James and Davis this season, there are a number of insights that we can glean from this stretch.
The Lakers’ defense remains elite
Even without their two best players, the Lakers have the second best defense rating in the NBA over the past 12 games. Don’t listen to Tim Bontemps or others that say the Lakers’ defense isn’t good enough. Their team defense is elite, and that’s a testament to both head coach Frank Vogel, and his team’s ability to execute.
The Lakers are allowing 2.8 points less (101.3) per game than the second-best defensive team in the league, the New York Knicks (104.1). When locked in, the team is constantly communicating on that end of the floor and have been on point with their hands, feet, individual switching and help defense. This is something that has been displayed for well over two weeks now, and no longer a fluke. They are legit good on this end of the floor.
The role players are showing they can step up
It’s time to give Markieff Morris, Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol their flowers. These three players may have been in and out of the rotation this season, but they have stepped up in the past couple of games. Morris in particular has raised his game, scoring in double figures in six of the last seven appearances. He’s been getting more touches, specifically post ups and tough turnarounds and fadeaways that he’s able to capitalize on. Matthews has finally sort of found his rhythm from deep, while Gasol responded well to his limited opportunities, even after switching roles with Andre Drummond.
Of course, the constant efforts of Dennis Schroder (who’s usage has significantly increased), Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell shouldn’t be overlooked. They’re three role players who will at least give something every game. And despite rarely making noise in the stat sheet, Alex Caruso has shot 48.4% from three since James went down, and has been making better pick and roll reads. Kentavious Caldwell Pope’s scoring (at least in some games) is always a welcome sight to see.
If there’s one silver lining from the Lakers’ current situation, it’s at least that the role players have the opportunity to develop their game and increase their ceiling. They’re being pushed out of their comfort zone right now, which can hopefully build their momentum and confidence moving forward.
Competition for minutes could be a good thing
We saw how Gasol responded when Drummond took his starting role, and it may not be a coincidence that Caldwell Pope scored 28 points on the same day Ben McLemore arrived. McLemore is ideally insurance for Caldwell Pope or Matthews, but based on the past, Vogel is never afraid of switching up his rotations. Vogel and his staff are notorious for utilizing the regular season to experiment with their lineups. How will the players respond and earn their minutes? One thing they can do now is to tread water and maximize the situation they find themselves in.
A couple of adjustments the team has made without their superstars have been increasing their three point attempts, speed and changing up their rotation. For example, the Lakers are taking 36.8 threes over their last 13 games since James went down, up from 31.2 on the season. Their pace has jumped from 18th to 11th since James’ injury, which makes sense given that the speedy and energetic Schroder, Horton Tucker and Caruso have been handling the ball more. Vogel has also hinted that he will try playing Gasol and Harrell together (with the former playing the 5 defensively and 4 offensively) so it’s going to be interesting to observe if this eventually happens moving forward.
The stagnant offense
Unlike the team’s defense, the offense has clearly fallen off. The Lakers are 29th in offensive rating since James’ injury, scoring only 101.3 points per 100 possessions. This was somewhat expected given that the team is built around its superstars, and they don’t have a choice but to play without them for now. The team was already a high turnover team before James and Davis’ injuries (15.5% TOV rate on the year, 26th in the league) and it has even gotten worse (18.7% TOV rate since April, 29th in the league).
They managed to defeat non-playoff teams (and the defensively inept Brooklyn Nets) but against other contenders like the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, their offense was clearly the problem. The Lakers tend to become stagnant and fall into bad habits during games. An example is how they tend to fall in love with the three point line when they see their shots going in the first quarter—something that happened versus the Bucks and the Toronto Raptors. The team must work on taking care of the ball, making reads and finding the open man.
Are the Lakers really okay with falling down in the standings?
The playoffs are six weeks away, and it’s time for a reality check: The Lakers will not be a top-seeded team in the Western Conference even when James and Davis come back. This means they can either overtake the Denver Nuggets for the fourth seed, remain in the fifth seed or fall to the sixth and possibly the play-in tournament. Vogel and multiple players have made it clear that standings don’t really matter to the team, but at what cost?
Do the Lakers really want to see a healthy and improved Clippers team or perhaps a Phoenix Suns team in the first round? Of course, the odds will favor the defending champions if they are healthy, but these two teams are poised to be threats, especially if the Lakers aren’t at 100 percent. One advantage the Lakers had in last year’s playoff run was that they faced non-contenders at the start and managed to sneak in rest in between each series—there’s a good chance that this won’t happen this time around.
Less playing time together could decrease this team’s ceiling
One reason why the Lakers succeeded last season was because of the chemistry they built on and off the court. Vogel knew the right lineups to use because of constant film study and experimentation. Unfortunately, it’s been the opposite this year, especially with such a tight schedule. The lack of playing time together and new additions to the roster will certainly affect the team (for better or worse) moving forward.
For example, the team’s best lineup this season was the old starting lineup of Gasol, Davis, James, Caldwell-Pope and Schroder, which had a plus-13.9 net rating in 280 minutes. This lineup will clearly change since Drummond has become the starting center, but it can still be a reliable closing group. It’s going to be interesting to see what Vogel does with the lineups moving forward. If there’s one encouraging thing about Vogel, it’s his ability to pick the best lineups for every matchup and situation the team finds itself in. Maybe the lack of familiarity creates difficulties, or maybe the lack of tape on their best units gives them an advantage.
Either way, we’ll find out soon.
At this point, the Lakers’ success for the remainder of the regular season is all going to be relative. Their chances of climbing up the fourth seed and gaining home court advantage for the playoffs just got a little more realistic because of how they’ve treaded water and unfortunate injuries to other contenders, but they can also fall down given the difficulty of their own schedule. But those things are all somewhat outside of their control. Their main priority right now has to just be getting healthy, because for them to defend their title, their health is most certainly their wealth.
Nicole Ganglani is a lifelong Lakers fan and basketball journalist in the Philippines. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.