With only 31 games left in the season, the Lakers continue to find themselves in basketball limbo. The recent return of Anthony Davis sparked optimism that the team could finally propel themselves out of their season-long holding pattern by getting their core trio back on the floor together in time to build momentum for the final stretch. However, between Davis’ hurt wrist and swelling in LeBron James’ knee, those hopes have once again been put back on ice.
But despite who has — and has not — been available, basketball is still being played, and the club is still trying to figure out how to scrape enough wins together to hold down the fort. And although the results have been mixed, there continue to be encouraging results, quirks, and also areas that have ample room for improvement.
What follows are just the latest examples of each.
Russell Westbrook... in space!
Russell Westbrook, the player — and the person — can often feel complicated. The league’s very own Rubik's cube, a player so polarizing that his merits and flaws will likely continue to be debated by whatever sentient life replaces the human race eons from now.
But at the end of the day, Westbrook is just someone who knows what he likes. And what he likes is getting to the rim.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Westbrook has rattled off a (bulldozing) rim frequency percentage of 40% or more in nine of his 14 seasons in the league. While that may not come to much of a surprise given Westbrook’s athletic prowess through the years, what is far more shocking is the fact that he’s posting the second-highest segment of his shots coming within four-feet of his career this season.
Although Westbrook’s ability to get to the cup has not experienced a drop-off at age 33, his waning efficiency once there has been one of areas where the team will hope to see improvement.
Fortunately, there are encouraging indicators that suggest the coaching staff can strategically deploy different strategies to help Westbrook see an uptick in his efficiency at the basket. The biggest of those adjustments is tinkering who he shares the floor with.
As the table above illustrates, Westbrook has performed exponentially better in his chances around the basket when the likes of Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan have been off the floor compared to when they have been on.
One of the biggest factors in this is the additional bodies those centers individually pull into the restricted area given their occupation of the dunker spot on the floor. Howard and Jordan’s inability to space their defenders out or possess any perimeter gravity only compounds Westbrook’s own struggles with his jumper, which allows the opposition to load up on his drives to the paint.
In contrast, when the two bigs have been on the bench, Westbrook has noticeably been more able to get downhill and thrive in the team’s spread pick and roll game where opposing bigs cannot simply camp out at the rim and await his arrival.
Although Davis has had his own ailments with his perimeter stroke, the sheer attention he requires from the defense as an overall scoring threat contextually explains why Westbrook’s numbers actually go up when the duo share the floor compared to the team’s other bigs.
Frank Vogel has already hinted that Davis and James will likely serve as the team’s predominant centers going forward when both are healthy. If that’s the case, it will open up even more consistent space for Westbrook to get to the rack like he has this year at an almost career-best rate. The difference is, this time more makes may follow upon his lightning strikes down the lane.
All they have to do is help him, help them.
Stanley Johnson’s perpetual flare screens
In another lifetime, Stanley Johnson may have carved out a career for himself as a professional roller derby player.
At 6’7,” chiseled, and with a default-setting that routinely sees him on the move, Johnson has also displayed a knack for getting physical, often crashing into the opposition in the form of setting flare screens for his teammates. It’s a tendency that was recently pointed out and praised by the club’s other young “dirty work” All-Star, Austin Reaves.
Like he’s playing his own personal game of bumper cars, Johnson consistently darts in front of, beside, and sometimes behind the opposition to deter their ability to close out to Lakers’ shooters. Whether the screen-setting is by design or instinct, the off-ball utility is an especially important attribute for players who are not traditionally stronger perimeter threats themselves, as it takes advantage of the space allotted in a productive and proactive fashion.
Although he's currently averaging just under 21 minutes, Johnson already ranks third on the team in both screen assists (1.5) and screen assist points (3.5) per contest. And in terms of his overall impact to the team’s 3-point shooting, the Lakers are converting 38.9% of their above the break chances, and 38.7% of their 3-point attempts overall when the 25-year-old is on the floor this season.
For a team that often lacks oomph, Johnson provides quite a lot of it. Their very own one-man screen-setting wrecking crew, gladly and frequently scouring the floor for someone to collide with.
The Lakers spiraling rim-protection
There are a myriad of reasons for the Lakers’ recent struggles, most of which often tie back to who has not been on the floor. However, one reoccurring issue continues to be their inability to protect the rim effectively enough to squeak out wins, no matter who is on the court.
On the season, the team ranks 24th in the league in opponent FG% at the rim after finishing the last two seasons 16th and fourth-best, respectively. In January, this trend has only taken a further downward spiral, as the team has laid out the red carpet to basket for their opposition on a nightly basis.
This month, the Lakers have allowed the sixth-highest FG% (69.2%) to their opponents in the entire league, and also rank dead last in terms of shot frequency percentage they have allowed within four feet of the basket, according to Cleaning the Glass.
There are contextual reasons that are worth pointing out for why this may be happening, like Davis only just now returning to the lineup, a revolving door of player combinations, the other centers not offering enough resistance, and the team downsizing overall.
But even with those things taken into account, there also has to be a certain threshold for executing defensive principles more consistently, regardless of who is on the floor. The coaching staff also needs to put the players who are in the best position to succeed.
The combination of the team struggling at the point of attack, and when they choose to switch everything vs. play in drop coverage/funnel (even when playing small) has been puzzling, and has resulted in many many lobs over the top. The low-man help being too slow — or sometimes too fast — in tagging or rotating has hurt their weak-side defense. And losing track of their man altogether on back-cuts, dying on screens, etc, has been an all-too-regular occurrence.
These poor defensive habits have come back to bite the team at critical junctures, especially in crunch time recently.
Within the the Lakers’ last two fourth quarters, they have allowed the Hornets and Hawks to convert 12 of their 13 chances at the rim. And with both games ultimately being decided by a slim margin, the spotlight on the team’s lack of rim protection will only grow brighter as it continues to be an Achilles heel in their attempts to right the ship.
As the Lakers continue to wait for reinforcements, there still are areas of the game where tangible improvement needs to be seen and felt.
There is no denying the circumstances are suboptimal, and that the club ultimately should not be evaluated fully until the likes of James, Davis and Westbrook can string together at least a few more games as a group. But until then, what happens on-the-floor should also not just be swept under the rug, especially with the team quickly running out of breathing room.
The right combinations of players need to be deployed, rudimentary technique and effort needs to be displayed, and making the most out of even rough situations needs to be of the foremost importance with the number of games remaining starting to shrivel away.