The concept of momentum is one of sports’ many paradoxes, mainly because it is not tangible.
An observer can’t always see momentum with their own eyes until after it happens. There is no official tracking or assigned statistician responsible for tallying it in the ledger after every game. However, when the tides begin to shift in the favor of one team, it’s also somehow unmistakable, as real as the athletes themselves.
For the Lakers — winners of four of their last five games — momentum seems to finally be in front of them after eluding their grasp for the majority of the season. LeBron James’ recent play has been a big reason for this, as he continues to not only perform like their star, but an entire solar system.
But it’s not James alone who is responsible for the team’s recent uptick in play, as a blossoming supporting cast has also stepped up when needed most. What follows are a few examples of how they’ve done so.
Malik Monk’s ghost-busting and popping
Sometimes all a player needs to flourish is a change of scenery, an opportunity, and — most of all — an arm designated solely for buckets. Malik Monk, who is still somehow only 23 years old, is just the latest example.
Amidst countless injuries and entries into the league’s health and safety protocols around him, Monk has been thrust into the Lakers’ starting lineup and has not only shown capable of holding up, but has thrived.
One of the biggest reasons for Monk’s success is directly tied into the innate chemistry he and James have forged within the team's new small-ball approach.
On the season, Lakers lineups that feature Monk and James at center are a +12.6 in net rating, while also sporting an inferno of an offensive rating (124.7) and eFG% (59.9%). According to Cleaning the Glass, both scoring marks rank in the 100th percentile among lineups that have played in at least 100 possessions.
Within a spaced floor, and having multiple guards/wings on the court at once, the team has turned to utilizing inverted screens (a small setting the pick for the big) to leverage James’ playmaking ability from the top of the key. Monk has emerged as both one of the premier benefactors and weapons in this action due to his seamless skillset.
By using his wiry frame, Monk has been able to to pick and pop behind the arc or slither into the middle of the floor when setting a pick for James, which has resulted in a lot of open jumpers and layups.
Monk has also excelled in “ghosting” the screen (acting like he is going to set a screen but moving prior to making contact), which has routinely put the opposition in the difficult predicament of attempting to contain James with the ball in his hands while also trying to race back toward Monk, who has already darted away into a pocket of space.
This utilization and partnership with James (Monk has a true shooting percentage of 68% with James on the floor, vs. 55% when he’s off) has not only led to encouraging results, but also has streamlined Monk’s offensive game. The guard is posting career highs in percentage of his shots coming via a 3-pointer (55%) and percentage of his makes coming via an assist (73%).
Although the circumstances that created this opportunity obviously weren’t ideal, Monk continues to make the most of his minutes, and in the process is staking his claim to remain a starter even when the rest of the roster becomes available.
Carmelo Anthony’s quick and timely trigger
If history has proven anything, it’s that Carmelo Anthony is not bashful about his jumper. Like a seasoned crack shot in a Western, Anthony loves to show off his marksmanship, effortlessly swishing jumpers from distance like an Old West Lawman showing off on the range, bulls-eyeing bottles lined up on top of a fence. And this season, he’s done it in record time.
According to the league’s tracking data, Anthony has already taken the 10th-most 3-point attempts that have come with a touch-time less than two seconds, as well as hoisting up the seventh-most bombs that have come “very early” (22-18 seconds) into the shot clock. And among players who have taken at least 50 such shots, Anthony leads them all with his 43.4% conversion rate.
Although there can be hiccups when deploying a player who shoots as a first, second and third option, there is a basketball alchemy brewing within the combination of the Lakers’ up-tempo pace and how Anthony’s skills meld perfectly within it.
After nearly every miss from an opponent, the Lakers continue to make a concerted effort to survey the floor for early offense chances. And although Anthony is not as spritely as he once was, his legs miraculously return to prime form when he senses a chance to run out for a jumper, filling the wing for hit-aheads with a gust of youth behind him.
Through his still beautiful shooting mechanics and wiliness, Anthony’s ability to let it fly before the defense can recover has led to some of the team’s most exciting moments. It’s also a big reason why Anthony ranks in the 91st percentile in transition offense (1.4 points per possession) despite being the oldest player on the already-old Lakers at age 37.
Anthony’s shooting has not only been swift this season, but timely. As a staple within the team's various closing lineups, Anthony has logged the third-most clutch minutes in the league this year, and has often lived up to the moment. His 47.1% shooting from behind the arc in crunch time ranks fifth-best among players who have played in at least 50 clutch minutes and have attempted at least 10 such shots.
Like a grizzled frontiersman from years past, Anthony still has flaws — and a few more wrinkles — but his gunslinging remains on point.
Avery Bradley and the art of improv
There is a lot of chaos to the style in which the Lakers play basketball. This is not necessarily a good or bad thing, and is actually a natural characteristic of a team that deploys the likes of Russell Westbrook.
However, when there is level of uncertainty on a possession-to-possession basis, a team needs a steadying presence to help grease the wheels into the right direction. Avery Bradley is one of these players. He is not big, or a particularly good shooter (even if he is making an under-the-radar 40% from three), or an exceptional athlete; but what Bradley is, is astute.
There are often offensive trips down the floor for the team where either James or Westbrook find themselves trapped in a crowd of defenders, and it’s in these moments when Bradley assesses the situation and makes his move. With his defender often sagging off of him to offer help on the ball, this is when Bradley Pink Panther’s himself into a window of space with a timely cut, and suddenly, he’s open for a layup.
On a team with several capable playmakers, Bradley is an escape-route creator, a basketball getaway driver when his teammates are in over their heads and need a quick exit.
But on this team, perhaps Bradley’s most valuable trait is that he does not need the ball. On a team with a variety of offensive options, the veteran simply fills in the gaps, keeps moving, and waits patiently for a pass (82% of his makes are assisted). His 10.4% usage rate would be the lowest of his career, and second-lowest among Laker players who are averaging at least 20 minutes per game.
Bradley’s understanding of movement, and more impressively, the timing in which he carves out space has also been a calming cog in the team’s small-ball renaissance. Often helping finish frenzied plays at the end of the shot clock (46.2% shooting with four or less seconds left) through his jumper or a timely cut (has converted on 12 of his 16 cuts), Bradley is like an expert at improv. A reliable provider of a punchline even when there isn’t one in the script.
The Lakers are ultimately still playing catch-up to a degree, especially with Anthony Davis continuing to be out of action. They’re attempting to incorporate new players seemingly daily, and navigating a league riddled with uncertainty. Despite all of this, there are enough signs to believe things are finally looking up.
Momentum is fickle. This squad has learned as much firsthand. However, between their recent play, and the contributions from multiple sources, this may be the instance where the ethereal concept is on the verge of favoring the purple and gold again.