Already on the heels of a loss to the Clippers — a game which they arguably should have also won — the Lakers matinee with the Blazers reinforced the full gambit of the team’s strengths and weaknesses thus far. For every stretch where the club feels on the precipice of breaking through their ceiling, there is a matching moment where their floor feels as if it's sinking right down toward the earth’s core.
What follows are just three examples of the highlights and lowlights from a team still very much in search of middle ground.
The (very) early returns on the team’s ‘drop’ coverage
Although Darvin Ham’s hands have not fully taken control of the Lakers’ steering wheel as of yet, his unique fingerprints are already being seen and felt on a game-to-game basis.
Only three games into his head-coaching career, Ham has already incorporated a few trademarks from his time with Milwaukee within his new team. Most notably, establishing the 4-out and 1-in spacing alignment on offense, and playing a drop coverage on defense.
The drop coverage scheme essentially calls for the big to drop down when defending a pick and roll. Either “deep” which sees a center establish a hold of the free-throw line/’nail’ and below like Brook Lopez has traditionally done with the Bucks, or “up to touch” which sees the defender higher toward the ball-handler, preventing a potential 3-point attempt before backpedaling into the restricted area.
This in theory will deter the opposition from getting to the rim and instead encourage more midrange-heavy looks. So far, this has exactly been the case for the Lakers thanks to their guards’ screen navigation and Anthony Davis doing a tremendous job playing what Ham calls “center field.”
“It’s more of a Milwaukee system how they have the bigs back in the paint,” Davis said during the team’s training camp. “For me, I’m more up on the ball, ‘Let me affect the play.’ So that’s the biggest difference for me. It’s something that I’m trying to transition to. Not helping as much. Letting the guys on the ball do their thing. Staying out of plays when it’s not my assignment.”
With Davis’ ability to both meet and retreat at the level of the ball, as well as still producing perennial fear as a backline defender, this has allowed his teammates to recover and offer back pressure to their man once coming off the initial screen. The skeleton of the scheme makes sense, and so far so have the results.
Through their first three games, the Lakers have allowed the sixth-lowest percentage of shots at the rim and also forced the second-highest ‘long-midrange’ (shots outside of 14 feet but within the 3-point line) frequency to their opposition according to Cleaning the Glass. It’s early, but the formula seems to be working as not only are they dictating shot diets, but are also tied for 2nd in defRTG as of this article.
The game plan is not without weaknesses, however, especially when Davis is the sole big on the floor. Given Davis’ usual responsibility to engage with any strong-side action and also having to contest near the rim, this has left the rest of the lineup (who are often small) to box out their bigger opposition. This has gone pretty much as well as one would expect as the team ranks 20th in their opposition’s offREB% and 22nd in putback plays per 100 misses.
Although not the sole feature of their defense as we’ve also seen quite a bit of switching, the team’s ability to function within a drop is a good tool to have in its kit, which is showing to have surprisingly more capacity than previously expected.
Lost in outer space
Even if you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the Lakers' inability to make a 3-pointer. Mostly because there are cold stretches, and there is whatever the hell the Lakers are on right now. I’m talking Kurt Russell with a beard of ice in The Thing levels of cold.
After shooting a mere 18.2% from behind the arc against the Blazers, a game in which they lost by just two points, the Lakers have now converted only 25-of-118 of their 3-point attempts on the season (21.2%). According to ESPN Stats and Info, this mark ranks second-worst all-time among teams who have attempted at least 100 threes within a 3-game span.
It is no secret that the roster as currently constructed was ever expected to be linked to the league’s upper echelon when it comes to shooting ability. However, what was always presumed to be an inherent flaw has quickly turned into a full-on affliction.
“We’re getting great looks, but it could also be teams giving us great looks,” LeBron James himself admitted following the team’s opening night loss when they missed 30 of their 40 attempts from deep.
“To be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting. That’s just the truth of the matter. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.”
As James noted, opposing defenses have already begun to pack the paint, played zone, and even turned their backs on the Lakers’ shooters with the confidence that the team simply is unable to make them pay. And so far, they've been proven right.
According to Synergy, the Lakers have yielded a woeful 0.5 points per possession on their unguarded catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. This not only ranks last in the NBA, but for context, the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked 30th last year by scoring 1.04 points per chance. A number that doubles the Lakers' current output.
Fortunately, even the team’s biggest detractors likely agree that the team’s 3-point shooting is due for some positive regression to the mean sometime soon. Regardless if all that equates to is a below-average shooting team, that is still a massive upgrade to the team’s performance up until now.
While a few more makes here and there may feel trivial in the long run, in the short term, those extra points very well could have been the difference between the Lakers being 2-1 compared to the 0-3 hole they currently find themselves.
Coming up short in the clutch
It was at the 1:56 minute mark of the 4th quarter against Portland when LeBron James attacked baseline and finished a drive at the rim. The bucket gave the Lakers a seven-point lead and helped sway momentum firmly back onto their side. Unfortunately, it wouldn't stay there for long as the Blazers finished the game on an 11-2 run to cap off the come-from-behind win.
Even with the caveats of a tough schedule, a new roster, a new head coach and their aforementioned shooting struggles, the Lakers have had their chances. They should have multiple wins and yet, they don’t, because when it comes to executing during crunch time, they’ve come up short in two consecutive instances.
One of the biggest faults of their lowly late-game performances has been their inability to score within the half court.
According to the league’s “clutch” tracking data, which logs possessions when a point differential is five points or less coming within the last five minutes of a contest, the Lakers have shot 4-of-13 from the field and have also yet to make a 3-pointer.
Their low percentages have stemmed from disorganization in late game play design with a majority of their looks coming up against the clock (eight shot attempts have come “late” or “very late” into the shot clock) and in isolation. The poor shot selection has not entirely been by their own doing, however, as defenses have forced the Lakers into uncomfortable spacing situations specifically by how they have and have not covered Russell Westbrook.
Outside of simply sagging off of the guard on the perimeter, the Blazers like the Clippers before them also deployed their center on Westbrook in the late stages. This was a means to both be able to cheat off their assignment in order to offer help in the paint, and also, encourage him to shoot.
Westbrook is not only a team-worst minus-11 in fourth-quarter net rating this season, but has missed four of his six attempts from the field and both of his 3-point chances.
Although Westbrook’s inability to space the floor is not an issue he shares alone, his presence in the clutch has magnified the team’s collective weakness, and also, has derailed the rhythm as Ham has opted to bring him back later into games once the team had already created momentum while he was on the bench.
This disruption in the team’s half-court game has led to many ill-advised shots, clanked jumpers in particular. Perhaps highlighted best (or worst) by Westbrook’s befuddling early shot-clock pull-up with the team leading in the closing stretch against Portland.
To put the shot into context, according to ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, Westbrook became the first player in the last four seasons who attempted a jump shot with under 30 seconds to go and 15+ seconds left on the shot clock with their team up by 1 possession.
“Shot selection is something we have to work on, something that we have to get better at as we move forward, and understanding time and score, where you want to attack in those type of situations,” Ham told reporters following the game Sunday.
While alluding to Westbrook’s large individual gaffe, the sentiment is representative of the team’s broader struggles in cementing a late-game strategy. The approach has felt more improvised than scripted, and though that has advantages at times, it does often lead to more combustibility.
It may sometimes be as simple as subbing out a singular player for things to finally click, and even if that may be the case for the Lakers, multiple parties have also been at fault in failing to close out games. It would ultimately behoove everyone involved to iron out the kinks so they can establish a semblance of a crunch-time blueprint.
Although the Lakers will end their first week in brutal fashion, they have been inching closer and closer with each passing game and minute. The results have yet to arrive, but their effort certainly has and this is largely why much of the fanbase understandably feels deflated.
Their body may be too short at times and the arms not yet able to make shots, but this team has a soul. And hopefully sooner or later, it will be rewarded for it.