When a team only wins a single exhibition game in the preseason and then proceeds to start the regular season winless through their first three games, it’s never just one reason that fully encapsulates the struggles. For these Lakers, then, we could point to any number of variables and, in reality, should be pointing to all of them in order to provide all the necessary context.
In the preseason, beyond the unserious nature of how the team approached the second half of most of the exhibition games, a key reason offered by many of the players was the lack of continuity stemming from a nearly totally overhauled roster and a new head coach. The team needed to learn to play together and those reps would take time. Only adding to that lack of continuity, however, was the general lack of health the team experienced combined with the decision to rest several veterans who, if the games had higher stakes, would have likely suited up.
Heading into the real games, the health issues that plagued the team in preseason remained and that injury uncertainty impacted the team’s rotation. With Dennis Schröder and Thomas Bryant both out with thumb injuries and Troy Brown dealing with back issues, three rotation players were suddenly out of the mix. Brown, thankfully, is now back, but now Russell Westbrook is doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Denver with the same hamstring issue that limited him in the team’s final preseason game.
While the injuries and the resulting challenges stemming from them have certainly mattered, and the full context of how the season has played out to this point can’t be told without highlighting them, the bigger issues aren’t really about who is or isn’t playing, but more about when and how they play. In other words, the Lakers are where they are because several of their players aren’t playing well enough when they do play.
While Westbrook’s struggles have gotten a lot of headlines (some more deserved and on point than others), it’s also the play of Kendrick Nunn (26.3% FG and a minus-44 in the boxscore in 44 minutes played) and Damian Jones (three total rebounds, several dropped/missed passes, minus-14 in 13 minutes) who have not lived up to the general level expected of them. Russ is a starter and both Nunn and Jones were viewed as strong possibilities to start heading into camp. To have all three playing to the level they are is particularly rough considering their primary alternatives are out injured.
There’s also room for Darvin Ham to receive some critiques here, particularly for some of the lineup decisions he’s made to close games and the lack of strategic adjustments to how both the Clippers and the Blazers switched their matchups vs. Russ in defending him with their centers. Ham has gotten so much out of this team defensively that I don’t want to heap too much blame on him, but his team lost two winnable games down the stretch in part because of the offensive limitations of the lineups that were deployed to close things out. If those are the groups that are going to play — which based on his explanation of defensive versatility is a defensible idea — it’s not always just on the players to play better, but also on the coaches to have the schematic plans and counters to aid them in doing so.
Moving forward, then, there’s a renewed sense of urgency that needs to be shown from all sides.
For players like Nunn — who is going to remain in the rotation and continue to get chances to be the bench scorer he was signed to be — and Jones — who is very likely going to see run in the coming matchups for big teams like the Nuggets and T’Wolves — the push to be better, and now, is right in front of them. Both players have looked like less certain and less confident versions of the players they were when camp opened. I understand that self-belief can be fickle, but the only way to recapture that is to play to your strengths and understand how you can impact the game on your own terms within the asks made of you.
For Nunn, I’d love to see him operate more out of handoff situations rather than running pick-and-rolls where he’s forced into making plays off a live dribble. Nunn is a capable playmaker, but he can be susceptible to ball pressure, which can result in poorer decisions and turnovers. The way teams are defending him in the P&R is only exacerbating those challenges. For Jones, he continues to need to think less and play to his instincts more. His best assets are his physical tools, but those tools become dulled if he’s a step slow or behind because he’s overthinking. Both players need to simplify their games more and go from there.
For Russ, once he is back in the lineup, it’s very likely that he’s going to need to adjust his approach mentally as much as physically. I would not be surprised if, when Russ does return, his role will be diminished with little guarantee he’ll close (or even start) games. The adjustment to playing that type of role and doing so with the same engagement defensively is instrumental to his and the team’s success. Offensively, despite whatever athletic decline Russ is experiencing, he’s better than the player he’s shown to be to begin this season. There’s a certain amount of focus and commitment that Russ will need to show regardless of what his role is and his willingness to do it will be the main thing I’ll be watching for when he’s back to playing.
And, in terms of Ham, I think we are fast approaching a point where whatever hopes he had about sticking with a specific starting lineup or giving players a chance to fulfill the roles he envisioned before the season are up for being reevaluated. I’m not saying absolute changes must be made, but in a western conference that is looking to be even more competitive than expected, there’s not a lot of room to stick with things for too long if they’re absolutely not working.
Ultimately, I trust that Ham has the right feel and temperament for whatever decisions are coming. Just as I trust that, as players do get healthy, the availability of more options will offer a roadmap for putting together better fitting and more complete lineups that offer both better balance and higher offensive upside. Until then, though, it’s on everyone to treat this upcoming stretch with the urgency required and start to help the team get out of this hole they’ve dug before it gets deeper.
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