There’s no sugarcoating a 3-10 record. It’s an ignominious mark to bear for any team. For the Lakers, a franchise whose entire ethos since arriving to Los Angeles has been built around the importance of winning — and doing a lot of it — their start to the season has been an outright disaster by the very definition they penned themselves.
Although it’s difficult to look at the half of the glass that is full in moments like these, the Lakers still have budding developments worth shining some light on. If for nothing else, it is because those unexpected surprises can add up and prove worth clinging onto, and investing in, even when the results may say otherwise.
What follows are a couple of those encouraging kernels and an underrated ailment to the team that just so happens to be bifold.
Russell Westbrook, Wenyen Gabriel, and their simpatico two-man game
For better and for worse, Russell Westbrook doesn't have an off-button. That toggle option was broken decades ago. It’s only “go,” and then go some more. He is destined, assuringly then, to take his last dribble within this human realm hellbent on challenging the very boundaries of the space-time continuum. His lay-up attempts will be scattered across the stars, frozen, and never-ending.
Outside of basketball fits, it is also difficult for players to mesh with Westbrook’s sheer force. The ideal teammate is someone who can not only keep up with the guard’s energy but also, be the quiet conduit for his fury. Enter: Wenyen Gabriel.
Gabriel plays like a bat out of hell whenever he steps on the floor. The big rim-runs like no tomorrow, crashes the glass without repent, and has limbs that can seemingly unravel from baseline to baseline.
The 25-year-old also has the demeanor of a saint. He is soft-spoken and thoughtful in interviews. He embraces the dirty work, almost as if he wouldn't want the wear and tear to be bestowed upon anyone else. His chance encounter with an Uber driver a few years ago was the perfect example.
This duality is a major reason why Westbrook and Gabriel meshed almost instantly since the former was moved to the bench.
Not only has Gabriel shown the capability of keeping pace with the point guard — allowing Westbrook to hit the jets with the knowledge someone will follow — but also has served as his life-preserver during the speed-wobbles.
This is because, beyond his athletic tools, Gabriel also has a feathery touch and impressive spatial awareness off-the-ball, as he constantly fills/empties the dunker spot or makes a timely flash cut that creates a passing window for Westbrook at just the right time.
Of Gabriel’s 16 assisted makes this season, Westbrook has served his plate 11 times, helping the former journeyman hit career-highs in efficiency early on.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Gabriel is currently converting his opportunities around the rim at an absurd 86% clip, largely due to being the benefactor to Westbrook’s dump-offs and routinely acting as his roll-man.
Westbrook and Gabriel are not LeBron James or Anthony Davis, but for the time being, the tandem is showing how impactful sharing a kinetic — and spiritual — wavelength can be.
Lonnie Walker’s jumper is getting a little help from his friends
As their poor record can attest, the Lakers haven't had many staggeringly positive developments thus far. However, the play, and more specifically streamlining, of Lonnie Walker’s offense may have the strongest case.
When the team handed the 23-year-old their $6.5 million taxpayer mid-level exception this past offseason, many were skeptical if the move was the wisest use of resources. The deal, which will only span this season, essentially was a move where both parties bet on themselves. Walker, jump-starting his career in a new environment. The Lakers, looking to manufacture their next success story as they had with Malik Monk the season prior.
So far, both are looking wise in their gambles. After a strong preseason, Walker catapulted his way past a crowded guard rotation into the starting lineup where he has since posted career-highs in minutes, points per shot attempt and eFG%
One major reason for the spikes in efficiency from a player who struggled in that department in his young career has been thanks to his willingness to do less. Specifically, in terms of his 3-point approach as he and the Lakers have fine-tuned his shot diet.
Walker’s long 2’s and midrange looks overall are at a career low, whereas his corner attempts and frequency at the rim are at a career-high. The where in this case, is also just as important as the how however, as the wing’s makes are also being assisted upon at the highest rates he’s experienced to date according to Cleaning the Glass.
All of his 3-point makes this season, for example, have come off a dish from a teammate.
While he is still prone to wanting to get to his jumper by his own doing — part of Walker’s utility is the ability to create his own looks — he is doing it far less than in seasons past.
Only 0.7% of his 3-point attempts this year have come after 3-6 dribbles according to the league’s tracking data — compared to his 4.8% output with the Spurs last year.
Essentially, there have been more: ‘here, shoot it!’ scenarios versus ‘here, do something with it!’
While his overall 3-point shooting percentage may not set the world on fire, the combination of the process, and his eagerness to adapt, are encouraging building blocks for Walker to go from below-average to a reliable weapon from deep.
His recent stretch is hopefully an indicator of that upswing taking effect.
Since the start of November (5 games), Walker has converted 60% of his above-the-break 3’s and 54% of his chances from behind the arc overall.
While obviously not sustainable, his continued emergence and willingness to let others make the game easier for him, and his jumper, could be the sign of things beginning to fall into place.
This is a Lonnie Walker appreciation postpic.twitter.com/yCEW5ELbFM— Silver Screen and Roll (@LakersSBN) November 14, 2022
The Lakers — not a good transition team (on both ends)
There are unfortunately a myriad of reasons the Lakers currently find themselves at 3-10. One of the most consistent, but under-the-radar ailments of the team has been their struggles in transition. These issues have not solely rested on one end of the floor, however, but instead, have bled through to both offense and defense.
According to Synergy, the Lakers have posted the 4th highest percentage (19.3%) of possessions coming in transition this season. This is unquestionably good, as the more opportunities the team can generate against a compromised defense the better especially given their shortcomings in the half-court.
However, when it comes to cashing in on their chances on the move, the team has routinely squandered their chances scoring just 1.01 points per transition possession which ranks 26th in the league as of this article.
The question as to why the massive discrepancy exists between volume and efficiency may come down to two factors: turnovers and 3-point misses.
On the season, the Lakers are turning the ball over 13.9% of the time in transition — 6th highest among all teams. Often a result of poor decision-making, even in the hands of the likes of James, the combination of the team’s errant passes and forced drives have directly led to the team handing their transition chance right over to the opposition.
While the shooting woes in the half court have gotten a majority of the spotlight, and for good reason, the Lakers have not fared much better in their early offense chances.
Even with the caveat that the roster isn’t loaded with long-range snipers, the team has shot themselves in the foot by taking ill-advised pull-ups and also, by simply failing to knock down their open chances.
According to the league’s tracking data, the team has converted just 15/61 (24.6%) of their 3-point attempts that have come very early into the shot-clock, which ranks 29th in the league.
For as poor as the Lakers’ transition offense has been, their transition defense has arguably been even worse.
According to Synergy, the team is currently allowing the 6th highest percentage of transition opportunities to the opposition on a nightly basis, also giving up the second-highest points per possession (1.23).
The team’s inability to consistently get back and build a wall of resistance has been an unchecked hole within what was a strong defense to start the year.
Since then, the leak in the foundation has only worsened, as opposing teams are routinely punishing the Lakers’ self-inflicted mistakes and poor shot-making, and capitalizing on the other end in a quick fashion.
Transition defense has been such a thorn in the Lakers’ side that it was the first of three defensive keys coach Darvin Ham stated the team needed to address in order to get back on track.
Whether or not the defense can rebound to early season stinginess remains to be seen, but limiting their opponents from getting out on the break could go a long way in doing so. In addition, making the most out of their own transition chances also wouldn't hurt.
It’s fortunately still early enough in the season for the Lakers to dig out of the early hole they find themselves at the bottom of. It won't be early for much longer though. If the team is serious about turning it around they will need to get to work.
Things like finding pairings that gel, a player exceeding expectations, and getting around to fixing both ends of a leaky faucet all add up. They make a difference. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but over the long-run these in-house improvements can lead to something more sustainable.
These small developments and victories, hopefully, will go on to serve as the very rungs the teams can climb out of mediocrity with.