The Lakers should be a +. 500 squad this season. Sadly, they've flopped during crunch time as gracelessly as Stifler's mom's nosedive into the Mediterranean Sea during the waning moments of the White Lotus season finale.
After coughing up their latest contest versus the Boston Celtics, the Lakers stand at 11-16. However, the Purple and Gold have lost three games this season in which they had a 90% or higher chance of winning at some point during the final five minutes of action, and they also lost another contest against the 76ers in which they had an 82% chance of victory with three seconds remaining.
Here's a breakdown:
Game 3 VS. Portland: The Lakers led by 7 points with less than two minutes to go at home before losing in the waning seconds as Damian Lillard sank a 27-foot step-back three-pointer.
Game 19 VS. Indiana: The Lakers led by 17 points at the 10-minute mark and 11 points with five minutes to go before allowing the Pacers to meander back into the game by mixing an aggressive brand of nonchalant defense and careless offense, eventually losing on a last-second heave by rookie, Andrew Nembhard.
Game 25 @ Philadelphia: The Lakers made a furious comeback on the road against Joel Embiid and the Sixers, culminating in Anthony Davis (82.4 FT%) heading to the charity strip down by one with three seconds left in the game. AD clanked one of his freebies, allowing the game to move into overtime, and the Lakers lost.
Game 27 VS Boston: The Lakers led by 10 points with under four minutes left before the Celtics cut the lead down to two points. Still, Anthony Davis was fouled at the 28.0-second mark, gifting him an opportunity to make it a two-possession game. He bricked both free throws, and Jayson Tatum hit a turnaround jumper for Boston, sending the game into overtime, and the Lakers lost.
The math here is straightforward: If the Lakers had won the 4 games they choked away in the final moments, they'd be 15-12, good for fifth place in the west.
And if the Purple and Gold had merely won the games they, again, had at least an 85% chance of claiming, they would be a top-6 team despite:
- Playing a hyped-up Warriors team during their ring night to start the season.
- Playing a hyped-up Clippers squad in game two on their opening night, with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George finally back in the lineup.
- Playing a (you guessed it) a hyped-up Nuggets squad in their home-opener with fan-favorite Jamaal Murray making his long-awaited return to the court.
- Shooting a historically low 26.6% from deep off 34.5 attempts per game throughout their six games in October.
- Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverly, and Kendrick Nunn's names have been mentioned daily in dozens of locker-discombobulating trade articles.
You can look at the Lakers' first 27 games with a gleam of hope of better things to come or just the start of another failed season.
Let's start with the negative.
The Lakers are small on the wings and lack a true three-point ace or a perimeter player who can hit an off-the-dribble jumper at a high clip.
Most damning, though, has been the Lakers' play during crunch time.
LeBron James is shooting 36.0% from the field and 50.0% from the charity stripe throughout 35.1 clutch minutes, and he's failed the eye test, regularly pounding the ball behind the arc before jacking up a lazy brick at the end of close games. Anthony Davis is shooting 43.8% from the field and 54.5% from the stripe in 40.4 clutch minutes, and has literally cost the Lakers two victories in the closing seconds by choking on his free throw attempts. Russell Westbrook is shooting 21.1% from the field and 50.0% from the stripe in 30.8 perplexing clutch minutes, and he clocks in with a -36 crunch time +/-, which is one of the worst marks in the NBA.
As a whole, the Lakers are 4-8 in crunch time with a -32 clutch +/- mark, good for fourth worst in the league behind only the egregiously tanking Pistons, Hornets, and Magic. Making matters even more alarming, the Lakers have shot a league-worst 58.6% from the free throw line in clutch situations and an ugly 28.6% from deep off mostly wide-open looks.
On the other side of the clichéd coin, Anthony Davis looks like a top-5 player again. Lonnie Walker VI is ruining opposing teams at the rim while shooting 39.5% from deep of 5.2 attempts per game as a legitimate third-scoring option for the Lakers. Austin Reaves is becoming an all-around wizard, making excellent interior passes, deep bombs, and impossible layups while playing 110% on defense. LeBron James might look a step slow at the end of games, but he's still averaging 26.5 PPG, 8.6 RPG, and 6.5 APG while forming scary pick-and-roll chemistry with AD that could pay dividends later in the season. Finally, Russell Westbrook is, ummmmmm, playing under more control.
Feel free to choose the negative side, but I like to stroll down the beach with my cup of coffee half full. I see a Lakers squad that has suffered through a handful of terrible late-game breakdowns and awful long-distance shooting nights but is showing signs of life. LeBron James is a basketball savant who, at age 38, is still more than capable of righting the Lakers during tight end-game situations. At the same time, the five-man combination of L. James, A. Davis, D. Schroder, L. Walker IV, and A. Reaves has been devastating, racking up a +20 rating in limited minutes, and providing Darvin Ham an excellent closing unit he should turn to more and more as the season progresses.
The Purple and Gold have winnable games coming up against the Wizards, the Kings (twice), the Magic, the Heat (twice), and the Hawks (twice). Barring a significant injury to AD, LBJ, Walker IV, or Reaves, the Purple and Gold should inch up toward the .500 mark by the middle of January and then make a playoff push after the All-Star break.