With first “half” of the season in the books and the All-Star break fully upon us, the Lakers are down to their final 24 regular season games to try to make something out of what has been a trying season.
However, signs of life from their past couple of games provide reasons for optimism, even without Anthony Davis. Here are three things to keep an eye on as the Lakers enter their stretch run...
The Lakers are playing with a newfound purpose, not pace
Early in the season, the Lakers were playing at one of the fastest paces in the league, but their offense lacked a particular intent. Or verve, if you will.
In November and December, the Lakers played at the third-fastest pace in basketball. In January, their rank dropped to 11th, and has since fallen all the way to 22nd this month.
Meanwhile, the Lakers’ players and coaches keep stressing the notion that their increased effort to get out and run has fueled their qualitatively improved performance against the Warriors and Jazz, despite the fact that the above metric suggests otherwise.
Before the Lakers’ game against the Warriors, Frank Vogel explained how he wants the Lakers to play when I asked him about how he chooses to balance calling plays versus letting the players play freeform offense, saying “We want our guys to attack early in the clock without having to call plays and touch the paint just by being in fast break mode.” Alternatively, he added, “When the defense is back and set, we get into our sets. It’s not any more complicated than that, other than just using your feel throughout the game.”
With a pair of practices preceding Vogel’s comments, it seems as though this particular message may have been something he’s stressed team-wide in recent days. In fact, Russell Westbrook came out of the win over the Jazz echoing the very sentiment.
“We’re playing different, a lot more kick-aheads, we’re not playing it slow, last couple games we’re playing a lot faster,” Westbrook said.
So what’s the deal with Lakers players and coaches chalking up their offensive success to an increase in pace, while the exact opposite is borne out statistically? It’s not like they’re actually getting more out of their transition offense either. An inability to score efficiently in transition is something that has plagued the Lakers all season, despite their steadily top-10 frequency in that department.
Still, in games against the Warriors (owners of the NBA’s top ranked defense, though admittedly struggling through Draymond Green’s extended absence) and the Jazz (the ninth-ranked defensive squad on a night with Gobert in uniform), the Lakers posted the 12th-best offensive rating in the NBA, much better than their season-long mark of 23rd.
While their offense has been better as of late, it’s definitely not because of an increase in pace. However, LeBron’s comments, which followed Westbrook’s during the Lakers’ most recent media availability, put a finer point on how exactly playing faster has helped the Lakers in their past two games.
“It starts with getting stops, one, it allows us to play with good pace, but even when teams score, we’ve been doing a good job of just getting the ball in, getting up the floor and then seeing what we can do after that.” LeBron said. “Let’s get up the floor, if we can get some easy ones, then let’s take advantage of it, and if not, then at least we’re not working against the shot clock. We’re still giving ourselves 14, 15, 16 seconds to go get through a set.”
While it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how the Lakers are playing faster, given the statistical evidence to the contrary, the Lakers are scoring more efficiently, and by the eye test, do seem to be playing with a greater offensive intent than the often meandering possessions we saw earlier in the season. Perhaps, it’s just “logging minutes” — as LeBron loved to remind the team’s early doubters this group needed to do — which has helped the Lakers put each other in “positions to be successful,” a favored refrain of Westbrook’s, among others around the Lakers’ orbit.
Or maybe expediting their offensive sets has given them an opportunity to get an extra look or two in any given possession before resorting to any last-second heave. Attacking early gives the Lakers a second chance to start the possession from scratch if they can’t get a good shot early, with a more full clock to go through a structured set. In fact, over the course of the Lakers’ entire season, 16.7% of the team’s shots have come with 18-15 seconds remaining on the shot clock, a range NBA.com demarcates as “Early,” and 43.8% of their shots have come between 15-7 seconds (“Average”).
Over the Lakers’ past two games, though, these marks have shifted down to 10.3% and 50.0%, meaning they are in fact using more of the shot clock, more of the time.
Also, crucially, as LeBron pointed out, their ability to get stops towards the end of both the Warriors and Jazz games allowed them to attack the defense before they were able to get set, making it easier to initially crack them open, even if the shot ultimately came later in the possession — a result that would tank the Lakers’ pace while boosting their offensive rating, and still getting some of the benefit from playing fast, even if their overall pace belies that truth.
Whatever it is, in these past two games, the Lakers offense has had more of a crispness and decisiveness that it has decidedly lacked with any type of consistency for most of the season, something they’ll need to maintain if they hope to make a run at the playoffs.
The Lakers have a farm system problem
By cashing in their longest-tenured player (Kyle Kuzma), two other valuable role players (Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), and a first round pick in for a single player, in addition to letting their second-longest tenured homegrown contributor leave in free agency (Alex Caruso), the Lakers stripped themselves of their remaining organizational depth coming into this season. It’s not just that the success rate on veterans minimum signings has been especially poor, it’s the fact that they had to sign nine new players just to field a team that has disastrously lowered their floor.
Even if the fit between Anthony Davis, LeBron James, and Russell Westbrook had been perfect, which it clearly isn’t, this particular construction of the team would still have struggled to remain competitive given the number of games missed between their star duo.
The idealized version of the Lakers’ eight-man rotation should be a competitive team, it’s just they haven’t played a single game with the version of the group that includes Kendrick Nunn, who has missed the whole year so far with a persistent bone bruise.
And if your roster is reliant upon Kendrick Nunn to save the season, you probably made a big mistake somewhere along the way. So to be clear, I’m not saying Kendrick Nunn is some transcendent talent, only that the talent gap between him, and those who have been forced to eat up his minutes is massive.
If you look around the league right now, the teams that are thriving all have one thing in common: depth. More specifically, that depth is mostly home-grown, as the particular machinations of the NBA salary cap mean that it is cheaper to extract value from players on rookie scale contracts than from veteran free agents, and it is easier to retain them in the long run if they do eventually blossom into something special.
From a skill and athleticism perspective, the NBA has never had access to a deeper pool of talent. As a capped-out team in the tax without any first round picks for the foreseeable future, the Lakers need to start focusing on building out a deeper G League roster of plug-and-play athletes capable of performing system-specific roles (i.e. the Heat) and re-signing the best of the players they have developed and retain the rights to (i.e. the Suns, Warriors, Grizzlies, et al).
The Lakers’ ridiculously successful history scouting young talent combined with a deepening league-wide pool of it should embolden them to embrace this modern mindset, instead of running from it. Austin Reaves has been a revelation, but so too would have been a Cam Thomas, Herb Jones, or an Ayo Dosonmu; all players selected after the 22nd overall pick that the Lakers traded away to the Wizards, and — other than Thomas — ones selected in the second round.
While no team’s hit-rate on lower-tiered prospects is 100%, the Lakers have found NBA players in that range more consistently than most other teams, a strength they ought to lean into more frequently given the limitations in roster flexibility they have inflicted upon themselves.
LeBron is the GOAT, according to Frank Vogel
I’ve particularly enjoyed listening to Frank Vogel gush about LeBron James basically any time he’s in front of a microphone. This narrative from the coach of the Lakers isn’t new, as far back as December, Vogel referred to the team’s best player as “the open man,” but hilariously, and tellingly corrected himself upon seeing his star forward enter the room, “except maybe LeBron.”
Frank has continued to openly Stan LeBron, in a way that has apparently increased as the chasm between LeBron’s quality of play and the supporting cast’s has grown as wide as it has on any team he’s played on since his first Cleveland stint.
Before the Lakers played the Warriors, Vogel remarked on LeBron’s impending status as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer between the regular season and playoffs, saying “It’s incredible. Everything the guy’s done throughout his career is just remarkable. It’s why I believe he’s the greatest ever to play.”
After bearing witness to the fourth quarter heroics against the Jazz, Vogel doubled-down on his adoration, “...what we saw LeBron do is just remarkable, what he continues to do at this point in his career, to take over a game in the fourth quarter the way he did, with energy and will and determination was really something special.”
However, it was when he returned to the topic of LeBron’s impact when he may have revealed some of his intent in gassing up his superstar with GOAT-talk, “He frequently leads with his voice, tonight was about his action. Just the look in his eyes and the way he was playing and the way he was approaching the defensive end... when he’s super locked-in, the rest of the group follows.”
Here, as he did in December, Vogel may be signaling to the group a reminder of who the top dog is, or subtly prodding LeBron to remain engaged on defense through the media with a soft critique couched in compliments about how much of a difference it makes when he does, as the nightly effort from this quilt of misfits has tended to wax and wane with LeBron’s own, especially on the defensive end.
Nonetheless, as a grateful #witness to LeBron’s greatness, I can’t help but agree with Vogel’s assessment, as did the King’s latest victim:
Quin Snyder adds that the Jazz really struggled in transition against the Lakers. Also had nothing late for LeBron James, "the greatest player of all time. Some people might dispute that, but that's what I'm calling him."— Eric Walden (@tribjazz) February 17, 2022
Even if both men may have some ulterior motive for praising LeBron, the extreme way in which they continue to do so is noteworthy in and of itself.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.