With only 23 games left in their season, the Lakers continue to find themselves stuck in park, and in search for anything — or anyone — to spark their engine back to life.
Although there is still a chance of a resurgence to be had, it may ultimately be too late. That convertible many envisioned racing up and down the court this year has unfortunately not showed up. Instead, the car is dented, needs a good wash and the check engine light is blaring about a dire need of maintenance.
But while things have not gone to plan up to this point, the team continues to be at the very least — interesting.
Frustrating? Yes. Boring? No.
What follows are just the latest odds and ends from a squad on the lookout for a road map and a jump-start.
Talen Horton-Tucker’s floater, where art thou?
Talen Horton Tucker is either nearing, or has already arrived at a critical inflection point.
It is often some time between a player’s third-or-fourth season where things finally begin to “click” into place. The game begins to slow down, shots start to fall, schemes no longer look like trigonometry. Due to a myriad of reasons, this has (mostly) not been the case for Horton-Tucker.
Contextual factors such as suffering a torn ligament in his thumb to start the year, adjusting to more minutes and moving increasingly more and more off-the-ball should be noted as legitimate contributors. However, so too should the parts of the game where progress has simply stagnated or shown little to no improvement.
One of the more underrated areas where Horton-Tucker has failed to make strides, and even has taken a step back, has come in the form of establishing a reliable floater.
On the season, a healthy 16% of Horton-Tucker’s shots have come in the “short-midrange” area of the floor (attempts outside of four feet, but inside 14 feet), according to Cleaning the Glass. Of those chances, he is converting only 31% (21st percentile among wings) which is not only a career low, but 10% worse than his mark last season.
While his poor perimeter game receives most of the headlines, Horton-Tucker’s inability to keep defenses honest within the aforementioned floater range has also severely limited his offense. Especially in terms of operating as a counter punch when his downhill chances dry up.
For a player whose predominant skills revolve around self-creation and bulldozing to the rim at an absurd rate (44% of his shot profile), notching down any semblance of an in-between-game could prove beneficial, as opposing defenses have already begun loading up the paint, swimming under ball-screens and steering everything away from the basket as often as possible.
The lack of a floater is ultimately not the sole or main reason for Horton-Tucker’s porous eFG% (47.2%) this season, but it is further proof of the value of having more than one tool in the shed for a young player.
When the defense takes something away, they also open something up. It will be up to Horton-Tucker to recognize and take advantage of those gaps — one soft runner at a time.
Cold in the clutch
There are many reasons why the Lakers are where they currently find themselves. One of the more head-scratching contributing factors is their continued flops in crunch time.
According to the league’s tracking data, the Lakers are 17-19 in clutch games this season, defined as contests where the score is decided by five points or less in the final five minutes. And it has not been so much why they’ve ultimately lost these contests, but how that has been most frustrating.
Take this critical shot from Carmelo Anthony in the team’s most recent loss to the Clippers:
The Lakers are excruciatingly slow to get into their offense, and so once the double comes and forces the ball out of LeBron James’ hands, the result is confusion and an ill-advised bomb that misses badly.
This possession, in reality, is not all that different from how most of the Lakers’ offense looks like when it counts the most. In fact, the end result of a forced 3-point attempt has almost always been the final outcome.
On the season, no team has attempted more 3’s in the clutch (113) than the Lakers have — and they have converted these chances at only a 32.7% clip. While these have mostly come by virtue of settling, it is also representative of their weaknesses outweighing their strengths.
In the instances when they have been able to exploit their advantages and get to the rim, the team is also leaving points on the table at the charity stripe. The Lakers currently rank 28th in free-throw% (69%) in clutch chances, and in their last 15 games, they have somehow been even worse, making only 58.5% (last in that time span).
This level of mismanagement and failures under pressure seems to be the antithesis of a team with this much veteran talent, and not only doesn't bode well for their chances in the postseason, but also continues to be an underlying Achilles heel in their quest to even get there.
Against the Clippers, and after fighting back to secure the lead, the Lakers floundered. They finished the game making only two of their final ten shots, and were just 1-5 from behind the arc during the closing stretch.
If the team is serious about turning their season around, then finding a winning formula when the game needs closing, feels paramount to their chances.
Stanley Johnson’s gusto in transition
Stanley Johnson is a player who knows what his role is.
On defense, he switches, bangs and downright tries even if the results aren't always there. On offense, you’d need a magnifying glass to observe his 12.1% usage rate. He routinely gives up the ball (1.78 seconds per touch average, which ranks 8th on the team among the team’s rotation players), is mainly camped out in the corner within the half-court, and when he’s not, he’s roaming the floor like a minesweeper in his attempts to set a screen for a teammate. Johnson is rarely in the way, but is also not invisible.
It is within these boundaries that Johnson has found a home in Los Angeles for the time being. His restrictions and responsibilities are safe and clear. He rarely steps over those imaginary lines, but in the instances when he does, it’s solely due to his clear love of early offense.
With the ball in his hands and an open floor in front of him, Johnson suddenly gallops free from the 3-and-D, blue-collar role player archetypes placed upon him. It’s a transformation and aggression so stark that the defense — and his own teammates — are often left caught by surprise.
Johnson’s grab-and-go ability has been one of the fun elements of the team to watch this year, mainly because it’s been so effective in its wildness. On the season, the 25-year-old has made 12 of his 18 attempts that have come “very early” and “early” within the shot clock.
This level of aggression in attacking the rim early regardless of how many defenders are present — and which elite names he’s lowering his shoulder into — is also a big reason why he draws so many fouls despite his low usage rate.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 12.2% of Johnson’s shot attempts this season has resulted in a foul being called. This ranks in the 89th percentile among all forwards. For context, LeBron James has a shooting fouled percentage of 11.4%.
Beyond the individual results, the Lakers have also benefited from Johnson’s fast-break ability. While one of the slower teams in the NBA in terms of their speed on the floor (last in average speed), the squad has performed well in creating early chances. And with Johnson on the floor, those opportunities have come even more often — 17.2% transition frequency with Johnson on the floor, 16.8% when he’s off.
Although it’s not typically asked of him, or his role, there is a thrilling sense of discovery every time Johnson tests the boundaries of his game. He is passive when he needs to be — which is most of the time — but when he has an open lane in front of him, he’s shown he’s also capable of biting someone’s head off.
While there is not a lot of time left for the Lakers, the opportunity for a turnaround is still on the table. If not in the form of wins or playoff success, then perhaps in smaller victories, such as a young player finding his groove, another pushing his limits, or the team finding something that actually works.
The highway is almost near the end now, and although the Lakers are still on the side of the road trying to get their car to start, if things work out, there is still enough miles left to make up ground. But they will need a lot of elbow grease in order to do so.