While the Lakers’ mostly depressing season has reached the point where LeBron scoring 50 points is basically a prerequisite for wins (at least until Anthony Davis comes back), a handful of improvements have caught my eye in recent weeks. Though these gains are typically too small to move the needle for the Lakers’ immediate present, there is pleasure to be had in acknowledging the real individual growth present on the team, even in the face of its broadly unsatisfying struggles. Perhaps, a celebration of growth, however small, can help fight against the increasing ennui that exists around the team, and even reportedly within the Lakers’ locker room.
Russell Westbrook’s Downbeat
Far too often this season, it has felt like Russell Westbrook has been playing in a different basketball game than the other nine players on the court. Whether he’s rushing into a hopeless transition opportunity, eating up clock as he backs down his defender for an ugly post fadeaway, or firing off a pass to a place his teammate isn’t, little has seemed to click for the nine-time All-Star during his lone season in LA.
Though he’s only ever shot the ball at league average efficiency or better three times in his 14-year career, the hope was that he’d improve playing next to one of the game’s all-time great passers in LeBron James. That hasn’t been the case — he’s shooting eight percentage points worse at the rim than he did last season in Washington — but he has increasingly incorporated one change which has led to better rim looks as of late.
When he rushes in at full bore, he rarely deploys the necessary lift or touch to guide the ball over his defender and through the cylinder. When he jump stops, however (as has been noted by the wise triumvirate on the Laker Film Room Podcast), he’s proved much more capable of reassessing the situation and making the right play. Whether that means kicking the ball back out to an open shooter, or just letting the defense pass him by for an uncontested layup, this pause of momentum has been a minor boon in an otherwise radically disappointing campaign.
Though Westbrook responded to an inquiry about specific alterations to his finishing package with a generic claim, “ I just try to find ways to be active and stay involved — that’s about it,” he has jump-stopped more lately, and it has helped.
In this finish against the Rockets, he spins and stops before getting blocked, but is still in position to corral the ball and finish the play:
Here’s an identical move with the same result against the Spurs:
In this play against the Warriors, the utility of the jump stop is even clearer:
He seems to be trapped, but two fakes gets both Warriors to bite, opening the door for an easy finish.
And again, here he is utilizing the jump stop and pump fake to earn another easy deuce:
Though it may not ultimately matter for these hapless Lakers, the lesson to be learned here is that Westbrook’s speed is still a weapon, but for his efficacy as a basketball player, it’s paramount for him to deploy it from a place of stability instead of franticness. Without a steady jump shot from anywhere on the floor, it might be one of the few paths he has towards remaining a viable NBA player as his athleticism continues to wane.
The Aesthetic Appeal of Carmelo Anthony’s Defense
Let me be clear: Carmelo Anthony is not a great defender. He’s not usually even a good one, and never really has been — especially according to his former coach. In fact, the lowly 17-49 Rockets’ stated winning game plan was to attack Melo in isolation.
And according to The Basketball Index, Melo grades out as an F-rated perimeter defender in the league’s 11th percentile. In that sense, the data agrees with the Rockets.
However, in what has typically been his role during the stretches of season when AD has been in street clothes, he’s actually been a halfway decent rim protector. Granted, those lineups have underperformed defensively, but that’s mostly been a function of his inability to switch out onto the perimeter when teams hunt him, or a lack of quickness in closing space when players pull up from mid-range with Melo playing Frank Vogel’s preferred deep drop coverage. Also, if surrounded by superior perimeter defenders to slow or thwart drives to the rim altogether, Melo may be perfectly suited for a smaller role than the one he’s been tasked with.
Still, if Melo isn’t asked to move much, he’s actually been a viable rim protector. Despite lacking the vertical burst of the other remaining player from the 2003 Draft Class, Anthony’s unparalleled knack for dislodging the ball from opponents’ hands helps him guard the basket.
Check out how Melo does away with the interior threat despite giving up more than a few inches to Jakob Poeltl:
Personally, I take great pleasure in watching Melo plant his feet on the ground and dispatch a much bigger enemy with a quick, precise strike as soon as his opponent shows him the ball, like a python waiting for a deer to expose itself from the brush. Even if that snake is too slow to keep up with the majority of the herd, his opportunistic seizures provide just enough sustenance for the predatory method to remain viable.
I’d have to wager that the same hand-eye coordination that underscores the NBA’s ninth all-time leading scorer’s silky shooting stroke plays a role in his uncanny precision on these swipes.
In fact, Melo is arguably having the best defensive season of his career due to the way he’s leaned into this distinct skillset; though to be fair, he hasn’t set the bar particularly high in past years. He’s recorded at least a block in each of his last nine games and currently sports a career-high in blocks per 100 possessions (1.5). While it’s a ways away from those of league leaders like Jaren Jackson Jr. (3.8) and Rudy Gobert (3.4), Melo’s block rate per 100 possessions is 39th in the NBA this season, better than true centers like Jonas Valanciunas and Steven Adams.
Austin Reaves, the Surprisingly Strong Rebounder
Austin Reaves is listed at 6’5, 206 pounds, and in person, he looks quite a bit slighter. Like a sore thumb, he sticks right out amongst his mostly muscularly defined, often high-flying NBA peers.
And like the former Laker who symbolically passed him the plus-minus championship belt, Reaves has regularly received praise for his heady play this season. However, knowing where to be and what to do is only half the battle in the NBA. You also have to be able to get there and do it.
Just look at Trevor Ariza. Once one of the league’s wilier defenders, and billed as the team’s defensive wing stopper upon his signing this offseason, Trevor has underperformed his way into five straight CD-DNPs due to his inability to keep up with NBA athletes often at least a decade his junior. Whether it’s the ankle surgery he had that kept him out at the start of the season, age, or both, it’s clear Trevor’s feet can no longer keep up with where his mind knows he should be.
Reaves not only has the mental acuity to know where he should be, he has the footwork, balance, and shockingly powerful functional strength to hang in against bigger, stronger, and older players. Although some of his louder rim collisions have rightfully earned him a reputation amongst Laker fans and his teammates as a devastating isolation defender (he has a block rate in the 82nd percentile among guards), it’s his rebounding that I consistently find myself in awe of.
While his penchant for boxing out — a proclivity he shares with none of his teammates — often prevents him from being the rebounder of record, he’s regularly in the mix, using his strength, positioning, and flexibility to ensure that he or his teammate is the first one to the ball.
I first noticed this in the Lakers’ January win over the Jazz, on a play where Austin beats his idol to the ball for a team board.
Seated directly to the left of the basket stanchion, the differential in size between the 6’8”, 227 pound Joe Ingles and Reaves was striking. And still, Reaves is able to go straight up with Ingles’ full force pressed into him and prevent Jinglin’ Joe from going over the top for the board.
Here’s another particularly impressive uncredited team rebound — that Reaves was almost entirely responsible for — from less than a minute later in that game:
Coming from a disadvantaged position, Reaves beats the current leader in rebounds per game, Rudy Gobert, to the ball for a Lakers team rebound. Reaves is giving up almost a foot and fifty pounds, but finds a way to win the battle anyways.
Whether it’s a “nose for the ball” or some unspoken knowledge that only a rebounding maestro could understand, or even attempt to explain, Austin has “it” when it comes to crashing the glass — another entry on the long list of reasons to be excited about the undrafted rookie’s potential to be a winning player in this league for years to come.