LeBron James is someone who is both measured with his comments and well aware of the weight his words carry. Spending two decades in the spotlight has led to him being well aware of how his quotes will be interpreted, for better and for worse.
That context is necessary to put his thoughts postgame after the Lakers’ loss on Monday. It was the worst loss of LeBron’s lengthy career and he had the reaction of someone who just had the worst loss of his career.
44 points is the most lopsided loss in LeBron James' NBA career https://t.co/MEy1BK76Pm— Dan Woike is still here for some reason (@DanWoikeSports) November 28, 2023
A very terse LeBron offered little more than two- or three-word responses. One of the only times he did speak more than a few words was when he was asked what needed to change for the Lakers after this game.
“What needs to change in order for that not to happen again? A lot.”
It’s both cryptic and ominous, an impressive display of efficiency in just two words that mirrors LeBron’s greatness on the court.
The challenge left, then, is to determine what LeBron means by “a lot” and decipher just how bad this loss was. Things aren’t as simple as fans often chalk them up to be and nuance is important.
It’s hard to overstate how difficult it is to win games when four rotation players are out. And this isn’t a one-off of them missing time, but a cumulative effect that has continued to snowball this season.
If this were one night when a number of guys were sitting, it’d be easier to wipe your hands of this defeat and move on. In some sense, because players have been injured all season long and these injuries aren’t new, it’s easier to just overlook the impact of not having them available.
It’s particularly difficult to win without four players when they all are so similar in their roles. In Jarred Vanderbilt, Cam Reddish and Rui Hachimura, that’s four forward/wings the Lakers don’t have available. It’s left Max Christie with shoes too big to fill and has allowed Taurean Prince, who has struggled mightily in recent weeks, to continue playing and starting when, in a normal circumstance, he’d have long been benched.
Dealing with that level of bad injury luck for the entire season is exhausting and wears on the players that have been available. There’s nothing they or anyone else can do about it, but that doesn’t make it any less annoying to deal with.
Being down so many players requires everyone remaining to play great. They did it only days ago in Cleveland, but that game also shows the uphill battle the Lakers are facing right now. Seven of the eight players that saw rotation minutes scored in double figures and the team still narrowly won.
All that is important to remember and paints part of the picture as to where the team is at mentally right now. But that doesn’t account for the entirety of Monday’s loss.
First, it should be noted that garbage time did inflate the final score by some margin. When the starters came out, it was a 27-point margin, which isn’t more respectable but doesn’t carry the same weight as “worst loss in LeBron’s career.” The Lakers that came in during garbage time put on a pretty woeful display and Darvin Ham said as much postgame.
But there are warning signs that are there for the Lakers that deserve to be acknowledged. The Lakers’ offense, for example, is bad.
After Monday’s loss, they are 25th in offensive rating. There have been lots of pitfalls as they try to adapt to a five-out offense and it’s never more evident than when looking at their 3-point shooting.
Despite the spacing a 5-out offense is designed to create, the Lakers rank 29th in 3-pointers attempted and 28th in 3-point percentage.
According to Cleaning The Glass, while they are middle-of-the-road in corner threes attempted (18th), they are one of the worst in the league at creating non-corner 3-pointer attempts (26th).
And they are out-performing their shot profile. Based on the shots they’re getting, if they were to simply shoot league average on all attempts, they’d have the 14th-best effective field goal percentage in the league. Currently, they rank 10th.
So, while some of this is the Lakers’ shooters not knocking down 3-pointers, the problems are deeper than that. And as much as you can point to injuries, the players injured aren’t all offensive players that are going to save the day.
Rui is certainly a strong offensive player, but the team has had him enough the season for the stats to reflect his availability. Gabe Vincent, Vanderbilt and Reddish? Those are players who have a defensive impact equal to or greater than their offensive impact.
Again, while getting guys healthy will solve some problems, it won’t fix them all. And that is probably fueled as much of the frustration from LeBron as anything else on Monday.
The Lakers are trying to solve a math problem by reciting the alphabet right now. They made a change to the offense that has caused more harm than good in most situations this year.
This isn’t to say scrap everything. There’s plenty of good that has happened this year and things that have worked. Darvin Ham has plenty of strengths as a coach, namely in his ability to connect with players and keep them engaged, that don’t get enough shine. Firing him, an extreme too many fans are too quick to jump to, is not the solution to this problem.
And, in theory, switching to this 5-out system made sense. Perhaps with different personnel or a reworked approach, it could reap benefits.
But 18 games into the season is enough of a sample size to determine things aren’t working.
A lot needs to change.
You can follow Jacob on Twitter at @JacobRude.