The Lakers have opened the season 3-2, a respectable record when looking at the team’s opponents and the early balance of games that offered three games in four nights after battling with the Nuggets and Suns in spotlight games on the season’s first Tuesday and Thursday of the season.
Through five games we have seen the team already face some adversity, dealing with multiple injuries that have left them without presumed starting forward Jarred Vanderbilt all season, seen Rui Hachimura miss the team’s last two games with an eye contusion that has moved him into concussion protocol, and then one game in which Gabe Vincent (effusion) and Taurean Prince (soreness) both dealt with knee issues.
Down four rotation players is not ideal, but the Lakers have continued to trudge on by getting better in the second half of these contests where a combination of sharper execution and resiliency have allowed them to make important runs in every game save their season opener in Denver.
Considering the incongruous nature of their preseason, the aforementioned injuries, and the resulting up-and-down nature of the games, the team’s record and ability to close out the games they have leaves me more optimistic than not as we look ahead on where this team can be in another couple of weeks.
That said, before we move forward, let’s take a quick look back with five observations from the Lakers first five games:
Two Bigs are Better than One
A byproduct of the Lakers' frontcourt injuries is the need to allot more minutes to the team’s big men and, in particular, deploy lineups in which multiple bigs play together.
And while not all the groupings have put together positive minutes and the returns have been mixed, the pairing with the most minutes together — Anthony Davis and Christian Wood — are showing that they might just be a natural fit together on both ends of the floor.
In the 76 minutes of shared court time for Wood and AD, the Lakers have a net rating of +34.7 and have been really good on both sides of the floor. When you add LeBron to those two, the Lakers' success only goes up with a net rating of +63.7 while outscoring opponents by more than a point per minute (51 points in 44 minutes).
After the Lakers win over the Clippers, AD discussed how having Wood next to him and LeBron can make an impact, particularly on defense and the backboards.
“When I’m at the five and Bron’s at the four, especially when I go out on the perimeter and switch out, then Bron is battling a big and now we’re small which kind of hurt us in a couple of games,” Davis said. “When C. Wood is in the game, or Jaxson, we able to get some rebounds and get out and run.”
Work in Progress Offense
One of the shifts the Lakers made this season was to change their offensive alignment from 4-out-1-in spacing to more 5-out looks. Without getting into too much detail, this shift should help the team play more to their shooting talent, while also leveraging the shot creation and playmaking ability of both LeBron and AD when playing through them at the top of the key, the elbows, and the mid-post.
What we have seen early on, however, is that the Lakers' ball handlers and, in some cases, their bigs, have not taken to this shift as naturally as might be expected. One of the key distinctions between this new alignment and what the Lakers ran last season is that the driving lanes and gaps are shallower due to the extra player occupying space on the perimeter (5-out vs. 4-out).
This narrower spacing, when combined with the Lakers’ desire to run pick-and-rolls or their general penchant of wanting to drive to the basket, has created a negative spacing effect, which often looks as though the Lakers perimeter players are in a crowd of defenders without a lot of space to create clean looks. The result, then, has been more stalled-out possessions with fewer passes and, when passes do happen, more deflections.
More natural 5-out teams — the Warriors and Nuggets come to mind — are less reliant on pick-and-rolls or drives to the rim for their offense and instead incorporate more cutting, more handoff actions, and, in a bit of a counterintuitive idea, more post-ups that serve as an initiation point for shooting talent to whir around the court in a variety of actions.
The Lakers, though they have shown glimpses of these sorts of actions, are not there yet. Instead, they look more like a team that is using some of last season’s principles in this season’s offensive spacing. This, ultimately, will not prove very successful.
That said, in the second half of the Clippers game, the Lakers started to look more like a blend of the team they were last season and the one they are building toward this year. Adjustments were made in how the pick-and-rolls they ran were structured and that changed spacing helped get Austin Reaves going. They also had some effective elbow and mid-post touches for AD that led to good looks for D’Angelo Russell.
But more time is needed, they are not yet where they need to be.
Speaking of Austin, it took until the overtime of the Clippers game before he finally started to resemble himself. He scored seven of his 15 points in those five minutes, finally breaking out of the phone booth he’d been playing in for the first four and a half games to get a couple of mid-range jumpers to fall, including a classic and-1 where he got to his left hand and absorbed contact from behind while hitting a leaning jumper.
AUSTIN REAVES. AND ONE.— NBA (@NBA) November 2, 2023
Lakers lead by 3 in OT
: Lakers-Clippers | Live on ESPN pic.twitter.com/HD1jbOK3eE
After the game, LeBron was asked about Austin’s struggles to start the season his breakout in the Clippers game, and whether what he saw was more in line with the Austin that they are used to. LeBron, in all his experience, instead offered some insight into what may have been causing some of the challenges his teammate has experienced.
“What I’ve seen is someone who had a long playoff run and then played a lot of basketball in the summer,” James said. “So it’s going to take a little while for his legs to get back underneath him. But the competitiveness and what he brings to our team? That goes without question.”
As noted above, too, some of the adjustments the Lakers are making offensively are also playing a role in Austin’s early season efficiency issues. While Austin has the skill set and basketball IQ to play in any system, it will also take him some time to understand his reads and figure out the best ways to operate within this type of spacing, including where and how his shots will come easiest — to say nothing of what types of adjustments can help facilitate that sort of success.
A Deep Bench
When was the last time the Lakers could be down even two rotation players and you felt comfortable with their remaining depth that...
- No one would be asked to play a role too far outside of what their traditional role would be if there were no injuries (i.e. Patrick Beverley wouldn’t be asked to be a small forward).
- Whatever option was called on to fill in for the injured player was an actual NBA rotation player and not an end-of-roster stopgap who was either nearing the end of their career or just starting it.
Well, to have four rotation players out as the Lakers did vs. the Clippers on Wednesday and to still be able to field an 8-man rotation of players who aren’t just viable rotation guys, but all of them fit into the roles and responsibilities they were asked to perform is...sort of unprecedented for the LeBron era Lakers.
Of course, it’s not a long-term strategy to have this many key players out. And with the recent news that Vincent will miss at least two weeks while Vando remains a week out from being re-evaluated, this depth will continue to be tested in leverage games against teams that would love nothing more than to send the Lakers home with an L.
But, for now, this team looks to have the type of reinforcements that can really help this team win games.
LeBron and AD, Still Superstars
Here are LeBron James’ and Anthony Davis’ averages through five games:
- LeBron: 24.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks, 56.5% FG, 35.5% 3PT FG
- AD: 26.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 3.0 blocks, 1.4 steals, 53.3% FG, 85.3% FT
I could go on and on here about what these numbers mean or how they’re getting them, but the fact they are this quality a duo to start the season is so very important. That they’re this good while also the ones having a huge impact down the stretch of the games the team is winning is even more critical to what this team’s long-term goals are.
Yes, it’s early in the season. And yes, the minutes load they’ve been carrying — particularly LeBron — that has only been exacerbated by playing two overtime games is not ideal. But, if this team is going to compete at the levels they hope to in the playoffs, it’s going to be because LeBron and AD are still capable of leading them in those moments.
And, to start the season, it’s a major win that they’re playing to the level they are and much preferable to them not doing it.
You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.