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Five observations through the Lakers first 20 games

From LeBron James finding his range to Cam Reddish earning a role and so many things in between, here are five things that have stood out from the Lakers first 20 games

Los Angeles Lakers v Cleveland Cavaliers

How you view the Lakers' first 20 games likely depends on a combination of how high your standards are from night to night and how much grace you give a team that has been hurt to the level the Lakers have to begin this season.

If you are the less patient type, a handful of blowout losses and some individual performances that have not quite lived up to preseason expectations might have you cursing your television screen on a random Wednesday. But, if you are more the type to contextualize how many injuries the team has had to deal with and, in some cases, the enduring nature of them and the impact they have had on the rotation, you might be more than happy with where the team is.

LeBron James, for what it is worth, is seemingly more the latter.

“We’re over .500,” James said after the loss to the Thunder. “We’re 11-9 with literally not ever having our same group. That’s pretty impressive.”

AD joined LeBron in this assessment.

“I think we are staying afloat and winning games that we should win, but also losing games that we feel like we should win,” Davis said after blowing out the Pistons. “We could have won games that we lost, but we’re okay, especially without being fully healthy with some of our top guys. So, I feel like we’re in a good spot.”

For me, I guess I am more in the middle. Yes, the Lakers have emerged from their first 20 games with an 11-9 record, surviving a rash of injuries to multiple rotation players while getting mostly good health from both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. And the nature of the team’s injuries — with several players going in and out of the lineup and some constants missing almost the entire season — has not allowed this group to build much consistency or continuity outside of a few core lineups.

That said, some of the individual player's struggles, not to mention simply having the injuries the team has had, creates frustration. Further, on a night-to-night basis, we have seen issues come up multiple times, and come out of some games questioning the tactics and approach of the coaching staff related to rotations and, in some cases, game plans for specific teams.

Through 20 games, then, it has very much been a mixed back with real ups and downs, Which, if you’re a fan of the Lakers, feels like par for the course of over the last several years. It would not be a Lakers season if everything went smoothly.

With that, here are six observations from the season so far, in no particular order...

1. The Lakers still cannot shoot

During the preseason the Lakers attempted 36 three-pointers a game and connected on 13 of them, good for 36.1% from behind the arc. And while there is nothing that stands out as particularly amazing about this sort of volume or accuracy, the comfort level the team showed in taking those shots and the rate in which they fell in the few games the Lakers were hot from the floor, gave us an impression the team had solved some of the shooting woes that have been plagued them in recent seasons.

Well, through 20 games, this could not be further from the truth. The Lakers are currently only attempting 29.6 three-pointers a game (last in the NBA) and are connecting on just 33.8% of them (28th). Meanwhile, their aforementioned preseason numbers for attempts and makes would rank 13th and 17th respectively.

One has to figure the Lakers will show some positive regression to the mean with their outside shooting, particularly for players like Taurean Prince (32.5%) and Christian Wood (26.9%) who are drastically underperforming their career norms from distance. That said, hoping will not make it so. Both players — as well as others like Austin Reaves (31.6%) and Gabe Vincent (7.1% on low volume due to injury) — need to shoot the ball with confidence, not turn down the good looks they do get, and, well, hit more of them.

There is no magic formula here. The guys have to do better than they are and play to their talent level as shooters.

2. LeBron’s long ball

While the team is struggling from distance as a whole, LeBron is having one of the best three-point shooting seasons of his career through 20 games. LeBron is currently making 39.6% of his shots from distance, second to only the 40.6% he hit in the 2012-13 season. The only difference is, LeBron is doing it on 2.5 more attempts this season than that one, a meaningful difference in both attempts and makes per game.

LeBron has been particularly dangerous from the left wing and the top of the key, where he is drastically outpacing the league average from both spots and proving to be quite the weapon as both a spot-up shooter or when taking pull-up jumpers against a defense trying to contain his drives.

Whether or not LeBron can keep this level of shooting remains to be seen. But, we do know that this is just the second time in his career he’s had a start to the season where he’s made at least 44 threes while shooting at least 39% from the field through 20 games. The other time was in the 2020-21 season when LeBron connected on 55 threes on 41.7%.

3. Austin’s struggles

When we were doing our season preview player capsules for this site, I was tasked with writing about Austin Reaves’ season and what were the possible best- and worst-case scenarios. Below is part of what I wrote when discussing his worst case:

The fear for Reaves, then, is that rather than take a step forward and find ways to boost his production and effectiveness on both ends, some of those gains are given back in the form of more missed shots, more mistakes and an overall dip in effectiveness based on generally wearing down in the face more physicality and involvement by the opponent whenever he’s on the floor.

As a player who isn’t one of the elite athletes in the league, Austin is already someone who plays so hard just to be as effective as he is. And, in both his rookie and sophomore campaigns, he wore down during different stretches of the season when the asks on him went up and his role expanded. Next season, it’s not out of the question that opponents will try to facilitate this same effect via targeting him as often as they can when he’s on defense and then throwing more resources — both physically and schematically — at him on the other end.

So, about that...

Look, Austin has certainly had his strong moments this season and I don’t want to characterize the way he’s played as bad or be overly negative about his play to this point in the season. But, through 20 games, Austin’s percentages from both two and three-point range are the lowest of his career. His free throw attempts are also down from last season, and while his assists are up, so are his turnovers.

Defensively, Austin has been targeted more and part of the reason he was moved to the bench was that the Lakers starting group with him, D’Angelo Russell and Taurean Prince weren’t good enough on the perimeter defensively and the eye test showed it was Reaves who was struggling the most of that trio on that side of the ball.

Austin had a long summer of basketball and, now, has had to adjust back to a move to the bench. That’s a lot to manage for a player that, while older in experience level, is still just a third-year pro. That said, part of the optimism about the Lakers season heading into this campaign was the prospect of Reaves making a leap. Through 20 games, that simply has not happened yet.

4. Cam Reddish is fun

If Austin isn’t quite living up to his preseason expectations, Cam Reddish has outperformed his. Reddish came into this year as the latest in recent trend of “second-draft” lottery-level prospects the Lakers have tried to find value in after being cast off by one or more previous teams. And, to his (and the Lakers) credit, it looks like he might be the latest success story in that lineage.

Reddish was the player who replaced Reaves in the starting lineup and instantly became a difference maker on defense, disrupting opposing offenses by forcing steals and getting deflections by jumping passing lanes and harassing ball-handlers both in the back and front court.

And then, on offense, Cam has done well to find success in a simplified and reduced role, mostly playing out of the corners as a spot-up shooter or quick attacker in sideline pick-and-rolls in the half-court or racing the floor and finishing at the rim in transition.

With the Lakers getting healthier it remains to be seen if Cam will maintain his starting spot and/or if he’ll see as many minutes as he has been — when healthy — lately. But, I do expect him to retain a spot in Coach Ham’s rotation. He’s earned that.

5. 1st quarter woes, 4th quarter whoa’s

On the season, the Lakers are 28th in first quarter net rating, boasting a -13.6 mark — the product of an equally bad offense (105.2) and defense (118.8). In eight of the team’s 20 games, they have trailed by double digits at the end of the first quarter and were down by double figures in two additional games before climbing out of that deep hole by just enough to cut it to single digits before the 2nd frame.

In fourth quarters, however, the Lakers transform into one of the best teams in the league with a +9.1 net rating — the third-highest mark in the league. In that final frame, the Lakers' defense is elite with a 101.2 defensive rating (first in the NBA) while holding opponents to just 43% shooting from the field (second best mark) in that period.

While there are many potential explanations for this sort of difference in performance, my hypothesis is that both LeBron and AD dial up their focus and effort level on both ends of the floor in fourth quarters. Yes, getting off to a good start is important, but as an aged and veteran duo, both can often hang back early on as they feel the game out.

Whatever the reasons, though, the hope will be that the Lakers' first quarters can start to look more like their fourth quarters.

Okay, I lied. I actually have six. Because while everything else above reflects what has been, this one is a mix of what we’ve seen so far and what could be...

6. A potentially oppressive defense

The fourth quarter offers hints for what the Lakers can be defensively for sure, but I am a firm believer that the best is still yet to come. The Lakers currently possess the 14th ranked defense overall — a ranking that has slipped from 10th after getting blown out in two of their final three games on their recent four-game road trip.

In any event, the Lakers, when at their best — and somewhat healthy — have been able to lay claim to being one of the league’s better defenses this season, but have done so while missing their best point-of-attack defender in Jarred Vanderbilt, their most physical defensive point guard in Gabe Vincent and while missing multiple wings like Rui Hachimura and Cam on other nights.

The prospect of the Lakers being able to get most/all of these players back at the same time — Vincent is the only one who remains out indefinitely — and be backed up by any combination of LeBron, AD, Christian Wood and Jaxson Hayes should give the Lakers the type of size, mobility, and defensive range to give any type of team in the league problems.

Of course, there are individual offensive talents who will still stress this group based on their singular, dynamic skill sets. And there are collective offenses that will, and should, always instill an appropriate fear in any defense based on how their talent, IQ and ball movement combine to spread you out and attack your weak points. But the Lakers have a chance to be special on that end of the court and put those teams in difficult situations too, and I cannot wait to see them try to do it.

You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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