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Despite brilliance from their stars, the Lakers’ problem is they are better than the sum of their parts

Despite superstar-level play from LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers are only slightly better than average — a major problem for a team with title aspirations.

2023 In-Season Tournament Championship Game - Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Entering the season, the Lakers leaned into the continuity that helped carry them to the past season’s Western Conference Finals. By bringing back Rui Hachimura, Jarred Vanderbilt, D’Angelo Russell and adding Gabe Vincent, the Lakers looked poised to build upon the dominant play they showed down the stretch of the previous season.

Somewhat surprisingly, though, the Lakers have been only a bit above average despite their superstar duo’s dominance. Anthony Davis and LeBron James rank sixth and seventh, respectively, in LEBRON — a catch-all impact stat from the B-Ball Index — while the pair rank eighth and fifth, respectively, in Effective Plus Minus (EPM), a similar metric from Dunks and Threes.

The Lakers are the only team with a duo in the top eight on both lists, yet they have the worst net rating of any team with even a single representative on either list. Unlike every other represented squad which has at least four contributors with positive EPM ratings, the Lakers have just three, with D’Lo being the third positive player. Given the team’s decision to commit to continuity and depth, the lack of plus-performers is sorely disappointing.

Now, the Lakers have a plus-1.5 point differential outside of garbage time, good for only 14th in the NBA. With similar EPM performances from LeBron and AD in the 2020 title season, the team had a plus-5.8 point differential, the fifth-best mark that season. Along with LeBron and AD, though, they had six total positive EPM contributors. While this metric fails to capture the reliability of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and matchup-dependent effectiveness of Kyle Kuzma, the number of positive contributors is indicative of the overall strength of the roster, especially in terms of bridging the gap between superstars and role players.

This year, despite superior health from LeBron James and Anthony Davis (so far), the Lakers have struggled to demonstrate the steady dominance expected of an inner-circle contender, especially outside of In-Season Tournament games. While some post-tournament let-down is to be expected, and three out of the four aforementioned role players have missed time this season, the Lakers simply haven’t shown the night-to-night consistency of a team ready to roll to a championship victory.

The Lakers’ biggest underachiever, especially in contrast with his postseason heroics, has to be Austin Reaves. After struggling to find his shooting stroke through the first 20 games (shooting just 31.3% on threes), Reaves has hit his stride in the subsequent seven (shooting 43.8% from beyond the arc). His scoring has jumped up a level, too, from just 13.5 points per night in the first 20 games to 19.1 points per game in the last seven. If Reaves’ recent ascendance proves last year’s late-season play is real, consistent play from him could help stabilize the Lakers' supporting cast.

Rui Hachimura is a close second behind Reaves in terms of disappointments, given the fact that he was probably the team’s fourth-best player at the end of last season. Instead of emerging as a constant in the Lakers’ starting group, Hachimura has struggled to stay on the floor, dealing with a pair of injuries and notching more than 30 minutes in a game only three times this season.

He’s been fine, but his merely average play on both ends should leave the team wanting more. Perhaps with steadier health moving forward, Hachimura can find a way to tap into what he showed in the playoffs, even if his 3-point shooting this season (37.7%) remains closer to his career average (35.0%) than where it was last postseason (48.7%).

Jarred Vanderbilt’s only played in six games this season and has been effective in his role when active, so it’s hard to fault him for anything other than his unavailability. In only 83 minutes, a minuscule sample size, Vando would have the second-best on/off rating on the Lakers with the team playing 11.3 points per 100 possessions better when he’s been on the floor than when he sits.

Still, although he covers up the Lakers’ weaker perimeter defenders’ weaknesses in terms of ball pressure and rebounding, he’s basically a non-scorer, something that became increasingly untenable in the Lakers’ playoff run last season.

The Lakers’ biggest departure last season was Dennis Schroder, a player whose defensive intensity and downhill rim pressure were essential elements to the best version of last year’s team. Gabe Vincent, who earned the biggest offseason payday of any newcomer, was supposed to fill Schroder’s shoes but suffered a knee injury after just four games.

Likely to make his return on Wednesday, Vincent’s presence in the rotation could seriously help, especially given how strong the team’s defense was when he played at 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. If Vincent can come back and shoot at least as well on threes as he has over his career to date at 33.5%, he should also help boost the quality of the Lakers’ supporting cast.

Given the absences and underperformances from the aforementioned cast of characters, it makes sense that the Lakers have struggled to throttle opponents like the play of their top two superstars suggests they should be able to.

However, even without much improvement upon last season from Vanderbilt, Hachimura, or Vincent, their presence should improve the Lakers’ lineup balance as much as Reaves’ increasing offensive dynamism.

If the supporting cast can begin to close the distance between themselves and the team’s stars, the sky is the limit for these Lakers.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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