So what, exactly, did the Lakers expect when they cobbled together a roster of misfits on one-year deals, a handful of young players still trying to find their way and one 34-year-old superstar who has played 239 postseason games — nearly an extra three seasons — in the middle of it all?
Just a little more than three weeks into the season, that’s a common question among front-office executives, scouts and coaches around the NBA with the Lakers sitting at 5-6 after Wednesday’s win over the Timberwolves.
“They’re basically a .500 team right now,” one general manager said. “How much better did they think they were going to be at this point anyway? It’s not something that was ever going to happen overnight.”
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The case could be made, in fact, that the Lakers have exceeded early expectations. One Western Conference assistant coach pointed to the tough stretch of games LA has had thus far.
“Look who they’ve played,” the coach said. “In the film we’ve watched, every time I’ve seen them they’re playing a West team that was in the playoffs last year, teams that won 47, 48 games. They have not had gimmes, and when you are trying to pull together that many new faces, you need some games against the bottom teams.”
What’s worse in NBA circles is that team president Magic Johnson has set up coach Luke Walton as a fall guy for the team’s current position. ESPN reported that Johnson met with Walton this week, and though Johnson said there are no plans to fire Walton, he’s clearly on the hot seat. It was former front-office brass Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss who hired Walton, not Johnson and current GM Rob Pelinka.
Johnson’s apparent complaint was the number of different lineups that Walton has tried early in the year, but considering 10 of the 17 players on LA’s roster are new, including James, that should hardly be a surprise.
“I think they want to put a little pressure on everyone, and Luke is the easiest guy to do that with,” one scout said. “Their problem is not coaching, and Magic Johnson knows basketball well enough to know that. But they put out a story about pressure on him and the hope is the players rally, and I am betting they will. Give them three weeks, they’ll be a few games over .500.”
As for what has gone wrong so far in LA, there are a variety of answers — beginning with their prized, franchise-saving signing from July.
LeBron in the clutch
“This has been an issue every time LeBron signs with a new team,” the assistant coach said. “There is a trust factor when you get to crunch time, everyone has to trust everyone else. And we’ve seen LeBron struggle with that in the past. He’s struggling with it now.”
In short, James has been bad late in close games so far.
Coming into the season, the Lakers appeared to have a high-powered offense capable of blowing out some teams, but an awkward defensive collection that would leave them in tight games. That’s essentially how things have worked out thus far. The Lakers have been blown out only once, against the Raptors, and have had one blowout, against the Suns.
They’ve had six games decided by four points or fewer, and in clutch situations (score within five points with three minutes to play in the fourth quarter or overtime), the team has struggled, with an offensive rating of 94.1 points per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 125.0. They’re 3-3 in those close games, but the overall record would look better with more consistent execution.
James has taken the most shots (15) among Lakers in clutch situations. He has made just five all year, and the breakdown isn’t pretty.
The 3-pointer James made was on his first attempt, back in the overtime loss to San Antonio — he made it with 2.4 seconds to go, tying the game in regulation. Since then, he’s 0-for-7 on 3-point attempts with fewer than three minutes to play in close games. It’s hard to win those games when your superstar is shooting so poorly.
LeBron still adjusting
“It’s pretty simple,” the coach said. “LeBron has a way he plays. The Lakers have a way they want to play. Those two things are not perfectly aligned, not yet.”
When James’ teams are at their best, they force turnovers and attack in the fast break, but settle into half-court, pick-and-roll basketball when the break does not materialize. There is little doubt that this team has the fast-break aspect worked out — LA leads the league in fast-break scoring.
But the half-court offense stumbles. When Walton went to LA from Golden State, he took the Warriors’ philosophy with him, emphasizing perimeter shooting, spacing and ball movement, and less reliance on pick-and-rolls. That’s not happening here.
Already, the Lakers are running more PNR than they did last year, up by about four plays per game in the early going. The ball-sharing concepts have backslid, as the Lakers assisted on 58.4 percent of their field goals last year (17th in the league) but have dropped to 56.8 percent this year (19th). The 3-pointers have fallen off, too, from 34.7 percent of the Lakers’ shot attempts (17th) to 31.8 percent (24th).
Rough early schedule
This is just simple counting — the Lakers have played many more difficult teams than easy ones so far, and that’s about to change. The only East team LA has faced has been the 10-1 Raptors, but they’ve got the likes of Atlanta, Orlando and Cleveland on the upcoming docket.
The current records of the teams the Lakers have played in their first 10 games is 60-43. The next 13 games, starting with the win over Minnesota, will see teams with a combined record of 61-81.
Johnson’s criticism of Walton could well have been aimed at this stretch between early November and early December, when the Lakers should pile up some wins. They’re 5-6 now, but don’t be surprised if they’re 13-10 or better when the first full week of December begins.
Getting more defensive
“They were actually a pretty good team against the pick-and-roll last year,” the scout said. “That has dropped off this year, and again, that happens with new teams, with guys who have to learn each other. That’s why everyone runs pick-and-roll, because you can expose those weaknesses.”
There have been a number of weak spots for LA on the defensive end, and they’re hoping that bringing in backup big man Tyson Chandler can alter that. Chandler had a nice debut on Wednesday, but he is 36, and fans would be wise not to overblow his expected impact.
One reason, the scout said, is that the problem has been more at the top of the pick-and-roll as much as at the back side.
“I don’t see them switching effectively,” the scout said. “They have some guys who can do that, like Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. They have the build to be good at switching defensively and guarding in the pick-and-roll. But they’re young, and neither one of them is any good at it yet.”
It’s little surprise, then, that the Lakers — who lead the league in points scored in the paint offensively — are 29th in the NBA in defensive points allowed in the paint (56.7 per game).
The Lakers play at the league’s third-fastest pace, which bloats those numbers a bit, but the defense allows a league-high 36.2 shots per game in the restricted area. That is 2.4 shots more than No. 2 on the list, far too many no matter the game’s pace.
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