“I'm not trying to evaluate our season within the first 20 games. After the first 20 games, we can start.”
Coming off a “disjointed” 2-3 five-game road trip (in Frank Vogel's words), the Lakers sit at 10-10 and, despite Melo's bench-mark, remain impossible to truly evaluate, for a host of reasons. So, instead of jumping to any conclusions, here are 20 thoughts about the Lakers after 20 games.
1) Injuries over everything
Trevor Ariza missed the second day of camp with “minor” ankle soreness, which turned out to require surgery. He's still a “ways away.” As is Kendrick Nunn, whose ankle sprain turned into a knee bruise.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Austin Reaves, and Wayne Ellington have dealt with multiple-week issues. Will we ever see this team at full strength?
Following last night’s games, the league total for games lost to injury or illness in the NBA surpassed the 1,000 mark. OKC, SAC, MIN, POR, & NY have lost the fewest number of games while ORL, LAL, LAC, MIL, & IND have surrendered the most.
— Jeff Stotts (@InStreetClothes) November 23, 2021
2) There's no identity
With so many players in and out of the lineup, the Lakers have been unable to discover an identity. Their pace, rotations, wing play, shooting, and effort are painfully unreliable. Russell Westbrook offers a different experience each quarter.
Growing pains and learning curves are natural. But that's the risk you take when you bring so few players back.
“We haven’t really been able to see what the vision of this roster is going to look like,” Vogel said on Friday.
3) Concerns about LeBron?
Coming off his suspension, LeBron got his swagger back in a throwback takeover in Indiana, featuring epic clutch buckets, booting fans, playing point-center, and Big Balls and The Silencer celebrations.
LeBron CLUTCH and he dances on em 🤣pic.twitter.com/puS13MSXlL
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) November 25, 2021
The first month of James' 19th season has been a mixed bag. Early on, he was flying around and dialed in on defense, even if he was settling for more long jumpers than ever. His numbers (24.6/5.0/6.1) are relatively modest.
He missed eight games with an abdominal strain, just when he and Westbrook were starting to find a groove.
The Pacers' performance was a refreshing sight, though LeBron again struggled to finish around the rim — a legit cause for concern.
Even the LeBron-at-5 lineup, which has killed in a small sample size, can only be deployed occasionally due to the burden it puts on James.
“It’s something we consider,” Vogel said. “You have to measure what that does for his workload. Whether that’s something that we just want to use in small doses when needed or if it’s going to become part of us on a regular basis. I think everything’s on the table with this year’s team.”
All of these are stark reminders of the risks of depending on a 37-year old.
4) AD's Grade: A-
The Lakers need LeBron at full strength to contend, but they need Davis to be their best player in order to reach their ceiling — and for an 18th banner to do the same. For the most part, AD has met their expectations.
The bad: Health scares, three-point shooting (18.9%), and settling for too many early long twos. His effort can wain a bit.
The good: Davis is putting up 24.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, and leading the Lakers in VORP and Win Shares.
5) Russ' Grade: C+
Westbrook has been predictably unpredictable: alternatively brilliant, confounding, electric, and detrimental. He's delivered in crunch time and overseen blown chances.
He's shown glimpses of jelling with LeBron and Davis, though the three have only played 140 minutes together (-2.2 net rating).
Westbrook is averaging 20/8.5/8.6 on .431/.303/697 splits. The Lakers are 6.1 points per 100 possession better with him off the floor.
After laughing off his turnovers in the preseason, Westbrook is leading the league in giveaways. He hasn't been able to consistently get the offense in a rhythm, and his defensive struggles are infectious.
6) The Lakers biggest problem
The Lakers knowingly sacrificed defense for offense this offseason. The results are yet to justify that approach.
Third-quarter lapses, double-digit deficits, and blown leads have all been unflattering characteristics of the Lakers season. But those are reflective of a lack of available depth and inconsistent effort.
Structurally, the Lakers' defense is a glaring, real issue. The Lakers rank 29th in opponent points per game (113.2), 19th in defensive rating and 18th in opposing field goal percentage. They've surrendered the 27th most points in the paint per 100 possessions — arguably more a symptom of not being able to man-up on the perimeter as much as their rim protection. There's a reason Vogel is increasingly going to zone despite admittedly despising it.
“We’re struggling to contain quick, deep-shooting guards with this year’s personnel,” Vogel said after his team's loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Nov. 6. He echoed those sentiments after Tuesday's defeat at Madison Square Garden.
“We’re evolving as a defense,” Vogel admitted. “Our coaching staff is trying to be really creative with the personnel that we have and trying to put them in positions to succeed. There are some details to our man-to-man defense that are taking time for our guys to pick up, and we’re having too many breakdowns, especially early in the game.”
7) Assessing offseason moves
On the flip side, the Lakers are shooting a bit worse (34.9%) from three than they did last season (35.5%) — though numbers are down league-wide (let Dwight shoot!) Every wing they added to the roster — save Reaves — has either not played or played inconsistently, at best.
To make matters worse, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schroder have thrived in their next stops.
8) Vogel on the hot seat?
“The good news is we have seen this Coach Vogel effect defensively where, with last year’s group with the group, where his system and his discipline and his teaching and his focus on that side of the ball translated into success,” Rob Pelinka said in September about his head coach.
In other words: the pressure is on Vogel to turn this team into a passable defensive unit.
Whether it's fair to blame Vogel for their shortcomings considering the roster churn and injuries, it's reasonable to wonder if he's the right fit for this squad. Vogel is not an offensive guru; asking him to maximize this reformed, ill-fitting roster on that end is a tough task, especially without a true offensive coordinator. (The Lakers overhauled their training and assistant coaching staffs, to apparent mixed results thus far.)
Vogel's lineup choices have raised eyebrows. He's used Rajon Rondo and DeAndre Jordan too much. He hasn't always surrounded Westbrook with the right players to promote his downhill attacking. He's removed multiple stars at the same time for key stretches. The team's effort has been up-and-down, which is both easy and impossible to pin that on the coach.
Vogel's scheme and defensive chops are proven. He's overseen five top-three defenses and three teams with the top defensive rating. However, if the Lakers' personnel is going to prevent them from being an elite defensive team, anyway, then an offensive-minded coach would probably make more sense. (Davis even called out the Lakers' predictable coverages in their loss to the Thunder.)
Rumors are swirling. In Marc Stein's recent Substack, he reported that folks around the league think Vogel's seat may be heating up. Per BetOnline, Vogel is +250 to be the next coach fired, second only to Dwayne Casey.
9) The bright spot
Carmelo Anthony has been everything the Lakers could have asked, and more.
Anthony is averaging 15.0 PPG, electrifying Staples Center with every shot attempt. He's earned plaudits for his defensive communication and intangibles.
“He’s been terrific for us, really terrific, from a leadership standpoint, from a care factor standpoint,” Vogel said. “He’s been all-in, in terms of, we have new players and our culture. He hasn’t only bought in but he’s made sure his teammates bought in to what we’re trying to accomplish. He’s focused on the defensive side of the ball — which is something he hasn’t been known for throughout his career. You can see how it’s a special opportunity for him. He’s giving it his all.”
Anthony is shooting 43.8% from three. Can he keep it up?
10) Best win
Most fans would probably say the Lakers' resilient victory vs. the Miami Heat. If you asked the Lakers, they would pick Sunday's disaster-averting triumph over the Pistons, in which they showed real fight after LeBron's ejection and erased a 15-point fourth-quarter deficit.
11) Worst loss
12) Best plays
LeBron's takeover in Indiana:
Westbrook's season-saving dunk:
WESTBROOK. UNLEASH HELL!!! pic.twitter.com/E1KW736cEb
— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) November 22, 2021
on a positive note, THT's thumb looks OK https://t.co/11u0h71XTH
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) November 16, 2021
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) November 19, 2021
AD welcomes Cade Cunningham to the Association:
No clue what Cade Cunningham thought was going to happen here. This is his welcome to the NBA moment.
And there's a very small list of players in the league who can do what Anthony Davis does on this sequence. pic.twitter.com/To8nZWMhXn
— Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) November 22, 2021
13) Biggest surprise
Even after an impressive preseason, Austin Reaves cracking the rotation piece came sooner than anybody saw coming (including me, who predicted he would at some point). The bigger surprise? How integral he already feels — especially in crunch-time — and how much they've missed him since he injured his hamstring.
Austin Reaves on the money to Dwight Howard with a solid seal and strong finish 😤
Lakeshow is gaining a whole lot of momentum 👀 pic.twitter.com/JXocnH8Lkc
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) October 25, 2021
(runner-up: The Crypto.com news).
14) The curious case of Talen Horton-Tucker
What an odd stretch for THT (who can now legally drink!).
Including his sterling season debut on Nov. 15, Horton-Tucker had three of the best games of his career. He averaged 23.3 points on 40% three-point shooting and, dazzled on both ends.
This THT reverse layup 🤭 pic.twitter.com/x7kzMFwqqR
— JMYo (@JediYoyo) November 14, 2021
Then, he seemed to tweak his surgically-repaired thumb in Milwaukee and was in and out of the starting lineup for the next three games as LeBron returned. He got roasted by Jayson Tatum and looked lost off the ball. He's averaged 4.5 PPG on 7-of-27 shooting over the past four outings.
“I was just talking to him: ‘When you got back, ‘Bron wasn’t playing, so you was the second or third option scoring-wise. Now, he’s back and you’re in the starting lineup, and you’re third or fourth.’ And he has to figure out ways to score the basketball,” AD said he relayed to THT. “Cutting or setting a pick to get a guy open, to get him open, you know, the little things. That’s what you have to do.”
Vogel admitted the Lakers haven't figured out the precise role for THT.
“We tried using him as a point guard instead of Rondo in the minutes that Russ was out,” he said after the Knicks loss. “I don’t know if that had anything to do with [his shooting]. We’ll have to look at the tape. There were two plays where he went to the basket early in the game and got fouled and ended up missing the shot and the whistle didn’t blow, and sometimes that affects your confidence. I’m not sure.”
15) Limited routes to mid-season upgrades
If things don't turn around, the Lakers won't hesitate to seek improvements. But, Los Angeles — over the cap, with little draft capital, and comprised of mostly giant or minimum contracts — is extremely limited in trade resources. Well, unless they're willing to deal Horton-Tucker ($10 million) or Nunn ($5 million) — whose value is TBD until he gets back on the floor.
16) Who should play center?
Vogel is on the record acknowledging that he would prefer to play Davis at the 5, but Ariza's injury has caused them to mix and match. LeBron at the 5 is a nifty maneuver but isn't a long-term solution, and Davis will obviously be on the court for the bulk of the game, anyway. Either way, DeAndre Jordan has struggled immensely and shouldn't be seeing the floor (Dwight Howard remains effective in short spurts).
Vogel said the Lakers can't be truly evaluated until Ariza (and Nunn) return, presumably because it allows them to get a real sample size of an AD/LeBron/Ariza starting frontcourt.
17) Biggest disappointment
Kent Bazemore won the starting job (which meant a lot to him) coming out of training camp. After a decent opening week on both ends, Bazemore spiraled into a funk defined by missed bunnies and frustrated body language.
Since Oct. 29, Bazemore is shooting 26% from the field and 14.3% from 3. He's racked up four DNP-CDs. He remains a supportive teammate, but the Lakers' offseason will look a lot different if one of the few defense-first players they added ends up not being a meaningful contributor.
- Lakers vs. Refs: The Lakers have been at odds with officials all season — not including LeBron's suspension. Vogel has taken issue with AD's lack of free throws and said the Lakers have filed multiple reports to the league. (They rank 5th in FT attempts per game FWIW.) The Lakers are second in technical fouls per game. They had two points and a possession mysteriously erased from existence, and Davis got ejected while tying his shoe. The good news: they improved their free-throw shooting since Vogel told ClutchPoints it was an area they needed to improve.
- LeBron vs. Isaiah Stewart: James blamed his suspension on Stewart's reaction. He insisted it was an accident, apologized right away, and reportedly sought out his contact info postgame to explain himself. When asked on Wednesday if he had reached Stewart, LeBron responded with a curt “no.” We'll see what happens when they face-off on Sunday. (In the game before Detroit, LeBron took issue with Enes Kanter's use of his likeness after Kanter criticized James' business in China.)
19) Looking ahead
To this point, the Lakers schedule has primarily comprised of home games against lottery teams. Soon, things will get tougher. Beginning with the Brooklyn Nets showdown on Christmas, they'll face mostly playoff-caliber teams until the All-Star break. Their second half is littered with road games and back-to-backs.
20) In conclusion: It's too early to grade the Lakers, but it's not too early to worry. We only know one thing for sure: it hasn't been boring.