The championship-or-bust Lakers currently sit well outside the championship picture. How much should we be worried about L.A.’s slow start?
The Lakers introduced significant downside risk to their season the moment they traded for Russell Westbrook, but it was hard to see things going this poorly this fast. We knew it would be difficult for Frank Vogel to merge Westbrook’s inefficient, inflexible offense with LeBron James’ ball-dominant style; that the number of declining veterans on the roster could make it difficult to construct another top-flight defense; that key players might be susceptible to regression, injury or both. It was always possible, even likely, that this team would stumble over one roadblock or another, but L.A. has managed to run smack into nearly every obstacle through its first 16 games.
For most teams, an 8-8 record wouldn’t be cause for panic, but for a franchise in an all-out pursuit of a NBA title, a .500 start with the league’s sixth-worst point differential is a concerning place to be. Most notable among the Lakers’ concerns is the health of James, who has missed the last 10 games with an abdominal strain and, nearing his 37th birthday, has dealt with nagging injuries that have hampered his effectiveness and availability in each of the last two seasons.
Without a dominant LeBron, none of the Lakers’ other strengths or weaknesses will be relevant to the title race. But even accounting for the inevitable step back caused by James’ absence, the Lakers’ season has been riddled with red flags. They’ve struggled against some of the NBA’s very worst teams and, save for an overtime win over the sluggish and shorthanded Heat, have been consistently outclassed against the league’s best.
Can the Lakers dig themselves out of this hole?
The theory of Westbrook’s value to the Lakers rested largely upon his ability to keep the offense viable with James off the court. The fit between the two players may not be ideal, but at least L.A. would have a second offensive floor-raiser and safety net if James missed extended time. Yet since James went out of the lineup, the bottom has completely fallen out of the offense.
Westbrook has never been one for restraint on the basketball court, but as his athleticism has deteriorated and his skill level has plateaued, the inability to temper his play style has torpedoed his value. Westbrook is averaging less than a point per scoring attempt while soaking up a third of the team’s possessions with a shot, free throw or turnover; he’s turned the ball over nearly a fifth of those possessions. He isn’t as quick or explosive off the dribble as he once was, which has severely reduced his effectiveness around the rim:
Such ghastly efficiency from such a high-usage player makes it mathematically impossible for Westbrook to lead an efficient team offense, so it stands to reason that the Lakers have scored just 103 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor — 6.5 points worse than when he sits.
Those numbers suggest the team would be better off moving Westbrook into a less central role, but that option is functionally unavailable because of the point guard’s off-ball limitations. He’s shooting just 29 percent from 3 this season and remains one of the least engaged off-ball players in the league, making him a complete non-threat to opposing defenses when he doesn’t have the ball. Moving Westbrook into an ancillary role would only invite his defender to help off of him and muck up the action elsewhere. Watch as Westbrook’s defender abandons him to barricade the lane on Anthony Davis’ post-up:
Even if Westbrook could provide value without the ball, the Lakers lack another primary ball-handler to pick up the slack. A somewhat resurgent Carmelo Anthony has soaked up shots with James out, but his subpar passing and potentially unsustainable 3-point shooting prevent him from being a dependable catalyst, and playing him heavy minutes comes with a costly defensive tradeoff.
Davis, meanwhile, is far better as a play finisher than as a creator, and James’ absence has exposed some of his limitations as a primary source of offense. A career-low 57 percent of his field goals have been assisted this season, and Davis has struggled to create for others with opponents focusing more of their efforts on slowing him down. The lack of a reliable jumper or a playmaker who can consistently set up looks at the rim has squeezed more of Davis’ offense into the mid-range, where he too often settles for long 2s instead of attacking the basket:
To his credit, Davis has at least added value on defense, which is more than most of his teammates can claim. The Lakers currently own the NBA’s 19th-best defense — not terrible in a vacuum, but not close to the level they’ll need to reach in order to sniff the NBA Finals. More than half of the players on the roster are defensive liabilities, and L.A. has collectively shown little urgency or discipline on that end of the floor.
No guard but Avery Bradley can adequately apply pressure on the ball or get over screens. Westbrook frequently loses focus on the weak side, or simply leaves his assignment to take hopeless gambles. Save for James and Davis, every member of the frontcourt has been relentlessly targeted in pick-and-roll, and even Davis hasn’t consistently brought peak levels of activity or intensity on defense.
Playing so many ineffective defenders at once leaves the Lakers perpetually vulnerable in at least one area of the floor. Scheming to avoid a poor defender being exploited often requires moving a different, equally bad defender into the action. Sparing a slow-footed veteran from guarding an opposing star player only places that burden on another limited teammate. Putting everything on Davis and James simply isn’t feasible.
The good news is that the Lakers are still 8-8, and it would be hard for their situation to get worse. Westbrook has begun to trend ever so slightly in the right direction and James could return to the lineup as early as Friday. Placing an efficient scorer and playmaker back at the helm should help restore balance to the offense and mitigate Westbrook’s damaging contributions. But L.A. will have a lot to figure out between James’ return and the playoffs if it wants to reclaim its status as a genuine postseason threat.
James has earned the benefit of the doubt throughout his career, but nothing else about the Lakers’ season right now suggests they deserve it.
A change in Steph Curry’s rotation pattern
For most of his tenure as the Warriors’ head coach, Steve Kerr has kept one of the most consistent rotation patterns in the NBA. You could set your watch to Steph Curry playing the entire first quarter (or close to it), beginning the second on the bench, then checking back in for the final six minutes of the half; rinse, repeat in the second half.
Even when the Warriors struggled to score with Curry on the bench (as they nearly always have) and opponents made lopsided runs in the second and fourth quarters, Kerr stuck tightly to this structure as a way to keep Curry’s workload under control and help him maintain a rhythm. And so, the Warriors went into this season using the same pattern, tethering Curry and Draymond Green together at the start and close of each half. But as Golden State jumped out to an 11-1 start and built up a margin for error, Kerr began experimenting with a more flexible approach.
On Nov. 3, in a win over the Hornets, Curry hit the bench midway through the first and two quarters, breaking his playing time into three shorter stretches per half while Green played two longer stretches to bookend each half. As the great Todd Whitehead also noted, the distribution of Curry’s minutes has varied from night to night since that game, but Kerr has maintained that general structure.
The obvious downside of that approach is that it reduces the amount of time Golden State’s best players spend together. Arguably the most potent offensive duo in basketball, Green and Curry perfectly accentuate one another’s strengths and telepathically improvise genius sequences that produce wide-open shots — the result of nearly a decade playing together. Each player is better when playing with the other, and the Warriors have smashed opponents by over 14 points per 100 possessions with the two on the floor this season.
By definition, staggering them cuts down on those dominant minutes. Last year, Green was on the court for 80 percent of Curry’s minutes, but that number has dropped to 61 percent in the last eight games — roughly six fewer minutes per game that Golden State can access its best lineups.
The theoretical tradeoff is that splitting the two up unlocks a wider range of lineup combinations and allows the Warriors to better navigate the minutes with Curry off the floor. Golden State has perennially struggled to score when the two-time MVP hits the bench, so using Green’s passing and screening to facilitate for scorers like Poole and Andrew Wiggins could help mitigate that dropoff.
Curry, meanwhile, is such a devastating offensive force that he can keep offensively-challenged bench lineups well above water without Green. So far, however, only one part of that theory has proven true. The Warriors are decimating opponents when Curry plays without Green, but they’re still getting outscored in the opposite alignment. It’s still too early to render final verdicts on those lineups, but it will be worth monitoring whether separating Curry and Green eventually yields the intended results. If not, it may not be worth sacrificing their combined power for marginally better (read: less terrible) results with Curry off the floor.