After a promising start to the season, the Los Angeles Lakers are in a freefall. After starting 7-5, the team is 3-10 in their last 13 games including a season-worst five consecutive losses. While earlier in the season they played hard and the losses were respectable and usually close, the players are hanging their heads and looked defeated after another loss Friday night at home to the beatable Phoenix Suns.
Half of the Lakers losses this season have been by double digits – several of them high double digits like a 39-point loss to the Houston Rockets, 26-point loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, 17-point defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans, 33-point blowout in Toronto, and 43 and 24-point defeats at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. Perhaps more alarming, the team is now losing to teams they defeated earlier in the season and teams they should beat.
Most of this damage came after D’Angelo Russell was injured. Say what you will about Russell, he is the focal point of this team and without him, they are lost. When Nick Young joined him on the sidelines, both starting guards were out, and the floodgates opened. The remaining players have abandoned everything the team was doing well earlier – the factors which were contributing to unexpected victories and hard-fought, close losses. The team is overwhelmed at the moment, and there is little chance of reversing the downward spiral until the injured players return.
It bears remembering that for all the early-season positives, the front office may have made personnel mistakes over the summer which have come back to haunt the team. Although they have a 15-man roster, only 10 players can contribute at an acceptable NBA-level. That means a third of the roster has little value when called on to play, including Metta World Peace and Jose Calderon whose once-good careers would have ended by now but for the Lakers’ generosity; Marcelo Huertas who was a questionable NBA player to start with; Thomas Robinson, who is playing for his sixth team in four years for a reason; and Ivica Zubac, who is spending his first season mostly in the D-League with the Los Angeles D-Fenders.
With only 10 members of the roster able to make a significant contribution, four of those ten injured, and no reliable outside shooters left other than Lou Williams, the Lakers do not have the players to be competitive right now. Larry Nance, Jr. and Tarik Black are high energy players who were contributing a lot to what has been the league’s highest scoring second unit. Both have missed time (although Nance is now back though playing tentatively), and Calderon, who for better or worse is the backup point guard, is now gone indefinitely. Whatever momentum and positive energy were forming earlier have now evaporated.
Russell, Young, and Black may rejoin the squad next week. Young and Russell could return as soon as tonight against the New York Knicks. It is unrealistic to expect that with their return the Lakers will automatically turn things around right away. They will need to start over and go back to basics, and It may take time to come together. To get there, the coaching staff has to re-instill those virtues that were a cornerstone of the team’s earlier efforts. In case anyone has forgotten, here is what Lakers’ players must re-dedicate themselves to doing on a regular basis.
1. Ball Movement
In recent games, ball movement is non-existent, and assists have disappeared. There were only 18 assists in the last game against the Suns and an embarrassing 14 assists the game before against the Rockets. This is reminiscent of last year when the Lakers had fewer assists than any other team. Lou Williams is thriving because he is now free to shoot every time he touches the ball, which is what he prefers it anyway, but everyone else has disappeared.
The Lakers don’t have many players who can ably create their own shots, which is why ball movement is so important — that way players get open shots. Watching the Utah Jazz move the ball in their recent victory over the Lakers was a thing of beauty. Even the Suns, losers of three straight games until the other night, moved the ball well and finished with 26 assists.
The Lakers were thriving when they were moving the ball and getting better shots. They need to return to that style of play.
2. Energy and Intensity of Defense
It would be an exaggeration to say that the Lakers defense has been stellar at any time this year, but there were moments in the fourth quarter of close games that the defense looked vastly improved over last season. That has not occurred recently, however. Teams are scoring with little resistance, and there is poor defensive rotation.
On the perimeter and in the paint, no one is putting in the necessary effort to lock down his man. Against the Suns, there were numerous instances when Eric Bledsoe driving to the basket with virtually no one even trying to block his path. On the perimeter, the elderly Leandro Barbosa looked like Kevin Durant in the face of no Lakers’ resistance.
If the Lakers are going to turn things around again, they have to go back to playing defense with much greater energy and intensity at least during key moments of the game. As Coach Walton has said, defense is all about effort, and you should give that effort even on nights when shots are not falling. Right now, there is little effort at all on the defensive end which is alarming.
3. Young Core Needs to Re-Focus
The Lakers are getting all they can reasonably expect from their veterans right now. Williams is scoring a lot of points, Mozgov is playing competently, and Luol Deng has looked a little better after contributing absolutely nothing most of the season. But it bears remembering that this is an average group, and the Lakers are going to be judged this season on the progress of the young core. On that issue, there is much work to be done.
Assuming he returns soon, Russell will have missed a month in the middle of his all-important sophomore season. With much to prove, he could ill afford to miss that much time. Likewise, Julius Randle continues to be maddeningly up and down, excelling one game and disappearing the next. The future depends heavily on Russell and Randle, and both have a long way to go before proving anything.
Jordan Clarkson has had a disappointing third season so far, and unless things turn around, it may soon be time to re-think his potential ceiling as an NBA player despite the large contract the Lakers rewarded him with this past summer. He is somewhat improved on defense (though no one could tell in the last game when he was torched by Bledsoe), but he is making a sub-par 42.9 percent of his shots and only 31 percent from three-point range, and that was before his 6-for-17 shooting night against the Suns. His assists have all but disappeared most nights.
Brandon Ingram is young and already does some things well. But his shooting has been very poor all season, and it has to get better. He has been rewarded by Coach Walton with very significant minutes, and with injuries to Russell and Young, it was an opportunity for him to really step up. It did not happen.
Larry Nance, Jr. and Tarik Black have been solid reserves, but both need to avoid injuries and become more aggressive on the offensive end. Both are often left open by opposing defenses who try to double team Williams and Clarkson, but they show great hesitation in taking the shot. This must change, if for no other reason than to make things a little easier for their teammates.
It is worth remembering that this season is all about the growth of the young players. It doesn’t mean much that Williams is having a career scoring year, especially since the team is losing. It is far more important that Russell and Randle learn to play at a high level on a consistent basis, Clarkson finds his shooting touch and shares the ball more; Ingram improves his shooting percentage, and Nance and Black stay healthy and assert themselves on offense. That is what the Lakers need to re-focus on to return to their higher level of play from earlier in the season.