The Los Angeles Lakers began the 2018-19 NBA season with two relatively close losses. On the positive side, their opponents were the first and third seeds in the Western Conference last season, yet the Lakers were in both games to the end.
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On the negative side, there are issues which surfaced that will be hard to resolve with the current roster. A wild melee broke out in the fourth quarter of the game against the Houston Rockets that resulted in the ejections Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram.
Ingram was then suspended four games, with Rondo receiving a three-game ban. Chris Paul was suspended two games for his involvement. This will test the character of a team that hopes to make the playoffs for the first time in five years and cannot afford to fall too far behind in the very tough Western Conference.
Below is a summary of what went right and what went wrong during the week.
What Went Right: The Lakers signed a number of veterans over the summer, all of whom, with the exception of LeBron James, have failed to stick with any one team in recent years.
It was easy to predict what James was going to bring, but as for the others, it was largely a guessing game. In addition to James, three of the veterans have gotten off to strong starts and have met or even exceeded expectations.
At the top of the list is center JaVale McGee. Most were unimpressed when he was signed, as he has played only 10 minutes a game the past few seasons in a minor role off the bench. When it became clear the Lakers front office was not going to sign another center, what started out as mild concern grew much worse.
McGee, however, has been a very pleasant surprise. He had a strong preseason when he played 20 minutes a game and averaged 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds. In the first two games of the regular season, he has been even better.
McGee has averaged 14.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. In the most recent game against the Rockets, he played 20 minutes and scored 16 points, grabbing 6 rebounds and blocking 5 shots.
McGee has been everything the team could have hoped for so far, and more.
Rondo has also gotten off to an excellent start. He is averaging 13 points, 10.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds. He looks every bit as good as he did when he led the New Orleans Pelicans to the second round of the playoffs last season. The Lakers moved the ball well when he was playing.
Lance Stephenson has also done a solid job off the bench this past week, especially in the last game against the Rockets. He played tough defense, was a good ball handler, and made some timely baskets as he finished with 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the floor, to go along with 6 rebounds.
What Went Wrong: The Lakers’ success or failure this season will turn largely on the play of the young core, and in particular, on Ingram and Kyle Kuzma. Lonzo Ball is going to split time with Rondo, Josh Hart is going to share time with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and whichever combination of those players is on the court at a given moment is likely to be fine.
But there is no back-up plan for Ingram and Kuzma, and that is perhaps the biggest concern to emerge from the first week of the regular season. Expectations were through the roof for both players this year, and if either or both does not come through in a big way, the Lakers are in trouble.
Excluding James, they are the only players on the team with the potential to score 20 points a game, and without both of them playing at a high level as the second and third scoring options, the prospect of the Lakers making the playoffs this year will take a big hit.
Ingram is in his third NBA season, and it is time for him show that the Lakers were right to use a No. 2 overall draft pick on him in 2016. Ingram had an undistinguished rookie season but made big gains in every major statistical category last year.
He needs to make a comparable leap this season since, as the only young core member sure to be a starter, he has to become the team’s number 2 option behind James, and he has to do it every night.
Unfortunately, Ingram has not started the season that way. In the first game against Portland, he played 27 minutes and scored 16 points to go along with 4 rebounds and 1 assist. He missed all his three-point attempts. He played fairly well, but not nearly well enough.
Against the Rockets, things were worse. Ingram scored 12 points in 29 minutes, had 4 rebounds and no assists. Again, he did not make a three-point shot. He received two technical fouls, was ejected from the game in the fourth quarter of a close contest, and now is serving a four-game suspension. This is not the kind of start to the season that the team envisioned for Ingram.
Kuzma is ever more worrisome. He is improved on defense defensive as evidence by his two blocks against the Rockets. But he does not remotely resemble the player who was so effective offensively last year, and if his struggles continue, it is a huge problem for the Lakers.
Kuzma was a combined 2-for-12 from three-point range in the first two regular season contests. Even his shots around the rim, that were so impressive last year, are not falling now. At times Kuzma seems to be running at half speed, and at other times he is not moving without the ball to get himself open. The rhythm and form on his jump shot are no longer smooth or confident.
What Went Right: The Lakers started the season against two talented playoff teams from last year that returned most or all of their rosters intact. The entire starting lineup for the Trail Blazers is back as are four of the five Rockets starters.
In both contests, it looked like the Lakers might get blown out, yet they played hard, kept it close, and put themselves in position to win.
The fact is, Ingram is the only starter who was on the team last year and overall there are many new key faces in the rotation. The Lakers’ players barely know one another, and it is going to take time for them to become a cohesive unit.
Fans are going to have to be patient and hope the team does not fall too far behind before they are firing on all cylinders. They have proven that they are already competitive with top teams, and they will get much better.
What Went Wrong: You can point to different statistics to explain why the Lakers started the season with losses, like the fact they were out-rebounded in both games especially on the offensive boards.
You can point to the fact that the team fouls too often which led to many more free throws for the opponents, and the fact that the Lakers, when they did go to the free throw line, missed a lot of shots especially in the Houston game.
But the truth is, the modern NBA is all about three-point shooting, and the biggest reason the Lakers lost their first two games is because they couldn’t make theirs. The Trail Blazers made 13 to the Lakers’ 7, while the Rockets made 16 to the Lakers’ 8.
In the first game of the season, only Josh Hart shot well from deep, making three of five attempts. In the second game, it was Lonzo Ball who was 4-for-8 from behind the arc. A team is not going to win many games making 7 or 8 three-point shots.
It goes without saying that any team which cannot make an average of at least 12 or 13 threes a game is going to struggle to win games.