The Los Angeles Lakers earned their first two wins of the regular season this past week. Their record was 2-2, with the losses coming as bookends to start and finish the week.
Want to get your content COMPLETELY AD FREE? Follow us on Apple News!
Both defeats were to the San Antonio Spurs, who the Lakers unexpectedly swept last season. One was by a single point in overtime and the other by a mere four points after the Lakers led most of the game.
Sandwiched between the losses were a road win against the Phoenix Suns and one at home against the previously-unbeaten Denver Nuggets. In those contests, the Lakers provided a glimpse of what type of team they can become as the season progresses.
There are still issues to work on, but as head coach Luke Walton explained, things are moving in the right direction.
The wins were accomplished without Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo, who were suspended for four games and three games, respectively, after an altercation in the fourth quarter of a game against the Houston Rockets.
In their absence, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma flourished in the starting lineup. With Rondo available Saturday night, Ball still got the start but played fewer minutes than Rondo (29 to 27), and both were on the court at the end which did not work well.
The team was succeeding in part because with Rondo and Ingram out, the rotations were easy to set and seemed to be working. With Rondo back, the coaching staff struggled to figure out who should be playing, especially down the stretch. This will become an even bigger issue Monday night when Ingram returns.
The Lakers played well all week until the final game in San Antonio, when the offense foundered (with the exception of James, who scored 35 points). Here are the positives and negatives from the week.
What Went Right
There were quite a few positives last week week, both for the team as a collective group and for several individuals.
In the two games the Lakers won, the players did a much better job defending without fouling, which was a problem to start this season. The Rockets shot 30 free throws to the Lakers’ 18, with James Harden and Chris Paul receiving a foul call nearly every time they touched the ball.
In the next game, the Spurs shot an astounding 38 free throws. Afterwards, Walton was so frustrated that he was fined $15,000 by league officials for comments critical of the referees.
The Lakers did better after Walton was fined. Even in a second defeat to the Spurs, the latter shot only 24 free throws, a vast improvement from the 38 they shot before.
Until the final game of the week, the Lakers had done an outstanding job sharing the basketball. They had an excellent 34 assists against the Suns, and were not far off that figure in their other games.
James averaged double-digit assists for the week, and until Rondo returned, Ball was close behind. Lance Stephenson had perhaps the assist of the season as he hit a streaking James for a dunk in the second half against the Nuggets.
The Lakers did a better job rebounding the ball in the two games they won. They were able to go small and still hold off the Nuggets at the end. To start the season, the Lakers were allowing opponents to feast on offensive rebounds, especially when JaVale McGee was out, but the team did a much better job until the final game of the week when they lost the rebounding battle 49-42.
As for the strong individual performances, James was outstanding every single night, registering his first triple-double of the year against the Nuggets and passing Dirk Nowitzki on the NBA’s all-time scoring list against the Spurs Saturday night.
He had plenty of support except for the last game when the Lakers scored a season-low 106 points. One significant development this week was Josh Hart’s insertion into the starting lineup in place of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, which happened sooner than most people expected.
Caldwell-Pope got off to a slow start this season and has played only a little better off the bench. Hart has been strong on defense and the team’s best three-point shooter in most games. His offense dipped in the last two contests against the Nuggets and Spurs.
The team received a big boost from two unexpected sources in McGee and Stephenson. McGee has been a revelation, finishing with 20 or more points in consecutive games against the Suns and Nuggets, his first back-to-back 20-point games since 2012.
He had five blocks in one game and four in another, and has been running the court like a wing player. McGee even made a three-point shot this week, the second of his career.
Stephenson was outstanding off the bench. The Lakers would not have defeated the Nuggets without his fourth-quarter heroics when he made two consecutive three-point shots and re-energized the team when it was faltering.
Against the Suns, Stephenson finished with 23 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists. He also played well in the first half of Saturday’s game against the Spurs, scoring 12 points.
Ball and Kuzma were difference-makers until the last game. Ball made his three-point shots at better than a 40 percent clip and also showed marked improvement from mid-range and at the rim. He had five steals against the Nuggets, including one highlight moment when he stole the ball from Jamal Murray and made an easy layup.
Kuzma averaged 22 points a game last week. In Ingram’s absence, he was able to start and play the forward position, where he thrived in comparison to when he is asked to play center as a reserve. Still, it is almost certain that Kuzma will now return to the bench as Ingram will be ready to play in the next game.
Heading into the season, the biggest question was who would fit best alongside James. He should have the ball in his hands with every possession, as he can score and set up others better than anyone.
The coaching staff may not have figured it out yet, but Ingram and Rondo seem to need the ball in their hands to be most effective, while Kuzma and Ball are more adept at playing off ball thus fitting better with James.
What Went Wrong
The biggest problem is what to do at backup center. Ivica Zubac has gotten one meaningful opportunity this season, in the first game against the Spurs, when he committed five fouls in less than five minutes.
The Lakers re-signed Jonathan Williams, who works hard and has done an admirable job, but at 6’9” he is not really a center. As an undrafted rookie on a two-way contract, Williams is also limited in how many games he is allowed to play for the Lakers.
The only other option is Moritz Wagner, a rookie who missed the entire preseason with a knee injury and was recently sent to rehab in the G League. Wagner is full of energy and spirit, but he is very young and untested.
While he has the height, he is more of a stretch 5 than a banger on the inside which is what the Lakers seem to need most. It is inconceivable that the front office will not make a move sooner than later to shore up the center position, especially if they continue to struggle.
Another issue was three-point shooting. The Lakers are averaging a subpar 10 made 3-pointers per game. Ironically, they made a season-high 13 three-point shots, to only three for the Spurs, but San Antonio still won.
After six games, no one is attempting more than six three-point shots or averaging more than 2.5 makes per game. Hart has probably been the most reliable outside shooter, but he suffered through two poor shooting games to end the week.
Finally, Michael Beasley has fallen out of the rotation entirely. He looked uncomfortable on the court when he played and contributed little. How long Beasley will continue to sit on the bench before it becomes a locker room problem is something to watch carefully.
The Lakers were given a very difficult schedule to start the season. In the end, they showed improvement throughout the week, but the issue of re-integrating Rondo and Ingram into the rotation may prove tricky.
The Lakers need to keep winning as the Western Conference is better than ever with every team looking improved except for the Suns and Sacramento Kings.