The Los Angeles Lakers prevailed in two of the three games they played this past week. One victory came on the road in Cleveland and the other was at home against the Utah Jazz. The week ended with the a second loss to the Orlando Magic in the past eight days, this time at Staples Center.
The Lakers have a record of 11-8 on the season, and they have won nine of their last 12 games. Still, even their wins last week were ugly as the team did not play well as turnovers and missed free throws were a common theme.
It is beginning to sound like a broken record, but LeBron James carried the Lakers on his back yet again. There were nice, sporadic contributions from a few teammates, but no one other than James was consistent nor was any other player’s contribution especially noteworthy with the possible exception of JaVale McGee, who continues to exceed all expectations.
In the absence of a consistent, legitimate No. 2 option, the Lakers are forced to try to win by committee. On the positive side, the Lakers have their best record in years and are solidly in the playoff hunt in the Western Conference.
On the negative side, unless someone emerges as a consistent 20-points-per-game scorer to complement James, the Lakers are going to struggle even when they win.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong this week as the team approaches the end of the first quarter of the 2018-19 season.
What Went Right
A win is a win, no matter how ugly the game, and in particular any road win is great regardless of the opponent.
That is the most that can be said of the Lakers’ 109-105 victory over the Cavaliers team that entered the matchup with the worst record in the NBA. James returned to Cleveland for the first time since signing with the Lakers as a free agent this summer.
He received a warm reception, which was appropriate. The Lakers, however, played with little energy and passion and gave the Cavaliers every opportunity to win.
They were only able to escape with a victory because James finished with 32 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists. Lonzo Ball played arguably his best game of the season against the Cavaliers, finishing with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists.
Ball was the team’s second-highest scorer in the game, which would ordinarily be ominous but was enough on that night. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope chipped in with 13 points as he continued to feel more comfortable coming off the bench.
The Lakers won another ugly game a few nights later against a struggling Jazz team that lost star Donovan Mitchell in the first half and could not possibly have played any worse. Their 83 points for the game was the lowest total by a Lakers opponent all season, partially the result of effective defense by the Lakers and partially the result of a poor effort by Utah.
Against the Jazz, the Lakers had a season-high 24 turnovers and season-low 10 assists. One interesting stat line belonged to Brandon Ingram, who scored a team-high 24 points but also led the team with 6 turnovers and a slew of missed free throws.
On the season, he is only making 67 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe, which is very poor. After the Lakers were blown out in Orlando, most assumed they would be ready for revenge in the rematch at Staples Center to end the week.
The Lakers surged to a 12-point lead early in the game behind 13 points, 4 assists and 3 rebounds from Kyle Kuzma in the first quarter alone. JaVale McGee finished with 12 points, 7 rebounds and an astounding 7 blocks, but this was a rare game in which James could not carry the Lakers to a win.
They collapsed in the third quarter and trailed by 16 points. They came back to tie the game with a couple minutes left, led by an unlikely source, Lance Stephenson, who had 13 points in 15 minutes including four 3-pointers.
The Lakers did not score again and suffered a disappointing loss which for the moment stalls their momentum.
To summarize the week, in the absence of a genuine second option, the Lakers saw various players step up but only sporadically. At different times it was Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson, Kuzma, Ingram, Ball or McGee. But no one other than James played at a high level consistently.
What Went Wrong
The Lakers seemed utterly incapable of defending the Magic this month, and in particular D.J. Augustin and Nikola Vucevic. The versatile center finished with 31 points and 15 rebounds in this game after having 36 points and 14 rebounds in the Magic’s win over the Lakers in Orlando.
It is becoming abundantly clear that the Lakers’ fortunes this year are going to hinge largely on Ingram and Kuzma, which is looking more and more like a problem. James is going to do his part, and most nights that will be enough. But this model is not sustainable indefinitely, and Ingram and Kuzma must play much better or the Lakers will struggle even when they win.
Ingram has been aggressive all season, but in the process he has forgotten how to move the ball. He rarely passes, and every time he touches the ball the movement stops and everyone watches him dribble and dribble until he forces up a shot. Ingram has committed 11 turnovers in the past two games alone, and his free throw shooting is at 67 percent, which is woefully inadequate.
Kuzma scored in single digits in three of the past four games prior to the contest with the Magic, and he was becoming more and more of an afterthought on the team. This was disappointing to many fans who expected him to emerge as a star this year.
Against the Magic, Kuzma had a strong first quarter. But as has happened far too often this season, he disappeared after the first quarter and had only 8 more points, 1 rebound and 1 assist the rest of the way.
He was invisible in the fourth quarter, when he barely touched the ball and looked as though he was content to stand around and watch James, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope and Stephenson try to win the game.
Why Kuzma tends to play well in the first quarter and then disappear for the rest of the game is an enigma. He had better figure it out, or his role as a starter and perhaps his future with the team could be compromised as he is letting his teammates down by his passive approach.
Speaking of the young core, something is wrong with Josh Hart right now. He barely scored all week and did not score at all against the Magic. He started the year strong but has all but disappeared, and it appears that head coach Luke Walton has valued Caldwell-Pope to the detriment of Hart.
He is hampered by an injured ankle, but whether that is the real problem or not, he is really struggling on both ends of the court and especially on defense, which is supposed to be his strong suit.
James excelled in most facets of the game this week but is having trouble with turnovers and free throws. He had 6 turnovers in the game with the Magic following his 5 turnovers against the Jazz, matching Ingram with a total of 11 turnovers in two games.
James is also struggling from the free throw line. He was only 6-for-11 from the line against Orlando, and since he is fouled so often, the missed free throws are making it harder for the Lakers to win and even when they do, it makes the games much closer.
Caldwell-Pope started the season poorly but improved earlier this month and has been getting plenty of minutes that past 10 games. The problem is, most often he is either unstoppable or can’t buy a shot.
Against the Jazz, he was 2-for-7 from the field and 0-of-3 from three-point range. Against the Magic, he was 1-for-7 from the field and many of his misses came with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter when Ingram and Kuzma watched James and Caldwell-Pope try to win the game.
On the positive side, he played generally strong defense and did have 5 steals against Orlando. The Lakers have a winning record and that is a good thing. But as this week showed, they have a long way to go before they will become a good team.