After missing 17 games with a groin injury, LeBron James returned to action this week and led the Los Angeles Lakers to a much-needed win over the Clippers. The team went 6-11 without James, so his return was crucial if the Lakers wanted to cling to any hope of making the playoffs this season.
As it is, they now sit in 10th place in the Western Conference after going 1-3 this past week. Unfortunately, James was forced to play a whopping 40 minutes in his first game back, which was not desired but necessary if the Lakers were going to get a win.
The consequence was he was too sore to play in the next game, which was a road loss in the Bay Area to the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers played well for three quarters and after trailing early they surged to a 10-point lead in the third quarter.
However, as has been the case far too often this season, the Lakers collapsed in the fourth quarter leading to a comfortable win for the Warriors.
There is tremendous unease surrounding the Lakers right now. The incessant trade rumors involving all of the young players and the speculation that head coach Luke Walton’s job is in serious jeopardy is a major distraction no matter how many times it is downplayed.
To end the week, it was reported that there was a heated confrontation following the Warriors game between Walton and Michael Beasley and JaVale McGee, and perhaps others. To top it off, James is now being evaluated on a game-by-game basis until the All Star break, which creates a further cloud of uncertainty.
What Went Right
The return of James last week was undeniably a highlight. He said after the Clippers’ game that he was only playing at 80 percent strength, but he still managed a near triple-double with 24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in an overtime thriller which the Lakers won, 123-120.
If anything was proven while James was out, it was that without him the Lakers are roughly equivalent to the Phoenix Suns. The front office assembled a flawed roster this past summer, and without James those flaws were magnified for all to see.
If James has proven anything this season, he is just as good and valuable as has always been advertised.
Rajon Rondo also had a strong week. Over and above his solid statistics, it was his vocal leadership on the court that was so pivotal. The Lakers put up little fight to start the week against the Philadelphia 76ers, but Rondo had 11 assists and seven rebounds.
He followed up with 14 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists against the Clippers, and 12 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds against the Warriors.
With Lonzo Ball expected to miss the next month, it was fortuitous that Rondo returned from his own lengthy absence when he did.
Brandon Ingram had a mostly solid week, picking up the scoring slack and shooting very efficiently from mid-range. In the past couple of weeks, with Kyle Kuzma hampered with strained hip that has rendered him ineffective, it was Ingram who took the lead most nights which included a career-high 36 points against the 76ers.
Not only did Ingram score 36 points in that contest, he was an outstanding 16-for-20 from the field and had five rebounds and five assists. It was one of the best all-around games of his career.
In the past, when he had a big game it would be followed by disappearing in the next contest, but Ingram followed up with 19 points against the Clippers and 20 against the Warriors. Ingram’s mid-range game is becoming more and more consistent.
Lance Stephenson also had a big week off the bench, so much so that he played most of the fourth quarter and the entire overtime period in the win over the Clippers. In total, he played 30 minutes and finished with 20 points which included connecting on five three-point shots. He really kept the Lakers in the game for much of the contest until James took over.
What Went Wrong
While it was great to get James back in time to defeat the Clippers, for the most part this was another bleak period.
The team showed little fight in the loss to the 76ers. Their body language suggested from the very start of the game that they knew they had no chance, which is how they played. They did not play especially well against the Clippers either, but James did just enough when it counted in the second half to secure the win.
They battled back to take a third quarter lead a lead against the Warriors but selfish, lackadaisical play in fourth quarter was a script we’ve seen too many times this season. The Warriors game was a study in contrasts.
The Warriors have great shooters, but what is noticeable is that all their players move the ball until they find someone who is open. With the Lakers, Ingram, Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and Kentavious-Caldwell Pope in particular are prong to holding the ball too long and/or taking ill-advised shots.
Ingram, in particular, dribbles far too much. It is especially noticeable in the fourth quarter of games, where the ball stops moving entirely.
Apparently Walton thought the same thing and criticized the players for it after the Warriors game, which is reportedly what led to the confrontation.
Walton deserves his fair share of the criticism. Too often his rotations make no sense, and a player will be on the court 25 minutes one night and eight minutes the next. He insists on playing 10 or more players every game, and it is not always the same 10 players.
He waits too long to bring the starters back in the fourth quarter, and he can’t seem to get the players to move the ball consistently. Too many nights he can’t motivate the team to play with energy.
McGee was having the best year of his career and was instrumental in the team’s success earlier this season. He was out for seven games with pneumonia, and he has not looked like the same player since his return. But still, did he deserve to lose his starting role?
Further, Walton is prone to playing all three of his centers many nights, which makes no sense, and he tends to feature one center over the others for no apparent reason.
Walton’s luck has not been good this year. Except for a handful of games earlier in the season, the team has never been at full strength. Losing James for 17 games just as the Lakers were reaching their peak with a Christmas Day win over the Warriors, and then losing Ball just when he seemed to be coming into his own, was brutal.
But still, Walton has done himself no favors with his inability to install an effective half-court offense, his inconsistent rotations and his inability to motivate.
It is time to admit that Hart is suffering through a poor sophomore season. So much was expected of him based on how he finished last year and how well he looked over the summer, but it just hasn’t materialized. His scoring is down to nothing and his defense is good at times but inconsistent.
Part of the problem is that he has been shuttled back and forth all season between starting and coming off the bench, and he is asked to play three different positions including power forward, which is a stretch for someone of his size.
Kuzma had a poor week, either the result of trying to play through injuries, the impact of the trade rumors all of which include him in the package to New Orleans, or both. He has lost the spring in his step and while he is battling on defense, he is not having much of an impact on the offensive end.
He did not play against the 76ers and took only eight and 12 shots, respectively, in the following two contests. With James out, Kuzma is the team’s leading scorer who should be taking 20 shots a night.
For those who have been following D’Angelo Russell’s excellent season for the Brooklyn Nets, he is averaging 19.7 points per game but he takes 18 shots per game. In recent weeks, as his average has increased, Russell routinely takes 25.
Kuzma has just not been the aggressive, confident player he was last season, despite the fact his scoring average is up.
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