The Los Angeles Lakers completed a dramatic week which began with a lackluster performance in Minnesota, followed by which president of basket operations Magic Johnson reportedly unloading on head coach Luke Walton for the team’s lack of identity.
The outburst was followed by back-to-back victories, although in both games the Lakers nearly blew a commanding fourth quarter lead, leaving fans gasping for breath and clutching their chests.
In one of those wins, the Lakers ended a 16-game losing streak to the Portland Trail Blazers. To top it off, the victory came on the road which made the result even sweeter.
Just when it appeared the Lakers had turned a corner, however, they were blown out at Staples Center by a Toronto Raptors team that was playing without superstar Kawhi Leonard.
The Lakers were down by 31 points in the first quarter, when they were outscored by a single Raptor, Serge Ibaka, who had 20 points in the period and finished the first half a perfect 11-for-11 from the field en route to a career-high 34 points.
The first 24 minutes of the Raptors game was one of the worst and most embarrassing halves ever endured by a Lakers team. The point differential of 42-17 was the biggest gap in a first quarter of the shot clock era in Lakers’ history.
For the week, LeBron James was again very good, but aside from the surprising JaVale McGee, who is leading the league in blocked shots, James is yet to receive consistent help. Each player has had good moments, but no one has to date been able to sustain that high level of play for four quarters or from game to game
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong in a week which saw the Lakers complete the first 10 games of the season with a record of 4-6.
What Went Right
It is a given that James is going to be the biggest positive each week. He continues to play as well as advertised, and on the season he is averaging 27.8 points per game on 50 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds and 7.3 assists. His three-point shooting was also improved.
One thing that was impressive was how hard he tried to get everyone else involved. Nightly, James gave his teammates a chance to step up and if they did, he was willing to defer. But when the Lakers hit dry spells, as they tended to do in the second half, James is willing to take over the game and try to win it by himself.
McGee continued to shine in as another week passed. No one predicted it, but he has been the team’s most consistent player after James and his game seems to be getting even better. In the victory over Dallas, McGee had 16 points, 15 rebounds and 5 blocks. He followed that up in the victory over Portland with 12 points on 6-8 shooting, 9 rebounds and 6 blocks.
The problem was what happened when McGee had to come out of the game. Moritz Wagner is returning after a lengthy absence due to injury, but he seems a long way off from being ready to contribute.
The Lakers tried Kyle Kuzma and Michael Beasley at the backup center position but that experiment was ineffective. The one game in which Ivica Zubac played earlier this year, against the San Antonio Spurs, was disastrous for Zubac.
Out of desperation, the Lakers had been using undrafted rookie Jonathan Williams as the second unit center, with uninspiring results. In a twist what caught everyone by surprise, when McGee came out of the game against the Trail Blazers, Zubac came trotting onto the court.
Not only that, he was solid factor in the victory playing 20 minutes and scoring nine points while grabbing eight rebounds. He also played against the Raptors, although was less effective.
Several other players, including Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, had occasional good moments last week.
Rondo, who has been coming off the bench after returning from a three-game suspension, was instrumental in leading the team to the win over Portland. He had 13 points, 8 assists and 6 rebounds against the Timberwolves, but it was against the Trail Blazers that he really shined with 17 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists.
Instead of Lonzo Ball, it was Rondo who was on the court in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
Stephenson continued to provide a strong spark off the bench, making key baskets in big moments when the Lakers seemed to be fading. Caldwell-Pope looked more comfortable coming off the bench and has started to score a few points.
Hart struggled after a strong start to the season, but against Portland, he made two, key, three-point shots and found himself on the floor in crunch time with the game on the line.
The Lakers’ struggles were magnified when the second unit was instrumental in the win over Portland but in the next game played poorly against Toronto.
What Went Wrong
The biggest problem this past week was the inconsistent and uninspired play of the young core. The Lakers signed veterans who were supposed to give support off the bench while the youngsters were counted on to provide primary support for James.
So far, they have not resembled the players fans were expecting to see. Of the four, there are fewer expectations and less to worry about with Hart, who has been shuttled around in the rotation and given limited minutes certain nights.
He can be counted on to play hard all of the time and as he demonstrated in the Trail Blazers game, it is difficult to keep him off the court in the fourth quarter when the team needs stops. It bears remembering that the Lakers had lottery picks four years in row.
Two of those selections, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, are already gone. The remaining two, Brandon Ingram and Ball, were the second overall selections in the 2016 and 2017 drafts, respectively. So far on the young season, both have failed to meet expectations.
Ingram, who is now in his third NBA season, was expected to have a breakout year and become a borderline All-Star. On the positive side, he was aggressive and played with confidence, but it did not translate into big games.
He garnered more headlines with his serious lapse of judgment which resulted in a four-game suspension. Ingram showed a tendency to dribble too much last week; he rarely passed and it stopped the ball movement.
Ball has been wildly inconsistent and too often disengaged since returning from a knee injury that sidelined him for months. He played well occasionally but this past week his contributions slipped.
The low point was in the Portland game when he played only 19 minutes and had 3 points, 3 rebound and 3 assists. Ball was not on the court in the decisive fourth quarter when the Lakers held on to win after nearly blowing a 20-point fourth quarter lead.
Much was expected of Kuzma after his hard work over the summer. He was incredibly aggressive last season, carried the team on his back for portions of the season, and relished having the ball in his hands in big moments.
This year, his vaunted outside shot has all-but-disappeared and more often than not he has been invisible in the second half of games. Last week, he seemed perfectly content most of the time to sit by and watch James, Ingram, Stephenson, Rondo, Hart, and even Ball take the big shots.
Aside from concern about the young core, the biggest problem from the week (and all season) was the team’s propensity for squandering big leads and struggling to finish out games they could have won. The fourth quarter has not been kind to the Lakers this year, as they lost a number of games by a narrow margin. The Raptors debacle was their only blowout loss.
If the Lakers are to be elite, they have to find a way to play the fourth quarters with the same energy and ball movement they show early in games. They need to find someone who can be a closer other than James, since opponents double team him with the game on the line.