When the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James in free agency this past summer and built what’s largely a new roster around him, it was inevitable that it would take time for the team to mesh.
They did get off to a predictably slow start before beginning to turn things around, and while there is quite a ways to go until the team hits its peak, there were clear signs this past week that things are starting to come together.
The Lakers won three of four games and ended the week with an overall record of 14-9. After three consecutive wins at home, the Lakers will finish a four-game homestand on Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs.
Here is a summary of what went right and what went wrong for the purple and gold as the team finished the first full calendar month of the season and started December on a positive note.
What Went Right
The Lakers were losing earlier in the season in large part because they could not get stops, and the defense was so poor that teams were regularly scoring 120 points or more. The Lakers started to make gradual improvement, and except for one bad game in Denver, the past couple of weeks they are starting to hold opponents under 100 points.
Lonzo Ball has nights when he scores and other nights when he doesn’t, but either way, he continued to impact games with other contributions. Against the Indiana Pacers, Ball had only 2 points but 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. Against Dallas, he had 5 steals and against Phoenix he had 4 steals.
When the Lakers get stops, as James acknowledged earlier this month, they can run hard in transition which makes them a dangerous team.
Tyson Chandler had a very good week as he continues to play more and more minutes and grab more and more rebounds. He had the first double-double of his Lakers career against the Mavericks with 13 points and 12 rebounds (including five offensive boards).
He followed that performance with 11 rebounds against the Suns. Whether it is a coincidence or not, the Lakers’ season turned around the minute they signed Chandler last month.
Perhaps the biggest positive of the week was the play of Kyle Kuzma. He entered the season with very high expectations but until recently, seemed to be thinking too much and trying too hard to fit into the flow of the offense.
Last week, in addition to showing continued improvement on defense, he started to show signs of really emerging as the team’s second option. Kuzma was the team’s leading scorer against the Nuggets with 21 points on 9-for-15 shooting and was the only Laker who played well in that game.
He followed up with 11 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists against the Pacers, and 15 points, 12 rebounds and 6 assists against the Mavericks.
Kuzma finished the week as player of the game against the Suns, scoring a team-high 23 points (18 in the first half which was a key to the comeback) and grabbing 8 rebounds. Kuzma really came into this own last December finishing with an average of 20 points per game for the month. If he can duplicate that feat again this year the Lakers will be in great shape.
Several players on the bench made big contributions this week, as the second unit played well. Josh Hart, who nursed a sore ankle for a while which really affected his play on both ends of the court, is feeling better and his play showed it.
In addition to his typically tenacious defense, his three-point shot is returning. Against the Pacers he had 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field, along with 3 steals and 2 assists. Hart made two key three-point shots against the Suns.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope continued his improved play with some key moments off the bench. His defense has really picked up and he is finishing games on the court because of it. Caldwell-Pope is also continuing to hit timely three-point shots.
Finally, the week was one that saw Michael Beasley reminded people he is still on the team. He started to get the minutes that had been going to Lance Stephenson, and against the Suns he was a key off the bench with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the floor and 4 rebounds in 13 minutes.
Finally, JaVale McGee continues to do what he has done well all season, which is blocking and altering shots and scoring well in the pick and roll offense. He had four blocks against the Nuggets and four against the Pacers, and he finished the week with 14 points and 8 rebounds against the Suns.
What Went Wrong
Turnovers and horrendous free throw shooting continue to be problem spots.
The Lakers fell behind by double-digits in the first quarter against both the Mavericks and the Suns. They had a 20-point lead in the first quarter against the Pacers only to see it disappear entirely in the third. The key reason was turnovers.
Brandon Ingram, James and Ball led the way most nights with their errant passes. With James and Ball, they are often going for the home run strike and sometimes it was ill advised. In Ingram’s case, he often brought the ball up court and tried to create for himself, and most of his turnovers come from trying to force things.
The Lakers have been prone to turning the ball over in bunches, which has led to evaporating leads and to falling behind early. They played their best first quarter of the year against the Pacers as they went up by 20, only to see it disappear almost as fast as the lead developed.
Against the Mavericks and Suns, the team came out sluggish and fell behind by double digits almost immediately.
Then there were the missed free throws. Other than Caldwell-Pope who is shooting over 90 percent at the line this season, and Kuzma who shot free throws reasonably well this past week, everyone else on the team struggled to make 50 percent of their attempts from the charity stripe.
Ingram played well in spurts, and is so crucial to the team’s success. But he was the biggest offender when it came to missed free throws. He got to the line more than anyone other than James, but he was awful and is shooting only 64 percent on the season, which is unacceptable.
The team came out with an alarming lack of energy in three of the four games last week. They could not recover against a very good Nuggets team and were blown out. They did manage to come back against the Mavericks and Suns, but against the league’s better teams it is crucial to start the game ready to play from the tipoff because most nights it will be impossible to make up a sizable deficit against really good teams.
Finally, the Lakers struggled last week when they stopped running and started playing in a halfcourt set, which occurred too often. Players went one-on-one too much. Ball movement is critical for this team, and when the Lakers stopped passing and started over-dribbling, things tended to go south, especially when anyone other than James tried it.
In the end, it was a strong week as they head into December, a month which has not been kind to the Lakers in recent years. With King James on the team now, there is hope that the Lakers will reverse the trend.