How Good are the Lakers? A Quarter-Mark Review

(Image/Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Fans of the purple and gold had questions about this newly formed Lakers squad. We are finally getting answers.

The Los Angeles Lakers have now played 21 games, representing the approximate quarter-mark of the 82 game slog that is the NBA regular reason.

By all accounts they have exceeded expectations, winning 18 of those 21 games and showing in the process instant chemistry that was not widely expected for a team with so many new faces.

Yet as the preseason began, there remained considerable uncertainty about how good this Lakers team would ultimately be.

The superstar core of LeBron James and Anthony Davis essentially guaranteed playoff basketball if healthy, but the ultimate potential of the team, all observers agreed, would ultimately depend on the performance of the role players and coaching staff.

In a season preview, we boiled down the uncertainties surrounding this team to four key questions, the answers to which would provide essential information about how good they could potentially be. A quarter of the way through the season, we are beginning to get enough information to answer those questions with some confidence.

Are perimeter players hitting open 3s?

By far the most important of the four questions because if defenses have to respect the Lakers’ perimeter shooters James and Davis cannot be held in check offensively.

The uneven shooting records of Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, and Alex Caruso prompted some skepticism that the Lakers’ spacing would be sufficient to maximize their star duo. Poor 3 point shooting in the preseason and the first couple games of the regular season seemed to justify that skepticism.

Then, that abruptly changed. In November the team shot 36.9% from three, respectably above league average. In the ten game span ending with Friday night’s game against the Washington Wizards, they shot a league-leading 40.1%. They also won all of those games.

(Image/Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The most encouraging sign about this shooting-spree has been that it isn’t centered around one or two players. Danny Green remains Danny Green, shooting 38.1% on an even 5 attempts from three per game.

Caldwell-Pope, after an excruciatingly slow start shooting the ball, has caught fire so quickly he is up to 38.3% from three on the year.

Kyle Kuzma, discussed below, is also shooting very well after a cold start, his post-eye-poke slump notwithstanding. Perhaps most surprisingly, notorious bricklayer Rajon Rondo is shooting an eye-popping 48.4% on almost 3 attempts per game. 

While Bradley and Caruso have both languished in the sub-30% range shooting the long ball this year, enough of the Lakers perimeter players have made their shots that they currently sit 8th in the league in offensive efficiency, up from 24th last year.

In short, the answer to this question so far has been yes.

The Lakers are punishing opposing defenses for sagging away from shooters to help defend James and Davis, and that punishment forces a reaction, in turn creating more space in which the stars can operate. It is a proven formula for James, and Davis can do more to exploit it than any player he has ever played with. As long as the Lakers have 2 or 3 credible three-point threats to use around them, the team’s offensive success is absolutely sustainable.

Are the Lakers able to use drop coverage to guard the Pick and Roll without bleeding points?

In the last ten seasons, the traditional big man has died in the NBA. The end of the league ban on zone defense in 2002 made it easier to contain bruising, physically dominant bigs in the post by eliminating the requirement that helps defenders stay attached to their assignment or commit to a full double-team. 

Then the LeBron James-led Miami Heat and more recently the Golden State Warriors demonstrated to the league that effective spacing can run slow bigs off the court defensively while zone principles can limit their offensive impact. They have been banished from the highest echelons of the NBA accordingly.

The remaining niche for athletic bigs who don’t have quite perimeter-level quickness is to be a rebounding rim-protector and screen-setter in the mold of Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela. In order to employ those bigs effectively, it is generally necessary to have perimeter defenders capable of fighting over screens quickly, so that slower bigs aren’t forced to switch onto smaller, faster playmakers.

The Lakers play two such bigs in JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.

It is of great importance that the perimeter defenders on the team maintain pressure and consistently fight over screens to avoid compromising the ability of the bigs to stay close to the rim. Fortunately Bradley, Caldwell-Pope, Green, and Caruso have shown the ability to shoulder their part of the defensive burden.

(Image/Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

The downside of drop coverage is that the mid-range jump shot is generally left open, between the perimeter defender fighting over a screen and the defending big dropped behind the screen. Players with effective mid-range shots are more effectively defended by switching, provided the big involved is capable of defending the perimeter player in question.

One of the best defensive signs of the young season has been Howard’s ability to hold his own against faster guards on the switch. It has been years since we’ve seen this sort of quickness on his feet from Howard, and he has remained at or near the top of the team in defensive rating all year. If he sustains the trend, the Lakers may not need to be so dependent on defending the screen and roll with drop coverage in the playoffs, as both he and Davis could plausibly switch onto guards from the center position.

McGee, on the other hand, has had uneven defensive performances because of his tendency to chase blocked shots. He has made a career out of making guards think they have a lane to the basket only to erase the shot at the last moment.

The problem with that tactic is if the player employing it is, like McGee, inconsistent in judging the ability of the guard to exploit the window, he ends up giving up a number of free layups.

Even with that caveat, the Lakers are a top-five team in defensive efficiency and have shown the ability to put the clamps on opposing offenses in crunch time. By and large, everyone is playing into their role defensively, coach Frank Vogel has put together a sound scheme, and the results are plain to see.

Is Team USA Kuz translating to the NBA?

Before being diagnosed with a stress reaction in his leg, Kuzma had an excellent run at the Team USA training camp this summer. His defensive intensity had significantly improved in his second year, and with Team USA he began to make better defensive reads as well. Most tantalizingly, he showed off a slightly modified shooting stroke that seemed to be improving his consistency from deep.

(Image/Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

In returning from his injury, Kuzma initially struggled. Having missed training camp, preseason, and the first games of the regular season, he needed several games to settle back into the pace of NBA play. Since then, his shooting has been excellent. His overall numbers – 33/3% on 4.4 attempts per game – remain short of what might be hoped for. Yet in his last eleven

games, including three duds hampered by an ankle sprain, he has shot a clean 41% from three-point range. 

Defensively, the result so far from Kuzma has been a mixed bag.

Conditioning and injuries have jointly conspired to keep him from playing his best immediately, and it remains to be seen if he will be a good enough perimeter defender to deter teams with elite talent from hunting him, as Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors did in the Lakers’ second loss of the season.

Accordingly, the verdict on Kuzma remains out. On the whole, the shooting numbers are particularly encouraging because what this team needs most from Kuzma is for him to be a reasonably efficient third scoring option when he is on the floor. Even if his defensive play this summer was a mirage, shooting the 3 and scoring effectively will be enough to keep Kuzma on the floor for significant minutes.

If Kuzma can provide a solid scoring output from the bench, this alleviates a lot of pressure on the shoulders of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, allowing for them to rest for longer periods and stay healthy for a playoff run.

Has the team and the staff avoided drama and stayed focused?

Of the four questions addressed here, this one had the greatest potential to keep this team from becoming the best version of itself.

Lakers fans have seen all too clearly in recent years how efficiently poor coaching and organizational dysfunction can hide talent on the court. There was also an unusually large number of chemistry variables at play this year, ranging from the coaching staff to the star duo to the role players.

Thankfully, none of those potential distractions have materialized. Vogel has shown himself to be a sensible and adaptable coach, which has contributed significantly to the Lakers’ blistering start. Assistants Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins were widely suspected this summer to be eager to take the reins should Vogel fail early. On account of the team’s early success and Vogel’s contributions to it, even NBA Twitter has largely stopped making jokes about Kidd’s ambitions.

Vogel’s job seems very secure for the short term, and that is absolutely what is best for the team. The Lakers, as all fans are aware, attract more than enough media attention to their every move on account of their success and location. Hitting a rough patch early in the season could have been fatal for a team trying to build trust in the new coaching staff and between many new players. In addition, their strong start has given the staff enough credibility that when the inevitable rough patch comes, they have the tools necessary to weather it.

(Image/Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

The Next 20 Games

In the first quarter of the regular season, the Lakers have shown themselves capable of doing the things they need to do to win a championship this year. Yet even proven capability on its own is far from a guarantee (see Houston Rockets). But given that we were wondering before this season whether the Lakers had a championship-caliber roster, these early results are extremely encouraging.

What we know after 21 games is that the Lakers have the talent and personnel to be a title contender. What we will find out in the next 20, particularly during the brutal run of games they have scheduled for December, is whether they have the mental and physical toughness to execute under adversity. We will learn a lot more about this team in the coming games, and they should learn a lot more about themselves. For now, Lakers fans should relish being able to watch basketball played at the highest levels for the first time in a decade.

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