Lakers midseason report card: LeBron James and Anthony Davis earn top marks, but a few weaknesses remain
The Lakers have done almost everything right so far this season, but they still have a few holes that need patching
It should surprise absolutely no one that the team that employs LeBron James and Anthony Davis is quite good. It turns out, having two MVP candidates leads to quite a few wins. The Lakers have 32 of them as they're just about to hit the midway point of their season. At their current pace, they'll have 67 wins when it's all said and done. Only six teams in NBA history have won more than that, so unless the bar for this team was "top-six team ever," it's safe to say that things are proceeding on schedule.
But that doesn't mean this team is perfect. While it has been stellar in almost every regard, there are a few key weaknesses to explore as the spring approaches and the games become more meaningful. So let's dive into what has worked, what hasn't and where things are going with a midseason report card for the Lakers.
The LeBron James and Anthony Davis pairing: A
The Lakers are virtually unbeatable in the minutes that James and Davis share the court. Lineups featuring both are outscoring opponents by 12.5 points per 100 possessions, a number that jumps to 19.9 when Davis slides to center. As tempting as playing Davis at center full-time would have been, those power forward minutes have actually been extremely beneficial. They've forced the Lakers to get more creative in finding ways to maximize the James-Davis union. The Lakers run the fourth-fewest pick-and-rolls in basketball largely because playing with two big men cramps the space that would make such plays productive. Instead, they've diversified their offensive portfolio by finding ways to maximize James and Davis through post-ups and off-ball motion.
Post-ups, in general, are an inefficient form of offense. That is particularly true when two big men are on the floor because it allows the defense to double-team with impunity. The Lakers have counteracted this through LeBron's genius as a passer. They'll often leave Davis back on the other side of the floor on free throws or have him eschew rebounding to get a head start in transition knowing that James can fire a brilliant outlet pass to him before the defense can set, thus neutralizing any potential doubles.
James uses his own post-ups to weaponize his passing as well. Defenses tend to leave Davis alone behind the arc when LeBron backs someone down, creating wide-open 3s. Davis is hardly Klay Thompson, but he's a respectable 34.1 percent shooter when left wide open.
Frank Vogel has been adamant about wanting Davis to take those shots, but the real advantage of such plays is the runway they create. Leave Davis alone with limited rim-protection on the floor, and, well, this happens.
The obvious stuff is still there. When James and Davis run a pick-and-roll with three shooters on the floor, there isn't much a defense can do to stop them. They draw attention away from one another when the time comes for one-on-one creation. But what makes this partnership so special are the little tricks they've developed along the way. They are responding and adapting to the way that defenses are attacking them in real time, and so far, nobody has devised a realistic method of stopping both. They've been everything the Lakers could have hoped for and more.
Team defense: A-
As fun as the Davis-Dwight Howard-JaVale McGee block party has been to watch, the Lakers aren't exactly the rim-protecting juggernaut that they're made out to be. While they lead the NBA in overall blocks, they have allowed opponents to shoot 63.7 percent within three feet of the basket. That's the sixth-best mark in the league, but a far cry from the top five, all of whom are at 61.2 percent or below. More tellingly, 27.7 percent of opponent shots come at the rim. That's basically league-average (28.2 percent). Yes, the Lakers are at least a good, if not a great rim-protecting team by practically every metric, but they aren't nearly as dependent upon it as other teams (the Bucks, specifically).
The real brilliance of the Laker defense is that it's pretty good at basically everything. They are tied for seventh in defensive turnover rate (13.8 percent) and are right in the middle of the league in terms of opponent's free throws (22.4 per game). They have the NBA's fifth-best total rebounding rate. While the Lakers are sixth in the NBA in opponent's field goal percentage within three feet of the rim, they are second in the area between 3-10 feet (36.5 percent) and fourth on 3-pointers (33.4 percent).
That last number is usually pretty meaningless and can be attributed to opponents missing their open shots. Denver, for instance, has allowed the lowest 3-point percentage to opponents in the NBA, but that is based primarily on opponents making only 35.6 percent of their wide-open attempts, the fourth-lowest figure in the NBA. Toronto is third in both categories. But the Lakers have allowed the fourth-lowest opponent's 3-point percentage in the NBA despite allowing the ninth-highest percentage in the league on wide-open attempts (38.9 percent). Their defense is going to get even better when their opponents regress to the mean from behind the arc.
They're accomplishing all of this with one of the simpler schemes in the NBA. They try to defend the pick-and-roll with only two players through conventional drop coverage, trusting that their big men are sturdy enough at the rim that help isn't necessary.
Those big men allow the Lakers to close out very conservatively. Rarely will you see a Laker fly past a shooter with a wild jump. They don't have to. A simple hand in the face is more than sufficient. The goal is to play sound defense and contest everything rather than get overly aggressive and surrender the numbers advantage.
Caruso has turned the out-of-nowhere full-court press into an art form.
Naturally, those two along with Danny Green make life miserable for opposing guards. Even bigger perimeter scorers have struggled against the Lakers. They've held Luka Doncic to under 42 percent shooting across four matchups, forced Pascal Siakam into a 9-of-25 night and largely contained Jimmy Butler on two separate occasions. But the Lakers still don't have answers for Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who have shot a combined 56 percent against them this season. The Lakers haven't held either of them below 30 points. That is the only negative here. If the Lakers plan to win the championship, they have to be better against those two players specifically, and until they are, that ugly little minus sign will taint their "A."
By most measures, the Lakers are a fairly average shooting team. They are currently 11th in the NBA in 3-point percentage (36.1 percent), but have the seventh-worst 3-point attempt rate in basketball, as only 34.4 percent of their shots come from behind the arc. Equally concerning: they are ranked 26th in free-throw percentage, making only 74.2 percent of their attempts at the line. The Lakers haven't played enough close games for that to become a major problem yet. It will in the playoffs.
Context makes some of those numbers more palatable. Playing with two centers invariably impacts a team's shot-selection, and there are other benefits to having such a size advantage. The Lakers lead the NBA by shooting 72.4 percent within three feet of the rim, for instance, but at the same time, some of their purported shooters just haven't made shots. Troy Daniels and Quinn Cook were supposed to be automatic on the open shots LeBron generated for them. Both have largely fallen out of the rotation by hitting below 35 percent of their attempts. Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma run hot and cold. Amazingly, the most reliable marksman on the team has been Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. He's making nearly 47 percent of his wide-open 3s and 43.3 percent of his overall attempts.
There's regression present here, but the overall shot-selection is concerning. Any team that takes the seventh-fewest 3s in the NBA on a rate basis but takes the seventh-most long 2s is doing something wrong. Bradley has been a major offender here, as over 25 percent of his shots are 2s longer than 16 feet, but Davis has plenty to answer for as well. It would be one thing if he was making them, but 28.5 percent of his total shot attempts have been 2-pointers beyond 10 feet, and aside from his rookie year, he's essentially shooting career-low percentages from that range. There has been some improvement in both his form and his numbers as the season has progressed, but he's developed a really bizarre habit of fading away on far too many mid-range attempts. You're 7-feet tall and your arms are longer than Titanic. This isn't necessary.
Going smaller in the playoffs will fix some of these issues, and the Lakers will certainly target shooting at the trade deadline and through buyouts. But some of these problems are internal and need to be corrected before it's too late.
Strategically speaking, Vogel has been mostly excellent. He never overthought his schemes on either end of the floor, choosing instead to let the natural strengths of his players dictate his team's style. His rotations are, mostly, sensible. Luke Walton's absurd lineup decisions drove Laker fans crazy last season, but gone are the utterly ridiculous 18-minute game-closing stretches for Rajon Rondo. Vogel picks his units with care, emphasizing spacing to offset his bigger frontcourts and trusting successful lineups when they've proven themselves on the floor. He takes great care not to overuse his lethal "Anthony Davis at center" lineups, milking just enough out of them to win games and build chemistry for their inevitable postseason usage without overtaxing Davis.
His management of the team, though, deserves a Nobel prize. When was the last time any Lakers team, contending or otherwise, had such little drama? Jason Kidd was supposed to be angling for Vogel's job. We haven't heard a peep out of him. LeBron hasn't subtweeted anyone. Nobody thinks Davis is leaving in free agency. The closest this team came to courting controversy was an Instagram post from Kyle Kuzma's trainer that blew over in a day.
Dwight freaking Howard has been a model citizen coming off of the bench. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, long-viewed as the tax that the Lakers were paying to Klutch Sports in exchange for employing LeBron, has played harder than he ever has in his career. Everybody is either happy or quiet. Many are playing the best basketball of their lives. Sure he hasn't quite modernized as much offensively as he made it seem and, yes, he still hasn't cracked the Clippers code, but Vogel's overall performance has exceeded our wildest expectations.
Secondary scoring and shot creation: C
This is the flaw that threatens to topple the Lakers' season. While the Lakers dominate opponents by 12.3 points per 100 possessions when LeBron is on the floor, they are outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions when he sits. This is a standard problem for LeBron's teams, but one they had hoped Davis would mitigate. That was always a tad unrealistic, though. The Pelicans typically got roasted by opponents in minutes that Davis played without Jrue Holiday in New Orleans.
The sad reality facing the Lakers is that they simply don't have a secondary ball-handler currently capable of running the offense when LeBron sits. Rondo was supposed to be that player, but at this point he can't be trusted with the keys to the offense. The Lakers have been outscored by over 10 points per 100 possessions in the minutes he's played without either LeBron or Alex Caruso on the floor. While he savors the high-IQ dance he gets to execute with other ball-handlers, he can't run a pick-and-roll or really initiate offense on his own.
Vogel has tried to counter that through volume. Two-point guard lineups, usually featuring Caruso alongside Rondo, have become a staple, and have yielded promising results over a small sample especially with Kyle Kuzma joining them on the floor. Those lineups make painful sacrifices on defense, though, as Davis loses his co-center and smaller players are forced to defend bigger ones. There's also plenty of reason to believe regression is coming for those lineups. They score when they play fast, but can't generate good shots consistently in a half-court setting. Game plans will catch on soon enough.
The organizational hope was that Kuzma would develop into a legitimate third star, someone who could fit in with James and Davis, but more importantly, support the offense when they sat. While his raw scoring is more or less in line with previous seasons on a per-minute basis and his shooting is creeping closer to the surprising numbers he posted as a rookie, finding minutes for him in the context of this roster has been a challenge. He doesn't shoot well enough to play small forward consistently, but Davis' preference for power forward pushes him there for the most part. The promising passing that developed last season has atrophied in a mostly off-ball role, and he doesn't handle the ball well enough to create his own shot consistently. That sort of tweener has value in the NBA, but not much to this specific team.
The simplest solution here is just to find a better point guard, put shooters around him and Davis and let them spam pick-and-roll into oblivion. Darren Collison , but short of his return, the Lakers will almost certainly have to deal Kuzma if they hope to find the sort of ball-handler they need. Bogdan Bogdanovic would be ideal, but that rumor cycle raised as many questions as it answered. It's unclear if the Kings would be interested in such a trade. Beyond him? It's fairly slim pickings on the "scoring guards who can also pass and not embarrass themselves defensively" market. Finding someone whom the Lakers can realistically match salaries for would be even harder. Kuzma doesn't even make $2 million.
LeBron will play more in the playoffs, but the specter of his bench minutes is unavoidable. In the 2017 NBA Finals, for instance, the Cavaliers actually managed to play the Warriors nearly to a draw in the 212 minutes that James played. They were outscored by only seven points in total with LeBron on the floor. In the 28 that he sat? The Warriors outscored them by 27. The Lakers outscored the Clippers on Christmas during LeBron's minutes. They lost because of his time on the bench.
It's not as though there was much the Lakers could have done about this before the season. The free agency cupboard was relatively bare by the time Kawhi Leonard made up his mind. But the how's and why's are irrelevant right now. This will be a terminal weakness for the Lakers if it isn't corrected in the next month or so. It is the one major hole on an otherwise excellent roster.
Overall Grade: A-
The Lakers should be proud of how they've played so far this season. They have done everything in their power to position themselves as championship contenders when the playoffs come, but they still have holes that the best teams in the league have managed to exploit. They are 0-3 against the Clippers and Bucks for a reason.
Those flaws are fixable. If the Lakers manage to do so before the postseason, they'll hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy in June. If not? It's going to be a long summer in Los Angeles.
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