The Los Angeles Lakers were blown out in embarrassing fashion by the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday, marking the 20th game of the season. At 11-9, the season has had its share of tragic lows and exhilarating highs with certain trends taking form.
So let’s check in on the Lakers’ performance over the first quarter of the season.
The Tyson Chandler Effect:
The Lakers’ season turned around when they signed center Tyson Chandler after he was bought out by the Phoenix Suns. Shoring up the bench and giving them a big body to play behind JaVale McGee, Chandler’s impact has been nothing short of monumental. It was apparent from the start as his heroics won the Lakers two of their first three games with the former NBA champion on the roster.
Through the first ten games of the season, LA’s defense was abysmal, surrendering 111.5 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-worst mark in the league. Since signing Chandler ten games ago, however, the Lakers have been in elite company as the league’s sixth-best defense with opponents only scoring 104.2 points per 100 possessions on them.
Some of that is based on the level of competition. Here’s a look at all ten opponents the Lakers have faced in that stretch, their offensive rating and rank and their offensive efficiency in their game against the Lakers, courtesy of our Graphics Guru, Dillon Hiser:
The Lakers have only faced two elite offenses (the Nuggets and Blazers) and both teams were more efficient in those games than over the course of their seasons. LAL have had two monstrously good defensive performances against the Kings and Jazz and two awful ones against the Magic and the Nuggets. Otherwise, they have been a decidedly middle-of-the-pack defense, which is fine given where they started the season.
It’s pretty clear the Lakers have a major disadvantage when they go up against teams with stretch centers. The perimeter defense is still not good enough to contain drives when their rim protectors are pushed up to the three-point line, guarding the likes of Nikola Vucevic (averaging 33.5 points, 14 rebounds and 3.5 assists against the Lakers) and Nikola Jokic (averaging 19 points, nine rebounds and five assists against the Lakers). Those players not only give McGee and Chandler fits as the Lakers’ big men are uncomfortable guarding so far away from the rim, but they exploit the Lakers’ perimeter defenders who too often fall asleep on both cutters and shooters.
Fortunately for the Lakers, stretch centers are not going to make or break their season. But if they do make the playoffs, it seems like an easily exploitable flaw for opponents. The Lakers will have to find a solution at that point, with the only potential one with this roster construction being to go small, switch everything and hope to run those centers off the court.
The Lakers’ starting lineup has been a major point of contention ever since it was inaugurated with Brandon Ingram’s return from suspension against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The lineup has become the Lakers’ most used five-man unit by far and it’s performed at a pretty middling level, outscoring opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions in 190 minutes across 14 games.
What is both interesting and strange about this lineup, however, is the dichotomy of its performance across different quarters. Starting out the game, the lineup’s net rating is a dismal negative 5.3 in the first quarter where they have played 87 of those 190 minutes. It gets even worse in the second quarter (albeit in a much smaller sample of only 24 minutes) with a net rating of negative 7.5. In the second half, however, some switch is flipped and the Lakers starting lineup dominates with a net rating of +15.3 in 65 third-quarter minutes and +15 in 13 fourth-quarter minutes.
It’s difficult to say that the Lakers should change their starting lineup entirely when it shows so much cohesion in the second half of games. On the other hand, it routinely puts them in a hole to start, forcing difficult and taxing comebacks to win games.
Given the Lakers’ personnel, it’s not easy to come up with a better starting group, either. Put Josh Hart in to replace Ingram and you gain perimeter shooting and a more clean fit but lose playmaking and perimeter defense. Replace Kyle Kuzma with Hart and gain some more defense but lose improvisational scoring while banishing Kuzma to create his own shot off the bench.
Believe it or not, the latter lineup (Lonzo Ball, Hart, Ingram, LeBron James, McGee) has not played a single minute together this season. Who knows if it will be a cure for the Lakers woes but you can see the advantages it would create. The Lakers would be able to switch four positions (in fact, Hart could primarily guard power forwards to ease the strain on James). Hart is shooting monumentally better from the three-point line than Kuzma. And Kuzma could be a better fit off the bench, where he can play his game and get buckets. Now with Chandler protecting the rim, Kuzma would not have the defensive pressure he had earlier this season when he came off the bench.
The Lakers have played 14 games with this group starting. That’s a pretty ample amount of time to understand what you get from the group and what you don’t, even if there are some mysteries around its successes and failures. If the Lakers continue to fall behind early, a change could be on the horizon.
What’s up with Brandon Ingram?
It’s been the question on everyone’s mind. Ingram is in the pivotal third season of his career and after showing major improvements last year, he has effectively fully stagnated this season. Ingram’s points, rebounds and shooting splits have all effectively been the same. His shot profile has not changed. The only marked difference in his game has been negative as his assist rate has fallen sharply from 17.7 percent to 9.5 percent.
Ingram has been noticeably uncomfortable playing alongside James but it’s not for a lack of possessing the ball as one would assume. Ingram’s usage rate is slightly higher than last season (22.5 compared to 22.2 percent) but it’s how Ingram is being used in his minutes on the floor.
The Lakers have forced Ingram into a scoring role, giving him the ball to operate out of pick-and-rolls but the young forward has been sub-par (to put it lightly) in that area. Ingram’s 0.74 points per possession as the pick-and-roll ball-handler (his most used play type by a significant margin) places him the 30th percentile in the league.
My colleague Gary “Gar-Bear” Kester has already written at length about the Lakers’ usage of Ingram but it mainly boils down to this: get Ingram the ball in rhythm as he’s moving off of it and good things happen. Ingram has been used as a cutter on only ten possessions this season. He’s spotted up on 34 possessions to decent success.
There is simply not enough spacing on the Lakers to give Ingram the ball at the top of the key with a ball-screen and ask him to go to work. It’s that lack of spacing (and Ingram’s own poor shot selection) that leads to this shot chart straight from the 90’s:
The Lakers need Ingram at his best both offensively and defensively (where he’s struggled to get around screens but has shown a lot of promise in isolation) in order to succeed this season. While talk of trading him among the fanbase heats up, it’s up to Luke Walton and the coaching staff to get creative in how they use their versatile young forward, both in terms of where and how he gets the ball and the lineups he plays with (82% of his minutes have been played next to LeBron).
The Big Picture:
The Lakers have a long way to go to become a truly good team. The good news for them is that most of the Western Conference, right now, is also mired in mediocrity. They are currently sitting in seventh in the West at 11-9 but are 2.5 games out of first place 2.5 games ahead of 14th.
There is a lot of volatility in the NBA right now. The good news is that the Lakers are firmly entrenched in that group despite being a new collection of teammates still trying to figure out how to play with each other. The bad news is that they lack the star-power and talent some other struggling teams (such as the Rockets and Jazz) have.
Twenty games in, the Lakers are basically who we thought they were. Now, it’s up to them to improve as predicted to stay in front of their competition.