The Los Angeles Lakers have now played 41 games in the 2018-19 season. Sitting at 22-19 and eighth in the Western Conference, it’s safe to say that we do not know much more about the purple and gold than we did prior to the season.
The same concerns – youth and 3-point shooting – are prevalent. The same strengths – defense and the general existence of LeBron James – have led them to wins in the ever-challenging West.
So let’s take a look at the major storylines of the season so far, with an eye to the future.
Last 10 Games
As has been my tradition this year, let’s take a look at how the Lakers have fared over the last 10-game stretch.
In what has arguably been the worst and most frustrating segment of the season, the Lakers are just 4-6 over their last 10 as they have struggled with their offense with multiple injuries. LeBron James has missed the last seven games (the Lakers have lost five of them), while Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma have also missed time.
It’s been apparent during that time that the Lakers have struggled to get any offensive consistency without James. That’s not outwardly surprising – the offense is built around James (as it should be) meaning it throws everyone into a different, more uncomfortable role when the star cannot play.
In fact, in the seven games that James has not played this season, the Lakers have an abysmal offensive rating of 100.3, the worst mark in the league. But to show how expected that was, during James’ only extended absence during his second stint in Cleveland (eight straight games in 2014-15 where the Cavs went 1-7), the Cavs scored only 97.4 points per 100 possessions, good for 27th in the NBA.
Of course, the Lakers have talked a lot about not wanting this to be a repeat of LeBron’s years with the Cleveland, namely by alleviating pressure off of him. That does not seem realistic for this season as secondary ball-handlers like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have had their fare share of struggles.
DE-FENSE CLAP CLAP
What has been promising about the last ten games, even in James’ absence and the slump the team has been in, has been the Lakers’ strong defensive efforts. Over the last 10 matches, the Lakers have had the best defensive rating in the NBA, allowing just 103.2 points per 100 possessions. Considering some duds along the way (hello, Timberwolves), that is an exceptionally impressive effort.
The Lakers have been creative during this time whether it was through sagging off Warriors’ non-shooters like Draymond Green to give Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson troubles or by sticking with Mavs’ shooters and forcing Luka Doncic to try to beat them one-on-one. For all the talk about Luke Walton’s struggles in designing an efficient offense (which is fair!), Walton has not received nearly enough credit for how well the Lakers have played defensively, especially as an undermanned group over the last few weeks.
On the season, the Lakers are eighth in the NBA with a defensive rating of 106.1. Even with JaVale McGee and Tyson Chandler tapering off a bit as the season has gone on, the rest of the team has been able to pick up the slack and continue playing solid defense. Despite not having too many exceptional one-on-one defenders, the Lakers as a team have been brilliant on that end, making up for each other’s mistakes and generally playing solid.
When James comes back, that defense will continue to be the key as it allows the Lakers to run in transition after missed shots and turnovers and get efficient offense on the other end. The Lakers have a winning formula defensively and it should make them a tough out in the postseason if they make it that far.
Who is Brandon Ingram?
Halfway through his third season, the Lakers and fans still have no idea what or who Brandon Ingram is. The forward has struggled all year adapting to playing alongside James but with LeBron out of the rotation, he has been as inconsistent as ever.
There are games like his 21-point, 9-assist and 7-rebound performance against the Kings or his 29-point and 6-assist offensive showcase against the Mavs that show fans flashes of his potential. But there are also the duds where he shoots 5-16 from the field with only one assist against the Wolves.
What’s become clear is that Ingram is not the primary ball-handler and scorer that the Lakers have hoped he would become. Instead, he is a jack-of-all-trades tool that can hound opposing players, slash into the paint against closeouts, and drive and kick to shooters.
Ingram’s play this year has been disappointing for a second overall pick in his third season. But that doesn’t mean he is beyond repair. The Lakers desperately need to figure out what roles Ingram excels in and put him into those situations most often. The shots he got against the Mavs and Kings are far different from those he gets for himself when he is forced to be the point guard.
The Lakers haven’t done Ingram any favors in his development, putting a lot of pressure on him to become a player he is not. Fortunately, he is still only 21 years old and it’s not too late to fix those mistakes.
The Lakers are still eighth in the West despite their recent slump. Two games separate them from the ninth place Wolves, Jazz and Kings. They are also two games behind the Rockets, Spurs and Blazers who are fifth, sixth and seventh, respectively. The Jazz seem to be the hot pick for a team outside of the playoff picture to make a run and that’s totally possible given they have the easiest strength of schedule in the league the rest of the way. That makes Friday night’s game against Utah one of the bigger games of the season thus far.
Josh Hart has a Chipotle Sponsorship and We Deserve Royalties
We’ve been posting Josh’s Instagram stories of his pre-flight Chipotle runs on Twitter and suddenly he has a sponsorship? I’m not saying we’re the reason why but free Chipotle for our crew is the least they could do.
HE FINALLY GOT THE CHIPOTLE SPONSORSHIP https://t.co/grEabDhlSk
— Lakers Outsiders (@LakersOutsiders) January 8, 2019
Fortunately for the Lakers, they have some easier matchups sandwiching potential playoff previews over the next ten games.
Starting with Wednesday night’s home game against the Pistons, the Lakers must face the Jazz (on the road), Cavaliers, Bulls, Thunder (road), Rockets (road), Warriors, Wolves, Suns and 76ers. The earliest James could return to the lineup is Sunday night’s contest against his former team.
Additionally, the Lakers will have an opportunity to tie up the season series with the Wolves and Thunder (one more game against them in April) which could play a part in playoff seeding (although the Wolves may be too far out of the picture at this point). They trail the Rockets 2-0 on the season but have two remaining games against them.
The Cavs, Bulls and Suns are tanking the season away and the Pistons are losers of seven of their last ten games headed into the matchup against the Lakers, giving three four should-be wins to buff up their record before hitting the gauntlet of Thunder, Rockets and Warriors.