When the arms race in Los Angeles started this summer, it was clear that the Lakers and Clippers would – rightly or wrongly – be judged against each other for the remainder of the season. They are not the only contenders this season; the Bucks seem like the favorites right now. But they have a unique rivalry based on both teams retooling this offseason in moves that were effectively made possible because of their prime location.
The Lakers roared out to a historically great start before losing four straight while the Clippers have been a bit more up-and-down, in part due to injuries and scheduled rest for their two superstars on the wings. It’s obviously too early to judge either team. They are built for long postseason runs and their success will ultimately hinge on winning a championship, not regular-season games.
Nevertheless, the squads have now matched up twice in somewhat similar games. The Lakers have controlled the games for large stretches but faltered late and lost to their crosstown rivals in both matchups. Both teams will tell you that these games mean nothing in the grand scheme of things and don’t prove which team is better. In essence, they are correct. But the games, and the similarities between them, can teach us things about both squads and why, to this point, the Clippers have been able to get the best out of the Lakers.
Getting Anthony Davis the ball
One troubling trend that has impacted the Lakers in both games against the Clippers has been struggling to get clean offensive plays for Anthony Davis, particularly late in games.
On Christmas, the big man went 2-4 from the field in the fourth quarter including one miss at the buzzer when the game was in hand. Only one of his attempts came at the rim, the others being jump shots from at least 16 feet out.
As a whole, Davis made just 16-of-38 field goal attempts against the Clippers, struggling to make his mark offensively. The Lakers have similarly struggled to get him involved late in games, whether it’s via a two-man game with LeBron James or even the post-ups that the team has exceedingly chosen to go with against the Clippers, in particular. It seems rather simplistic, but the Lakers are much more formidable when AD makes an impact on the offensive side of the ball and jump shooting on face-ups is not the way he does that best.
Davis’ defensive impact has also been an anomaly against the Clippers. Due to the team’s lack of perimeter wing defenders, Davis has often had to defend Kawhi Leonard, which has limited the Lakers’ interior protection. When they go big with Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee alongside Davis, they can better protect the basket but the centers and their preferred drop-down coverage are a liability against the Clippers’ strong midrange game from Leonard, Paul George or Lou Williams. When the team goes small, as they like to do late in games, Davis’ need to defend Leonard means that Montrezl Harrell can crash the offensive glass and get second-chance points against smaller defenders.
Howard was subbed out with 5:14 left in the fourth quarter on Christmas, moving Davis to the center spot. Harrell grabbed three offensive rebounds from that point on, which not only led to extra possessions and points but shortened the time the Lakers had the ball, which led to their ineffective final possessions.
The Lakers’ main advantage over the Clippers should be their size but in two games, that has not been the case. They have been out-rebounded in both matchups and Davis has been limited late in games. If the regular season is for experimentation, the Lakers may consider playing more minutes with two bigs in their next matchup and live with the midrange looks they will surrender to the Clippers.
That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t go small at all; the Lakers’ offense is at its best when Davis plays at the five. It gives them the proper spacing for AD to impact the game on that end. But having McGee (who recorded five blocked shots on Christmas) or Howard on the floor allows them to protect the rim while Davis guards Leonard. So long as the Lakers lack a wing defender, that’s a necessity.
Point guard spot
The other major issue for the Lakers all year has been the point guard position. While all options have had their moments, none have really been a reliable option, least of all Rajon Rondo.
Rondo has been relied on most of the season as one of the few players other than LeBron who can break down a defense and make plays for others. But Rondo doesn’t consistently do that, he plays poor defense, and makes routine mistakes that lead to turnovers. That’s not to mention that nearly every team the Lakers have gone against has chosen to give Rondo as much space as possible behind the arc in order to crowd the paint. Even with the point guard shooting well this year (it’s come crashing down to earth recently), teams will live with those shots if it means making life difficult for James and Davis.
This is what I mean regarding Rondo not being good at the the things he's supposed to be good at anymore. This pass is nowhere close to where it needs to be. It should be in KCP's shot pocket leading him into an open 3. This is a simple play for any PG, much less a pass-first one pic.twitter.com/fUj8WExe5Q
— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) December 26, 2019
Frank Vogel opted to play Rondo for 20 minutes against the Clippers while Alex Caruso played only 11. On opening night, Caruso did not play at all. Caruso has been one of the more reliable players for the Lakers all year. He has offensive limitations, of course, but his team defense is nothing short of incredible and he makes enough heady plays on the other end to not be as much of a liability as Rondo.
Rondo is likely going to stay in the rotation because he has a reputation that the other guards can’t reach. But if the Lakers are going to win a title this year, his minutes must at the very least only come when James is on the bench so that his ball-handling can be used without much of a negative impact on the spacing.
The Lakers’ best two “point” guards all year have been Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Neither are starting and Caruso often sees his minutes cut in favor of someone else. That needs to change by the time the playoffs come around in order to optimize the roster around James and Davis. You can live with that duo not giving you as much point-of-attack defensive tenacity as Avery Bradley or as much passing prowess as Rondo if they play good team defense and hit shots like they have most of the year. Their limitations don’t hurt nearly as much as Rondo’s and, to a lesser extent, Bradley’s.
Kyle Kuzma is finally coming into his own
It’s only a couple of games but Kuzma has shown why he is so valuable to the Lakers in losses to the Nuggets and Clippers. The young forward was billed as a third star all summer but that was disingenuous and unfair to him.
Instead, Kuzma can be somewhat of a bandaid for problems that the Lakers often run into. While his defense is still nowhere near great, he can be an option that they can stick on a bigger wing. Kuz plays with effort on that end, if nothing else, and that sometimes leads to great results. He even showed some real strength in the interior against the Clippers in one of my favorite sequences of the year from anyone:
Offensively, Kuzma can light it up on any given night. He’s been shooting fairly well from the perimeter all year (now up to 36.3 percent for the season) and his cutting ability and finishing in the paint adds movement to an offense that can often get stagnant. Kuzma has one of the more complete layup and floater packages on the team and that threat can only give him more opportunities to score from deep.
There’s been a lot of talk about trading Kuzma but he’s starting to show why the Lakers need him and if this continues and becomes more consistent, he can be a real weapon for the team moving forward.
The final Lakers’ possession of the game (before Davis’ heave at the buzzer) was the embodiment of what was a disappointing night. The Lakers, down three with a chance to tie or extend the game, opted not to call a timeout (which I’m generally a fan of) and instead allowed James to try to hunt a mismatch with Patrick Beverley.
James, however, did not go quickly to ensure that the Lakers get multiple opportunities to tie or take a lead. He dribbled the air out of the ball for nearly 20 seconds to try to take the last shot despite the team being down (major pet peeve of mine) and then lost the ball as Beverley swiped at it while he went up for his 12th 3-point attempt. Vogel had the option to take a timeout once he saw the Lakers weren’t getting a shot early but still opted to let LeBron work. Seconds before, he had missed a crucial free throw.
Look, James is one of the best players in the world and the Lakers would be nowhere near where they are right now without him. But he’s also not exempt from criticism. The Lakers made a lot of mistakes all night that cost them but LeBron’s late-game possessions effectively ended all chances of winning the game. He has to be better, injury or not, and most likely will be better.
Finally, an optimistic outlook of the loss. Yes, the Lakers made mistakes that they shouldn’t have. Yes, they missed free throws and fouled too often and gave up too many offensive rebounds. But we also wouldn’t be sitting here writing and/or reading this story if they only made a couple of their good looks at threes that they had in the fourth quarter. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and Kyle Kuzma all missed open threes. James made just two of 12 on the night.
The Lakers were 3-of-13 from three in the fourth quarter and missed their last eight to end the game. The Clippers packed the paint against James and his kick-out passes delivered good looks at shots that could have given the Lakers a statement win but they didn’t fall down. Sometimes, that’s the name of the game. It doesn’t excuse the mistakes but it also shows you that the sky shouldn’t be falling in Lakers Land.
It’s not fair to say that regular-season games do not matter. In the grand scheme of things, no one will remember this loss on Christmas or the loss on opening night. But these games serve as measuring sticks against elite competition and so far, the Lakers have failed nearly every test (depending on what you think of the Mavericks, Nuggets and Heat as true contenders).
The Lakers have real issues with the roster, the coaching, the role players’ performance, and even the star play. They’re also still 24-7 and in first place in the West. These losses sting but they give the team a chance to be honest with itself and work towards becoming better so they can truly peak in the playoffs. There is a lot of work to be done for the Lakers but that challenge and how they respond to it will be nothing short of entertaining (and stressful) for the next few months.