The Lakers coming in: Since winning back to back games against the Grizzlies and the T’Wolves on December 17th and 20th, the Lakers haven’t won a contest, going 0-6 with losses to the Bucks, 76ers and the Jazz. If you’re scoring at home, that’s losses to 3 of the teams with the worst records in the league. In other words, the Lakers may just be the worst team in the league if taking a snapshot of the league at this particular moment.
Considering the talent on the floor, though, this should not be a surprise. We don’t have to rehash the injury woes of this team now, but tonight they’ll start Kendall Marshall at point guard and he wasn’t even on the team two weeks ago. They’ll also start Robert Sacre (in for Shawne Williams) next to Pau Gasol to go with Jodie Meeks and Nick Young. This isn’t a roster with enough talent to win most nights and regardless of what critiques you have about the coach (some of which are relevant, others not as much) or the front office (same deal) this is what the team is stuck with. There’s not magic elixir sitting on the street in terms of an upgrade at the head coaching spot or in terms of a point guard who can come in and direct this team to more victories.
Down the line, this may change. But as of now, this is who the Lakers are. They’re a team starting their 18th different starting lineup and their 6th different point guard (Nash, Blake, Farmar, Kobe, Henry, and now Marshall) on the season. They have few options on an injury riddled roster and a coach simply trying to get his guys to play hard through the mire of too many consecutive losses.
The Jazz coming in: Utah may have one of the lesser records in the league, but they’ve won four of their last six and are getting quality play from multiple players. Rookie Trey Burke looks like a rookie of the year candidate while Gordan Hayward continues to be one of the more skilled wings in the league. Add big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter who can both be physical presences down low and Alec Burks who brings some good athleticism and skill on the wing and this is a team with some solid young talent who is capable of putting together solid enough play on both sides of the ball to win some games. They’re still not a very good team, but truth be told, they’re better than the Lakers are right now. That may not be saying much, but in terms of tonight’s match up it does mean something.
Keys to the game: Forget the opponent tonight and let’s just focus on what the Lakers have been doing lately and need to do better moving forward.
Defensively, the Lakers have started to switch screens more and it’s led to countless breakdowns on that end of the floor. Too often guards end up isolated on big men in the post and bigs end up guarding smalls on the perimeter. Wings are switching with each other, but are a beat slow in how they execute this. It translates to Lakers being at a disadvantage all over the floor, giving up dribble penetration which then breaks down the interior defense to the point that they are either surrendering easy baskets at the rim or offensive rebounds when the bigs do rotate to help on penetration. Until the Lakers can figure out how to avoid switching as often as they have been and get back to playing better man to man defense and avoid compromising their defensive interior, they will struggle to get the stops they need to stay in games.
And they desperately need those stops because their offense is unable to get on track with all their limitations at guard. This is an scheme that depends on dribble penetration and scoring from the point guard position to set up the flow of their offense. With all the point guards out, the Lakers simply don’t have the threat at the point to drive their offense. Instead they’ve become over-reliant on their wings to create their own offense (namely Nick Young) and too many of those possessions devolve into isolations where Young is forced into creating a difficult shot for himself or becoming a playmaker for one of his teammates. This is where the team could use Gasol to be more of a pillar on offense, but with his struggles he’s not been able to establish himself as a hub of reliable offense for this team.
Against the Jazz, the Lakers must find ways to better execute, but I’d be lying if I said that there is an easy way to make these changes. What the Lakers need is to get back to the ball movement they showed on offense and the effort they gave on defense they had to start the year, but with so many players hurt this won’t be easy. If all this is a bit depressing, welcome to this version of your Los Angeles Lakers. This was a team built on the idea that better injury luck and the coming together of a team would prove to be enough to compete in a loaded West. What we’ve found, though, is injury luck as bad or worse than last season and a depleted roster that is starting to look more resigned to its fate than one who can dig their way out of this hole. If that’s to change, a better effort against the Jazz is a good place to start. Let’s see if they have it in them.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start on TWC Sportsnet. Also listen at ESPN Radio 710AM.