Much like seeing the forest through the trees, it can be hard to find positives about the Lakers while in the midst of an 8 game losing streak. Coming off double digit losses to the Kings and Nets only piles on further, leaving many wondering where the early season fun went; where the confidence and joy the team played with disappeared to.
The obvious answer is injuries and losing. It’s hard to be upbeat, happy, and feeling good about yourself when you’ve lost 8 games in a row. It’s even harder when the things you’re doing on the floor aren’t actually working, when your coach says they played mentally soft (as he told the team directly after the Nets loss), and when the other team seems to have all the answers during games while every single one of your runs ends up falling short.
This has been the Lakers’ lives of late and it is dispiriting. To the players, to the coaches, to those of us watching.
Here’s the thing, though. While no one can argue the Lakers level of play — it’s been bad — the team is closer to getting on track than the final boxscores have implied.
Consider that since D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young returned to the lineup, the Lakers’ starters have maintained a positive net rating (+6.8 differential) in the 36 minutes they have shared the court. Also, the “all bench unit” (with Thomas Robinson in place of the injured Tarik Black) played well against the Kings in the 14 minutes they shared the court, posting a +18.4 net rating.
So, in 50 of the 96 minutes the Lakers have played since they’ve had their rotation back in place (again, minus Tarik Black), they’ve actually played well enough to win. In some of those stretches which make up that number, more than well enough. The issue has been, though, that in the remaining 46 minutes over those two games, the team has found ways to struggle and dig themselves into holes they could not climb out of.
Against the Kings, the Lakers were outscored 39-13 in the 3rd quarter. They shot 5-19 in the period and committed 7 turnovers. In a game they lost by 24 points, losing a single quarter by 26 tells me they probably had a good chance of winning the game if they hadn’t played so terribly for those 12 minutes.
Against the Nets, it was a similar story. In the 2nd quarter vs. Brooklyn on Wednesday, the Lakers were outscored 25-13. They shot 4-19 and had 4 turnovers. Yes, the Lakers bounced back in the 3rd period (33-23 LA) and wilted down the stretch in the 4th (32-21 BKN), but in a game they lost by 10, losing the 2nd period by 12 cost them dearly. They simply needed to use too much energy to climb out of the hole they dug that they had little left to try and close the game in the 4th.
After the Nets loss Luke Walton commented that one of the reasons he’s most disappointed is the lost opportunities from these games. I’d venture to guess he’s directly referring to the play highlighted in the struggle-quarters above. It’s hard enough to win on the road in this league, but when you spot your opponent huge gains in a single period, it makes it nearly impossible.
The formula the Lakers used to be surprisingly competitive earlier in the season was pretty straight forward. In general, they relied on their starters playing opponents about even with the bench then coming in and turning the game in the Lakers’ favor. This wasn’t what happened in every game, but it’s the basic premise. As I highlighted above, the Lakers have been close to that the past couple of games when they have played a 10 man rotation*.
In other words, the Lakers are closer to getting back on track than it might seem. Yes, there are still defensive issues (which I do not think are going away). And there have been some stretches of ugly basketball on the other end too. But, now that the rotation is mostly back (seriously, get healthy soon Tarik Black) I think things will start to turn back around for this team. I’m not saying they will win at the same rate they were early in the year, but I think they’ll get back to playing much better.
*Against the Nets Thomas Robinson did not play and the Lakers only played 9 guys. I don’t know if that was a mistake or not, but I can tell you Luke swapped three different players (Randle, Mozgov, and Deng) to surround the “all bench” group of Lou, Clarkson, Nance, and Ingram. Over the course of the 17 minutes those different lineups played, the Lakers were a -1. That’s not terrible by any means. And it’s also a small sample. But, I do think it speaks to a certain issue with those lineups when they do not feature Black or Robinson. Black and Robinson are both low usage, hard roll men in the P&R who have a nose for offensive rebounding. I think it is proven that, over the course of a large enough sample, that type of skill set simply mixes well with the bench group. So, I will say it again, get well soon Tarik Black. This team misses you.