The Lakers Aren’t as Bad as they Seem

Darius Soriano —  December 30, 2016

I know, I know. You just read that title and wanted to close your web browser. What the hell do I mean the Lakers aren’t as bad as they seem?! They’ve lost an ungodly number of games recently, going 2-14 in the month of December. They’ve found ways to blow games late, blow them early, and play poorly enough to not really be in games at all. That there, my friends, is some trifecta.

Here’s the thing, though, despite all those losses, they are still mostly competitive in every single game. Beyond that, in some contests they’ve led by large margins and played strongly for most of the game only have a bad quarter (or a terrible stretch within one) to find a way to lose.

Come from ahead losses have to be the most frustrating for players and coaches, but fans might take them even worse. There’s nothing like sitting their watching the team play well only to see them inexplicably start to play terribly and give it all back. In a post earlier this year I likened it to a gambler stacking up huge winnings at the craps table only to decide he needed to test his luck at roulette instead of just cashing in.

I too am frustrated by this and don’t want to simply gloss over the losses. I think losing the way the Lakers are truly hurts morale which then impacts how hard the team plays and makes it easier to fall back on bad habits. Luke Walton seems close to hitting a tipping point too, stressing how his team can play with and beat any team when they are locked in and playing the right way. That sounds cliche, but it really is true. In fact, some key lineup numbers back up the sentiment.

Five the Lakers six most frequently used lineups have positive net ratings. Said another way, most of the team’s key lineups find ways to outscore their opponents even if it’s only by a small margin. If you’re wondering how the Lakers are building up leads or staying in games in the first place, this is why. Here are the numbers (sorted by descending minutes played):

LineupMinutesOff. RatingDef. RatingNet Rating
Russell, Young, Deng, Randle Mozgov286109.9105.6+4.2
Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Black193108.9100.0+8.9
Williams, Clarksson, Ingram, Deng, Nance58132.3104.7+27.6
Williams, Clarksson, Ingram, Deng, Robinson4395.999.2-3.3
Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Robinson43104.596.7+7.7
Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Randle42107.199.1+8.0

First a caveat: some of these samples are very small. Too small, I think, to say with any certainty these will be season long trends. That said, when you whittle down these larger lineups to three man pairings, we get larger samples which tell a story of certain “anchor” groups which can propel the team forward. See below (sorted by descending net rating):

3 Man GroupingMinutesOff. RatingDef. RatingNet Rating
Williams, Ingram, Nance426111.9104.17.7
Williams, Clakrson, Ingram573110.7103.9+6.8
Williams, Clarkson, Nance464109.7105.0+4.7
Clarkson, Ingram, Nance438109.6105.8+3.8
Russell, Randle, Young430108.8105.4+3.5
Young, Deng, Randle464105.7106.5-0.8
Deng, Randle, Mozgov47398.9109.0-10.1

Comparing the two charts, I think a few things are clear. The bench unit is good. Any combination of Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, and Nance plays well together. In fact, when those four players share the floor, the Lakers have a net rating of +8.4 in 386 minutes. So, in some respects, it simply doesn’t matter who plays center next to that group, over the long haul they’re going to beat up on opposing second units (and even some starting groups).

What is also clear is that Russell seems to make a difference when it comes to the starting group. The splits with Deng/Randle/Young and Deng/Randle/Mozgov show negative net ratings. Now, some of those minutes surely have Russell on the floor too, but considering the full starting group has a positive net rating and Russell missed 13 games, I’m guessing large chunks of those minutes which led to that negative net rating involved lineups with Ingram, Calderon, or Clarkson/Lou running the “point”.

Getting back to the original point of this post, though, the Lakers do well with various key players on the floor together. When units anchored by the bench are in, they outscore teams. When units with the starters are in, they do well too, but it looks like they are more dependent on Russell to help them organize the offense, space the floor, and, likely, by his general passing ability.

This poses the million dollar question: if the Lakers have these key lineups which do well, why have they been losing so many games? I think the answer to this is twofold.

First, Luke often staggers his substitutions so there are, for short stretches, a mix of starters and bench players together. For example, over the course of 12 games, the unit of Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, and Mozgov has played 28 minutes together. In those minutes the Lakers have a -20.4 net rating and have been outscored by 10 points. A lineup of Ingram, Young, Deng, Randle, and Mozgov has played in 3 games/20 minutes and been outscored by 13 points. And a unit of Clarkson, Ingram, Deng, Randle, and Mozgov has played in 6 games/26 minutes and been outscored by 21.

These are short stretches and it’s not every game, but there are countless other lineup examples just like these where a mix of starters and reserves just don’t seem to mix well or produce positively on the court when grouped.

Second, the Lakers are a bad defensive team. When they lose games, it’s mostly because of their defense. Even the best units highlighted above are surrendering points at levels which are simply not acceptable over the long haul of a season. So, when the Lakers’ offense goes cold, they do not have the ability to stop other teams from scoring which then translates to the types of game changing runs that are difficult to recover from. We’ve seen this recently a fair amount where even with units which, based on previous success, you would expect to do well. They go cold, the other team gets hot, and the Lakers lose.

Ultimately, this is why I remain optimistic about the Lakers over the long haul. Yes, their record is poor. Yes, they have lots of things to work on and improve. Yes, their players and head coach lack experience. These are all things which show up in a variety of ways every night which decrease their chances of winning. But, what I also see are personnel groupings which work well together, I see them building leads against good teams.

Of course I’d like to see that good play sustained for longer. I’d like to see the mixed lineups play better. I’d like to see Luke clean up some of his rotations and have a quicker hook on some of the players when it’s clear lineups are struggling. But, and this is something I say a lot, we have to remember that this is a young team with a young coach in the first year of instituting his schemes and how they want to play. In time, I think some of the chemistry issues will clear up. We may not be able to say the same about the team’s defense, but that’s a discussion for another day…

Darius Soriano

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to The Lakers Aren’t as Bad as they Seem

  1. That’s a fair assessment. The question I have (while punching the couch during each blown lead) is what can this team even hope to do to get better on defense? 

    I had hopes that adding Mozgov would help, much as I had high hopes for Hibbert last season. But the more the NBA migrates toward a guard-heavy, inside-out style, the less it seems there is value in a traditional rim protector. If a guard gets by his man up top in the league today, the whole defense breaks down. And even the greatest of shot blockers will struggle having to react to a quick guard in the lane, with all that he can do once there. Maybe in the playoffs, when the game slows, a guy like Moz will be more valuable, as he was for the Cavs in 2015. But night in and night out, I believe the Lakers need to add or develop one or two solid, on-ball defenders who can do something to stop the breakdowns where they begin, at the top of the arc. Russell isn’t that guy, nor is Lou… 

    They will get better. Randle’s showing more progress each game, and when Ingram gets his shooting touch he’ll be really something. I’m not down on Russell nor Clarkson, but both still seem to be missing something that I hope will come in time. It’s a long road ahead, even as awful as this month has been we need to hold off on strong judgment until the season is over in April.


  2. I’d like to see DAR play more with Black and Nance and Ingram. I feel like he’s hampered playing with Deng and Mozgov. Two slow, prodding big men with limited offensive value.


  3. The Lakers probably are not as bad as they have been recently. they are also probably not a 500 team as they were for the first 20 games.   But really – we all agreed that the record was not key – but the development and the future.   And unfortunately I am not seeing it yet (not giving up yet).

    So yes – we will improve from this abyss (a safe bet right).    But where are we really going?   Are the youngsters on correct development paths (a serious question with DAR and Ingram is simply not given that much opportunity and is very raw).   Randal looks like he will be a very good 4th best player on a team – which is very good.   Maybe we can get a couple of other serviceable role players out of the group.   God help us.

    Luke is an asset.  We need the same in the FO.   We need vision and vitality and we need to project that to future FA and the rest of the league.   Whether we win 27, 32, or 37 games this year does not change that equation, and in fact 27 might be the best of those (and I do not like tanking).

    “the Lakers are a bad defensive team.”   yes – agreed – so I admire the fact that somehow you are optimistic a few sentences later.      Being a bad defensive team with no qualifier (well stated on your part) is not a good thing and is a guarantee that you will lose a lot of games.  Changing rotations according to metrics  (our analytics should be on top of this – no?) will, not change that.


  4. Yes they are as bad as we think!


  5. Darius,
    Thank you for spelling out what I have been suspecting intuitively all along.  I fully agree that the seeds for potential success are present.  What remains is for the Lakers is to 1) determine the absolute best combinations, 2) play them appropriate minutes at the appropriate times (more on that below), and 3) continue to be supportive of the young guns and urge them to grow in the right direction…which, of course, will not happen overnight. Now a few observations.  I studied some of the 3-man combinations that you outlined above and focused on the top 3 with the best defensive ratings (since this is our area of greatest need).  Those 3-man combinations are as follows:
    Williams, Clarkson, Ingram — Defensive Rating: 103.9; Net Rating: 6.8;
    Williams, Ingram, Nance — Defensive Rating: 104.1; Net Rating: 7.7;
    Williams, Clarkson, Nance — Defensive Rating: 105.0; Net Rating: 4.7.
    Now, I realize that these numbers are achieved often against the other teams’ (usually) overmatched 2nd units.  But these players — in these combinations — often play against first units as well.  My point is simply this.  Since it appears that some combination of Williams, Nance, Clarkson, and Ingram represents our best defensive unit statistically, perhaps they should be substituted into the game immediately whenever the other team threatens to go on a run.  This would be the baseball equivalent of bringing in a bullpen pitcher who specializes, say, in pitching in middle innings or in shutting down left-handed power.  
    To adopt this strategy would require Luke taking a more flexible approach to his substitutions…which I think he would certainly be open to.  This would prevent the Lakers from suddenly going into those extended, dreaded 3rd-quarter tailspins (as happened against Dallas in the last game) and would serve as a tourniquet to stem the bleeding on an absolute immediate basis.
    It’s just a thought.  But, as I said above, the seeds truly seem to be present for achieving success.  Luke simply has to figure out which combinations to use at the right time rather than taking a more mechanical or formulaic approach to his substitution patterns.
    As I say, it’s just an idea.  If nothing else, it’s probably worth a try.


  6. _Chris J

    Mozgov: Along these lines, a few people mentioned that Mozgov had a good game against the Clippers, with the obvious caveat that Jordan is easier to handle with Paul out. So, yes, Mozgov would be useful as a chess piece on a team that needed to beat the Clippers four times in postseason. Obviously, that doesn’t describe the Lakers. 

    Team defense: As Chris J says, a lot of it is personnel. Given his length, I could see Ingram being really good on D…in about three years. 

    5-man units: As to the data, I would want to see breakdowns of teams that have similar records to that of the Lakers to see if these patterns are really unusual. I looked at some numbers for a few teams at but didn’t really see anything that stood out. I would have to study it a little more. 

    But, as Robert notes, the overriding issue with this team is maximizing the development of the three lottery picks. If the best way to do that is by granular analysis of +/- numbers for various combinations of players, and adjusting rotations accordingly, then so be it, and that is what Luke should do. Personally, I would rather see the young guys get more reps and take their lumps, since the team is losing consistently anyway.


  7. Mid Wilshire Very good analysis of the statistics shown. However, what the statistics don’t show is the goal or the age of the club. We fans tend not understand unless wins come or development is linear – neither are likely when working with a young club, with no defined leader, outside the coaching staff.
    Your grouping have a 19yr-old rookie and a 3rd yr player who needs to be coached/trained out of his tunnel vision. Nance has 4yrs of college under his belt, but is in only his 2nd yr of the NBA. Your grouping rightly does not include anything about Russell or Randle – two potential foundation pieces for this club in the future. Russell very possibly could become the club leader, if his flamboyant passing instincts can be moderated.
    The point is that statistics can be used to point the way, but don’t give you all the facts needed to properly make all decisions. What I do support is to substitute in those 4 players as a group, when they are needed. It is instructive that Williams is on all of the best defensive lists, when we all feel he is a net minus on defense – apparently not in all combinations. Perhaps his veteran leadership and smarts allows him be be better in overall team defense – he knows where he is supposed to be most all of the time, therefore his man isn’t constantly putting others at risk of helping out.


  8. Interesting article on ESPN, about what should the Sixers, Nets, Suns and Lakers do.
    They identified that the Lakers main issue is defense. The solution was to play the kids more suggesting that the only way they will get better is by playing through the learning curve. This is the same recommendation that rr presented below.
    Interesting to note that aside from a small sample size grouping noted by Darius in his post, none of the best differentials presented included Mosgov/Deng. The board knows how I feel about our $134 million dollar investment. But these differentials point to how poorly their deals will play out.
    Loved reading between the lines on the Jim and Mitch articles noted in the last thread. They are starting their PR campaign to stay the course earlier than I would have thought.


  9. On a mild positive note: one of the key demarcations of truly good teams in the NBA is the ability to blow teams out. At the moment, Golden State is 19-3 in games decided by 10 points or more. San Antonio is 13-3; Cleveland is 12-4. Houston is 14-3. GS was 44-5 in double-digit games last year. 

    The Lakers are 6-13 in such games at the moment–not too good. But last year, they were 4-44, which was even worse than Philadelphia, (5-41(. 

    So, the fact that our guys have been able to win six times by double-digits with less than half the schedule in the books is in and of itself a sign of progress, although it should be noted that most teams as bad as last year’s Lakers improve a bit the next year.


  10. The issues with the Deng – Mozgov pairing makes me wonder how much better Russell would look if only one of them was a starter?  Thanks for the analysis and optimism.  Putting the future of Jim and Mitch on the shoulders of players just old enough to drink let alone the future of the franchise seems a little unfair.  Maybe Jeannie needs to decide what to do about Jim now and not keep dragging this out.


  11. Unfortunately, other teams in the league do see the Lakers as bad and exhibit all kind of confidence and aggressiveness against our favorite team. Every team that faces The Show knows that they are facing a poor defensive team as well as a very inexperienced one. It’s up to the young Lakers to change the narrative and improve their reputation. Game knows game. Other players salivate when they play the Lakers. This needs to change. Our guys have got to compete harder and earn the respect of their peers. It’s a learning process and I’m not expecting overnight results. However, there comes a time when the young core has got to make a stand and execute their game plan for a full 48 minutes. They’re close. We see they are able to get leads but not sustain them. It’s frustrating. Time will show us exactly what this team’s youngsters are capable of.


  12. Thanks for that Darius. I need to read something positive and this was encouraging. Our guys DO compete in every game for much longer stretches and this is very satisfying to watch, but my gosh, when they start to go cold, it is all I can do not to throw my remote thru the screen. Young team, still way better than last year….. Nance come back SOON, DLO quit taking plays off and make smart passes, Ingram start makin shots, Nick don’t stop hustling, Randle play within yourself, Timovey keep workin’ stop foulin’, Jordan less dribbling, Robinson keep cleaning up, Lou keep doin what you do, Tarik your minutes will come so keep staying positive on the sidelines………my 2017 wishlist btw. HAPPY NEW YEAR fellow Lakers Fans!