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):

Lineup Minutes Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating
Russell, Young, Deng, Randle Mozgov 286 109.9 105.6 +4.2
Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Black 193 108.9 100.0 +8.9
Williams, Clarksson, Ingram, Deng, Nance 58 132.3 104.7 +27.6
Williams, Clarksson, Ingram, Deng, Robinson 43 95.9 99.2 -3.3
Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Robinson 43 104.5 96.7 +7.7
Williams, Clarkson, Ingram, Nance, Randle 42 107.1 99.1 +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 Grouping Minutes Off. Rating Def. Rating Net Rating
Williams, Ingram, Nance 426 111.9 104.1 7.7
Williams, Clakrson, Ingram 573 110.7 103.9 +6.8
Williams, Clarkson, Nance 464 109.7 105.0 +4.7
Clarkson, Ingram, Nance 438 109.6 105.8 +3.8
Russell, Randle, Young 430 108.8 105.4 +3.5
Young, Deng, Randle 464 105.7 106.5 -0.8
Deng, Randle, Mozgov 473 98.9 109.0 -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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