It should be noted, at the top, that few people thought the Lakers would win many games. In my season preview I wrote the following:
I think this team tops out at 38 wins and that’s with everything going right. When was the last time any NBA team had everything go right? When was the last time the Lakers did? That said, if this team wins over 30 games, they will simultaneously improve on last season’s win total by 10 wins and beat their over for Las Vegas.
A 10 win improvement on the 21-win dumpster fire that was last season might seem too optimistic right now. That’s where we are after the Lakers lost 120-109 to a Nuggets team missing one of their better wing scorers and their entire rotation of Centers.
The main issue remains defense. After the Nuggets game the Lakers are now ranked last in defensive efficiency, allowing 113.0 points per 100 possessions. That number would be 3.4 points/100 possessions worse than last season’s last-place Wolves. It would be the worst mark of at least the last 15 seasons (I can only go back 15 years in the database I am searching).
Of course we’re only talking four games, not an entire season. But the fact that we’re having this discussion at all is not promising.
The Lakers simply do not defend well individually or as a team. Roy Hibbert can only be so much of an obstacle when players are attacking him full speed in space, taking shot attempts to his body with enough force they negate the effect of his “verticality”. What’s worse, the lapses of not helping the helper only increase the likelihood Hibbert’s help is wasted when his man comes to clean up the misses he does force.
So, the team is losing mostly because of their defense. This is established and, well, really not debatable. Going beyond these struggles, though, is where things start to get to the root of the frustrations surrounding the team.
For the 2nd time in four games, D’Angelo Russell sat down the stretch of the 4th quarter, this time in favor of Lou Williams. Williams has a knack for drawing fouls and that skill was on full display, earning him countless trips to the FT line while keeping the Lakers somewhat close on the scoreboard. The Lakers never overcame their deficit, however, and hindsight says, with the chase for a win unsuccessful, maybe those minutes could have been better used on the team’s promising rookie.
This season, the Lakers are trying to split their focus between developing their promising young core (Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle) and trying to remain competitive.
It’s an incredibly delicate balance, because young players will make mistakes and struggle, likely leading to losses, but those mistakes and that struggle is vital for them to learn and grow and become the players that might ultimately carry the franchise back to greatness. In essence, every moment matters.
“I’ve got to balance that — just knowing [Russell is] young,” Scott said. “And he’s going to have to experience that stuff as far as the fourth quarter when the game is on the line, because that’s the only way he’s going to really learn.”
If that is truly the case, then Russell should have been out there.
Instead, Russell rode the pine and was left to face a scrum of reporters in a lonely locker room, and his answers were far from encouraging, especially as Tuesday marked another fourth quarter that he spent on the bench, the second in four games.
What can he do to stay out there?
“I have no idea,” Russell said.
Is this frustrating?
“It’s something I’ve got to deal with,” Russell said.
Russell’s frustrations are easy to understand. While I’m not a #2 overall draft pick, I’m pretty sure my feelings about him wanting to get a bit more burn are mirrored by the player. The fact that he’s not getting those minutes — especially in losses — is tough to stomach.
As I wrote in my aforementioned season preview, executing this balancing act was always going to be the most difficult part of Byron Scott’s job. There are competing interests at play and he has to be savvy enough to manage it all in a way which may not even be possible.
The other part of this story is, of course, Scott wanting (needing?) to win some games. While the rhetoric surrounding his hire and his continued public support has been more than flattering, no one is naive enough to believe wins do not matter. Byron is coaching like someone chasing wins and, so far, he has not been successful. But the chase will continue.
The question is, will it continue with him fully investing into his young players with the minutes they crave? Will he make the hard decisions of sitting down veterans who are capable of closing out games? Will he — gasp — even sit Kobe one night if it is determined Lou Williams (or Nick Young) are playing well down the stretch?
Maybe it’s a bad thing I think we already have the answers to these questions.