Frustrating. If there’s a single word to describe Monday’s 120-115 loss to the Clippers, that would be it.
With 8 minutes and 15 seconds left in the game, Kyle Kuzma assisted Corey Brewer for a layup that gave the Lakers an 8 point lead, 103-95. For the rest of the game, then, the Clippers outscored the Lakers 25-12, seizing control of the contest as the Lakers fell apart via defensive miscues, offensive struggles, and a lack of continuity — be it the play on the court to the shuffling of the players by coach Luke Walton.
Frustrating. Yep. That about sums it up.
Before I pile on, I think it’s best to acknowledge that I actually did like some things about this game. As noted above, the Lakers were in position to win and after digging out of an early hole, they basically controlled this contest from the late 1st period into the middle part of the 4th.
I liked Brandon Ingram’s aggressiveness in the 2nd half. Saddled with foul issues in the first 24 minutes, Ingram found his way in the final two quarters by getting to the rim (nearly) at will. He began the 3rd quarter with a nice drive by Blake Griffin for a smooth finish at the cup and followed that up with several more slashes to the paint which earned him easy finishes and trips to the foul line.
Ingram finished the game with 17 points, 15 of which came after the intermission. Games like this are a big step forward for Ingram, even if they’ll mostly be forgotten by fans due to the nature of the loss. A year ago, Ingram likely never recovers from his poor first half and probably floats the rest of the game or turns strictly into a passer/ball mover who is content at just being another guy out there. This game, though, he stuck to his attack game and made an impact on the boxscore. Good on him and, maybe even more, for the Lakers who will benefit from this type of assertiveness in the coming years.
KCP was huge for the Lakers in the first half and really kept them in the game. He scored 16 of the team’s 32 first quarter points, including 4-5 from beyond the arc. He got bucket after bucket when none of his teammates could muster good offense, ensuring that the Clippers never got too far ahead. His defense wasn’t as sharp as it could have been, but I’ll happily forgive whatever transgressions happened on that end early in exchange for his first quarter and his 20 point 1st half overall. KCP’s play was a nice reminder that it takes a full team, every night, to be competitive in this league and when it’s your turn to step up and make a difference and you actually do it, that matters.
There were more things I liked, but that’s not why anyone came to read this. They want to be angry, and I get that.
Whenever a team loses a game, I think it’s usually fairly simple to find things in the boxscore that explain the L. Turnovers, offensive rebounds, missed FT’s, too many opponent FT’s, etc, etc. Basketball can be a complex game to analyze, but at times it really is a simple game.
If you look at the boxscore from last night’s game, you’ll see something pretty straightforward. Every starter had a negative plus/minus (KCP’s -6 was the best of the bunch) and every sub was either neutral or had a positive plus/minus (Bogut had a +/- of zero, Brewer was a +1, Clarkson was a +3, and Randle/Kuzma/Hart were all a plus in the double-digits).
So, you know, I could rail on the team’s missed FT’s (they went 16 for 24 in a game they lost by 5), but that’d be silly. The Lakers didn’t lose because of missed FT’s. Nor did they lose because of turnovers (the Clippers had more) or rebounding (the Clippers only had one more rebound) or because of some huge deficit behind the arc (the Lakers hit one more 3 than the Clips and hit 36.7% of their triples).
The Lakers lost because the personnel groupings that played well together actually didn’t get enough time on the floor together. They lost because the players the coaches trusted to make plays at the times they were in the game didn’t make them and, through that, the coaches still kept them on the floor. This is what happened and it was pretty clear to whoever watched the game.
Don’t believe me? Here’s the lineup data:
- Ball, KCP, Ingram, Nance, Lopez: 9 minutes, ORtg 56.6, DRtg 95.9, -6 overall
- Clarkson, Hart, Brewer, Kuzma, Randle: 8 minutes, ORtg 162.3, DRtg 127.2, +4 overall
- Clarkson, Hart, KCP, Kuzma, Randle: 7 minutes, ORtg 141.7, DRtg 87.2, +10 overall
There were other lineups with smaller minutes, but these basically tell the story. When you drill down deeper to smaller combinations (2, 3, and 4 man groupings) you see the same types of numbers. Basically, groupings that included 3 or more starters on the floor at any given time performed poorly while groupings with 3 or more bench players — especially those with Clarkson/Randle/Kuzma as the centerpieces, faired well.
So, when you then close the game with Clarkson and Kuzma on the bench and then sub out Randle for defensive purposes in the closing minutes only to have Nance misplay a P&R defensively that allowed Lou Williams the layup that iced the game…well, I have to point at Luke Walton and ask him to own some of these decisions.
Yes, it’s on the players on the floor to perform, but when the lineup data and flow of the game was what it was vs. the Clippers, it’s on the coach to read that and respond accordingly. Last night, that didn’t really happen. And the Lakers lost.
Now, in saying all that, lets zoom back out and look at the big picture.
This was one game in an 82 game season. And while some of these lineup/rotation/substitution issues aren’t new, I think it’s important to also look at the roster construction and understand that some of these choices are incredibly difficult and will almost assuredly result in people being frustrated (fans and players, I might add) in how the minutes breakdown happens, especially in losses.
The Lakers are imbalanced. They have 4 bigs who deserve to play and only 96 minutes to split among them. Divide them evenly and you have 24 minutes a piece, but that’s not going to be ideal for anyone. As sort of discussed when Nance was cleared to return, if you’re going to play 4 bigs, I think the ideal pairings are Nance/Lopez, Randle/Lopez, Kuzma/Lopez, and Kuzma/Randle. Kuzma is the only pure stretch 4, Lopez is the pure C who also has shooting range, and Randle is the only one who can viably play both PF and C and is the best perimeter defender on switches.
If you look at those groupings, the only player who doesn’t have more than one playing partner is Nance. This, then, would mean he gets the short end of the stick, minutes wise. However, Nance also does all the “little things” better than the other PF’s and has the lowest usage rate. Coaches love players like Nance and for good reason — they allow your other 4 players to play to their strengths while filling in the gaps with hustle and heady play. After the Clippers game, Luke Walton actually said he thought Nance was the team’s best player which, I’d imagine, is because of all the little things Nance actually did well; things that don’t always show in the boxscore but coaches see instantly from the sidelines.
Understand, too, that the Lakers are shallow on the wing and in the backcourt, both from a personnel and skill standpoint. Ingram is the only natural SF on the team. Ball is the only real PG in the rotation. KCP, Clarkson, and Hart are all natural SG’s with varying levels of ability to fill in at other spots (JC some PG, KCP some SF or PG for a possession or two).
What the Lakers really need is another dynamic wing who can be a playmaker for others or a PG who can initiate sets while being comfortable enough off the ball to play next to Clarkson. Unless one of these player types is found, the Lakers wing rotation will never really be firm — Walton will ride the hot hand, end up sacrificing natural passing/initiating for scoring (Clarkson/KCP over Ball), or turning back to his steadier initiator because the sets aren’t being run well (Ball over Clakrson).
So, in a way, I don’t blame Walton even though I can get just as frustrated as anyone else at games like Monday’s. This roster has too many bigs, not enough wings, and the guards they currently have have holes in their games which can impact how effective they are during any given game/vs. any given matchup.
Lonzo’s scoring/shooting struggles and JC’s initiation issues/habit of pounding the ball are different sides of the same coin when it comes to structural problems. Pair either with KCP and his own limitations as a shot creator and it can be a major problem. Flank these guys with Ingram — who is barely 20 and just figuring out how to be a fairly reliable scoring option himself and doing that absent a reliable outside shot and…you see where I’m going with this?
As the saying goes, then, it is what it is. This is a team of too many bigs and smalls with enough flaws that make lineup choices just hard enough that losses can ensue and then everyone second guesses the choices you made. Again, this doesn’t absolve Walton, but it’s the context to the job he’s tasked with.
I know this started as a game recap. Really, it did, scroll up to the top. But, in a way, the Clippers game was a great reminder of where this Lakers team currently is. They can compete and defend and score some points, but the holes in their roster and some of the lineup decisions which come out of that can frustrate to no end.
And that’s just what we have to deal with — especially on a team this young.