There’s a Jay-Z rap lyric I’ve always liked a lot. The Brooklyn born husband to Beyoncé says, simply, “life’s like a treadmill n***** runnin’ in place”.
For me, at least, it’s a line about the search for progress and the want for more, but not actually getting it. It’s also about people’s perceptions of how to achieve that progress and how their best intentions to get there end up not mattering. It’s also about thinking you’re slick, but not being that. At all.
I’m thinking about that line this morning, as I type these words, because I’m also thinking about the Lakers.
On Monday I wrote a piece about where the Lakers stand after 10 games by looking at 10 stats which interested me. There were all kinds of numbers in there — numbers about the team’s 3-point shooting accuracy, how well they play in transition, their defensive rebounding woes, and how this team has a better offensive and defensive efficiency in the 134 minutes LeBron James has been off the floor than the 351 minutes he’s been on it.
Read that last part again.
These are small samples and from the season’s first 10 games no less, but early trends are not meaningless either. The Lakers look like a very good but not great offense (which thrives in open court situations and gets by on talent rather than scheme in the half court) and a sub-standard defense. Compare that to last year’s team which was a good but not great defense (which thrived on young legs, some veteran smarts, and enough versatility to switch and hang tough regardless of supposed mismatches) and a sub-standard offense.
These early season Lakers look like a team that has leaped forward with the acquisition of James, but somehow landed in the same spot.
Life’s like a treadmill…
Before we get too far into this, let me be clear: this isn’t some stupid piece about how the Lakers would be better off without LeBron James. Because, you know, that would be stupid. LeBron remains the best (or one of the very best) basketball players in the world. You aren’t better off if never getting that player. And you certainly don’t get worse when you do actually sign him.
What do you become, though, is different. And the Lakers are not quite yet adjusted to being different in a way which actually helps them. It’s like being 14 years old and suddenly going through a growth spurt. Six months ago you were 5’7″. Now you’re 6’2″. Everyone tells you you should go out for the basketball team or marvels at how much bigger you are now. Only you can barely run without looking like a baby giraffe taking its first steps and keep bumping into things you never did when you were smaller. You have no idea how to use your new body. And the Lakers still don’t know how to play with LeBron James.
Wait. Let me take that back. That’s too simple.
After the Lakers got a commitment from LeBron on July 1st, they then constructed roster which bucked conventional wisdom on how to build around the player who’d just led various teams to 8 consecutive NBA Finals.
Rather than seek out elite level shooting (which, to be fair, is hard to find) or lock down defensive players (which, also to be fair, is probably even harder to find considering recent rule changes) Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka signed players whose best skills were playmaking and shot creation (either for themselves or others).
Some of these players also possessed reputations as defensive players (even if the data at our disposal pushed back against that idea). They were also veterans with track records of playing in (and winning) high stakes basketball games while bringing positional versatility, guys known to have personality (which is a nice way of saying that they have some asshole in them — which is a nice thing to say if you’re Kobe Bryant), and are known to compete hard.
These aren’t bad players by any means. They just aren’t the assortment of player archetypes to typically surround LeBron on the recent contenders he’s captained.
I say all this again — because we’ve said all this before — to make the same point we’ve made since these names were tweeted into existence via Woj Bombs: this Lakers team is an experiment and while we can offer opinions on how that might go based on informed analysis, we really don’t know how it will go. At least not yet.
But the early season numbers offer a clue and these returns are not promising. There is a long way to go still, but change is needed. And not necessarily in the form of roster tweaking, even though Tyson Chandler reportedly coming will help.
No, what the Lakers need is some internal tweaking and improvement that can, but maybe can’t or won’t, happen organically. In no specific order:
- The young players need to play better and with more consistency. Lonzo Ball needs to play with more energy all the time. Kyle Kuzma needs to hit his outside shot and defend + rebound at a non-disastrous level. Brandon Ingram needs to return to his roots as a driver and paint attacker rather than a pull up jumpshooter. Josh Hart needs to defend his position at close to the same level he defends the PF’s he bangs with on the block. These are things that we know can happen — or the case of Hart’s and Kuzma’s defense, hope can happen. But they have not yet this season. It needs to change.
- Luke Walton needs to figure out his rotation and promote a hierarchy which optimizes the players, all while maintaining buy-in from every single guy. This is challenging due to the roster construction of the team — not only from the standpoint of there being too many wings who deserve minutes, but from the mix of veterans who are used to playing a major role on the teams they’ve been on and young players who probably need more playing time than they’ve earned to this point in order to grow into the players you want them to be long term. But this is Walton’s job and, as difficult as it is, it’s the task in front of him.
- LeBron needs to play at a higher level of engagement than he’s shown to this point. Look, LeBron can get his numbers as easily as I can buy a pair of shoes I do not need. He’s so damn good at and smart about basketball he can get to his season averages of 26.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 7.7 assists by playing at the 60% level of his peak self that he has been through 10 games. But that’s the point. LeBron is playing at 60%. And he’s doing it on a team where, as noted in the two bullet points above, the young players are not offering the needed consistency and Luke Walton has not yet formed an optimized rotation. This is where LeBron can play savior via the type of amped up play he normally saves for May and June. Only, he’s used to saving that for May and June.
On that last point, after going back and forth on this a bit, I don’t really blame LeBron for pacing himself in the early going. No one knows his body and how to prepare it for the rigors of a season better than him. Over the last 8 seasons, including the playoffs, he’s played a total of 763 games — an average of 95 a season. That’s an extra 107 games over that 8 year span, or a dozen (or so) games short of a full season and a half extra games. And these aren’t just any games, they’re playoff contests where the intensity, scrutiny, and gameplans ratchet up to peak levels.
If he’s taking the long view on how to be prepared for another season where the playoffs are the goal, I understand that fully. So be it.
That said, the Lakers are not assured of anything at this point. Not the playoffs and certainly not another 100 game campaign. The improvements they need to get to firm ground are real and — in my best Yogi Berra voice — the only way to get there is to actually get there.
Do not get me wrong. I’m still preaching patience and there’s no panic from where I sit. There’s 72 effing games left in the regular season and the standings, even if the exact teams in the positions aren’t what we might have expected, are in the tiers we envisioned before the season started. There are currently 8 teams, in seeds 5-12, that range from having a 6-4 record to a 4-6 one. The Lakers are in that bunch.
The season is a marathon.
But, it’s also a sprint. And while the Lakers have made a leap forward, they somehow haven’t gained much ground in the early going. I’m hoping for more progress soon. The optimist in me says it’s coming.