I’m waiting for a larger sample of games (15 to 20) before I begin to dive into stats and lineups and bigger things that may or not be trends about the Lakers, but at 11-3 and winners of 5 straight they are at the top of the NBA for record, defensive rating, and net rating. They project to be the league’s best team and, much like the Warriors of several years ago, the big favorite to win the title.
That’s a long way off, of course, and the games now require habit building and commitment to structure, identity, and culture that can carry you through the finish line. The team’s stars matter in this pursuit, so Bron not yet missing a game and AD’s public admonishment of the team’s defensive effort and then on-court commitment to lifting their level show real leadership the team is lucky to have.
Frank Vogel’s steady hand in not overreacting to any one result and showing a calmness as his team slowly ramped up to begin the year also cannot be diminished in importance. He clearly has his finger on the pulse of this group and his understanding of how to manage things in the wackiness of this unique year should not go unnoticed.
As the team heads into a game vs. the Warriors today and then transitions to a monster 7-game road trip that sees them visit the Bucks, 76ers, and Celtics that patience and commitment to building the right habits matters more than ever. This team is currently winning at nearly an .800 clip. That’s not going to continue. But if the team shows the want to play the right way, keeps to its principles, and continues to make positive strides, a few losses here or there shouldn’t bother. Remember, this team is built to win the title. You don’t do that in January, but the habits you form are part of the foundation that can carry you in June.
Regarding today’s game vs. the Warriors, there are several layers to this onion that intrigue me.
On a matchup level, Schröder (or KCP) vs. Steph should be very fun. Draymond vs. Bron or AD also excites. When the Lakers have AD at C, I hope to see him get some minutes vs. rookie big man James Wiseman in order to see two really great athletes go at it in the pivot. Also, the Bron vs. Wiggins matchup is always a fun game within the game, particularly due to their connection from the Cavs trading the just-drafted-#1-overall Wiggins for Kevin Love right when Bron returned to Cleveland for his 2nd stint with the organization. Just watching all these matchups play out and all these guys compete against each other will be really fun.
In the bigger picture of X’s and O’s, I wonder how Vogel is going to treat Steph and approach defending him. Showing higher at the point of attack in ball screens is a given as Steph will kill drop coverage with pull up 3’s. But, will he go a step further and influence the direction he comes off picks? Will he run two defenders at him to get the ball out of his hands before a screen is even deployed? How will the bigs defend and help on Steph in off-ball screen actions that Steve Kerr loves to run so often? The answers to these questions will not only help determine what types of looks Steph gets, but how open his teammates are within the Warriors various actions.
Another question I want answers to is how will Vogel defend Draymond. In past matchups with non-shooters, Vogel has been happy to have AD or Bron simply lay off that guy and act as a helper in order to put that non-shooter in positions to have to shoot. Draymond, however, isn’t your typical non-shooter. He’s such a smart facilitator of offense via his passing, screen setting, and initiation of handoffs that laying off him can become problematic. He’s just so good at driving gaps and then forcing help in order to pass to another open teammate that he can hurt you when you play off him too much. My guess is that AD will start on him and see if he can just blow up these actions anyway, but I’m intrigued by the chess match.
On the other side of the ball, the Warriors have some legit issues to tackle when defending the Lakers. First, the Lakers are just so big and physical that keeping them out of the paint and off the offensive glass will be difficult. While Wiggins and (especially) Draymond are good matchups for Bron and AD respectively, there’s a cumulative effect of having both them working for good shots inside all night. So, I hope to see both them, but also Dennis, Trez, and Kuz, attacking the paint and trying to establish dominance at the rim early and often.
If the Lakers can get to the rim, it will then set up their shooters for the types of open shots they’ve been feasting on to start the year. I’d love to see KCP, Wes, Kuz, Caruso, Keef, and Dennis hit some shots too because if they’re knocking down their looks that only allows more driving lanes and makes the help decisions that much harder when Bron and AD threaten the paint.
This will also be a game where the Lakers need to take care of the ball. The Warriors play at a breakneck pace and love to run out and put you in scramble situations in order to get Steph open 3’s as he runs out or brings the ball up with everyone retreating. If the Lakers can take care of the ball, they can limit those running opportunities and force the Warriors to play more in the halfcourt where the shotmaking from Oubre, Wiggins, et al take on more importance.
So, in the big picture, control the tempo via ball security and by playing bully ball in the paint. Force the Warriors to defend from the front of the rim out and deep into the clock if need be. Put pressure on Steph and Draymond to try to get the ball out of their hands and put pressure on others to be shot creators and shot makers off their own dribble. Leverage your size and superior talent by playing hard and smart. Do all that and you’ll be okay.
Where you can watch: 7:00pm start time on TNT.
Lastly, and this isn’t game related, it is not lost on me that today is the day we as a country celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and all he represented. I feel like this is an important day every year, but that it is especially true this year with all that has been happening in the pursuit of social justice, equality, and equitable solutions to some of the racial, social, and economic problems that plague this country.
Finding solutions to these problems are not easy and will not be popular. Too many enjoy the status quo for that to be the case. And on the day we celebrate Dr. King, the day you’ll see his speeches and quotes relayed across the internet, I think it’s always good to remember that he was not popular during his time. One only need to look at how he died to understand the forces that were against him and what he believed.
So, when you think of what’s important today and we highlight the things that Dr. King stood and fought for — things that are still relevant today — please do not be deterred in your pursuits for a more fair and equitable world for everyone. Because just as there were 60 years ago, there are opponents who do not want that. If there’s a lesson to be remembered, at least for me, on this signficant day, that is it.