After another frustrating loss, this time to the lowly Kings on Friday night, the Lakers are clearly still trying to find their way in the wake of getting their roster fully healthy. LeBron James returned to the starting lineup and played even better than could be expected, showing a level of control and feel that reflects his mastery of the game while at the same time beguiling his nearly 7 weeks missed with his high ankle sprain. Anthony Davis looked less engaged than his own pleas for desperation would imply was coming, but did get into more of a rhythm with more engagement as the game progressed.
These are the positives that should not be ignored, even if the mounting concerns are beginning to cast a larger shadow than anyone would want with only 9 games remaining in the regular season. No one captured this balance better than Frank Vogel. The head coach offered his trademark even keeled-ness, but did highlight the contrast between what he’d like to see, what he’s getting, and what he’s trying to accomplish during his post-game media availability:
And herein lies the rub for Vogel as he navigates the close to the regular season (and all that comes with that) along with trying to get his team prepared for the playoffs. You do not need 20/20 vision to see the Lakers struggles or to understand the stakes of the standings as it relates to the playoffs. The Lakers are not playing well, they’re losing games because of it, and are now at real risk of falling not only out of the 5th seed, but all the way to 7th and the play-in game(s).
That said, as much as anyone wants to question the approach, the Lakers are clearly still trying to make up for lost time by force-feeding lineups that we simply do not have a lot of information on. The Lakers attempted to close the game against the Kings with the group they started the game with, using AD at PF even as he tried to chase a 6’4″ Terence Davis around the perimeter while Andre Drummond got roped into handling the point of attack defense in the P&R between Tyrese Haliburton and Richaun Holmes (Drummond’s primary assignment). Needless to say, this didn’t work out very well and Vogel eventually went to Kuzma in Drummond’s place, but waited until there were fewer than 2 minutes left in a game the Lakers trailed by 2 possessions.
Vogel, as he said post game, is clearly looking to get more information on players he wants to rely on and groupings he thinks can succeed1Or at least he says he thinks can., but doesn’t yet seem to know if they can or to what level they will. In that respect, I understand the pursuit, even if I think it’s somewhat of a lost cause at this point (more on this another time). Vogel needs the data; he needs to get this on tape so he can study it and make the most informed decisions when the stakes are highest. Or, so, I assume.
This should be said as clearly as it can be: Vogel is no dummy. His preparedness and pulling of the right levers throughout the Lakers playoff run was instrumental to them winning the title. If you believe different, you’re deluding yourself to try to argue a point only those who already want to agree with you will nod along with. Have fun with that, but I live in reality.
Vogel is a victim of time now and in a race towards the playoffs he’s still mapping out the route he’ll use once that journey begins. If he has to sacrifice his starting position in order to ensure he has the right information on the route he plans to travel, it’s clear he’s saying “so be it.” There’s something to admire in those convictions, there really is. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but then again, I’m not the head coach. I’m writing this while I lay on the lower level of my kids’ bunk bed; I understand I actually don’t have all the relevant information and knowing what I don’t know is part of why I think I can comment on this at all with a certain amount of dignity and why I carry the perspective I do in the first place. But, I digress.
Here’s the thing, though. In a game with a definite winner and a definite loser, it’s very hard to have a two track mind. Vogel (seemingly) wants information to inform future decisions, but getting that information could cost you on the scoreboard and the standings in the present. He surely already has some ideas about what works and what doesn’t, but going to that hand now likely interferes with the hopes of having every player on this roster available to contribute in the type of high leverage moment that may specifically suit them as an individual. Again, getting to know what situation that is in the first place is part of the reason why doing things this way is happening at all.
No one is asking me, but I have this platform so I’m just going to say it.
I think Marc Gasol should play more and I think the minutes allocation at center should be 1. Anthony Davis 2. Gasol 3. Whatever matchups dictate the choice between Drummond and Trez. When in the thick of the playoffs, maybe that’s how things end up going anyway, but I’d be doing it this way now. When it comes to the rest of the rotation, my priorities shift towards LeBron, Dennis, KCP, Caruso, and Kuzma.
I’ve already named 7 key players, with both Drummond and Trez lurking for the 8th spot. In the playoffs, how many more guys can you credibly play anyway? No more than two, and possibly only one. If looking through the rest of the roster, that means (roughly) a shift or maybe two a game for one, or at the most two, from the Keef, Wes, THT, McLemore bunch. That’s quite the difference from what we’re seeing in these games now!
Again, Vogel is no dummy. I trust that when it’s time to pull the trigger on lineups his gut says will work, we’ll see more of AD playing center, more of Gasol, and many more minutes allocated to the top 7 players I named above. For now, though, he will continue to operate on a two track mind. And while I hope that goes well, I think we’re seeing the difficulty in that approach.