Maya Angelou has a famous quote that goes, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” I think about this saying a lot in my life, for reasons that mostly do not relate to and go well beyond this little corner of my world where I focus on and try to figure out what is happening with the Los Angeles Lakers. But, I do use it for that too. There’s a reason why we watch the games, why the results matter, and why, when I’m really looking for answers about this team I’ve invested decades of my life supporting, I go back to the tape to see what is actually happening on the floor to serve as the guidepost for my analysis.
At this point, after training camp and an 0-6 record in exhibition games, I’m not entirely sure whether Angelou’s saying applies to the Lakers in a “yep, this sums it up” sort of way or not. Going winless in the preseason isn’t exactly what anyone would want, but it’s the preseason. A combination of purposefully sitting players out of games to rest and injuries striking down several players expected to play key roles, set the Lakers up for a specific sort of discombobulation, particularly when paired with the fact that exactly 3 players from last season’s 15 man roster return for this upcoming campaign.
In saying all that, when thinking about this season’s Lakers and what their prospects for success are, I might tweak what Angelou said by a word or two and say that this team has, over and over again, told us what they are and, when combined with how they’ve looked, I am pretty much going to take them at their word. They have told us it’s going to take time to learn each other as people as much as players on the floor, that it’s going to take time to learn Frank Vogel’s systems on both sides of the ball, and that it’s going to take time for them to figure out how to then take what they’ve actually learned and apply it in ways that help them play to the level they ultimately want to.
They’ve told us that there will be ups and downs. That sometimes it’s going to look great and other times it will look bad. That as much as there will be smiles and joy, there will also be times that disappoint and frustrate. They’ve explained that when those latter times come they will do their best to be patient and that they will embrace the work needed to overcome those challenges, but, of course, even saying that takes us right back to the point where they’re openly acknowledging the testing of patience and the need to clear hurdles in the first place.
So, this team is telling us all that this year is going to offer real difficulties. And, in turn, I’m inclined to believe them.
Does that make me a pessimist heading into this season? Not necessarily. After all, the NBA is still a talent league and while the Lakers certainly swapped out some really good NBA players — players who helped them win a championship just a calendar year ago — they added one top end talent in Russell Westbrook and then secured the services of multiple, talented role players who can all contribute to winning basketball. They all join a brain trust spearheaded by LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the player side and Frank Vogel on the coaching side. There are things to worry about with this team, but as a believer in talent first, the Lakers are well positioned.
Let’s discuss those things that worry, though. Because, when evaluating any NBA team, the things they cannot do or are not as good at will often dictate their floor on any given night. And, even for a super talented team, flaws can fester to the point that you’re more vulnerable than you’d think possible and cost you games.
There is no sugarcoating this: the Lakers project to struggle defensively. In swapping out players like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma for Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony, and (to a lesser extent) Kendrick Nunn, the Lakers perimeter defense has taken a pretty big hit. Yes, Kent Bazemore and Trevor Ariza are new additions who can and will help on that side of the floor. And if Talen Horton-Tucker can take a step forward too, it would really help solidify the team’s wing defense. That said, THT and Ariza both begin the season out with injury and Bazemore cannot be expected to carry the load as a pure wing stopper — he simply lacks the size and can be too foul prone.
What the Lakers do have is more paint protection than last year’s team and, knowing Frank Vogel, he’s going to lean on his bigs to be the fulcrum of the Lakers defensive scheme by slowing down attempts in the paint first which then, hopefully, allows those more limited perimeter defenders to play mare aggressively both vs. their own man and in help situations. Vogel will try to make these players jobs as simple as possible. He’ll ask them to funnel towards help, fight like hell to get over screens, know where to rotated and do it at full speed, and, ultimately, just act like you care on that end. Vogel doesn’t want to have to live with any mistakes, but if they’re ones of commission rather than omission, I think he’ll try to work with the player to get those things right the next time. But, if you’re not trying….he’ll have less patience for that.
This is the big question for me, then. Will Russell Westbrook shed some of his worst habits as a defender by buying into playing hard on that end and committing himself to the cause of the team? Will he sell out even if it’s not for the glory of a steal or a block, but just to make a rotation that forces that extra pass that allows the full defense to reset and force the other team to go deeper into the shot clock? Will he engage off the ball, track his man, and chase appropriately? And what about Carmelo? Or Wayne Ellington? Or DeAndre Jordan?
The Lakers have less natural defensive talent on this roster, that much is clear. But some of that will need to be made up for with real defensive effort. If it’s not, I’m not sure if AD and LeBron and Dwight Howard and Bazemore and Ariza can save them. I know those guys will try — and several of them will be destructive defensive players who totally wreck the opposition on any given play — but you need entire units buying into what needs to happen for high level team defense to work. It remains to be seen if the Lakers will get that buy in. In fact, that’s probably generous. I’m not optimistic it actually happens from some of the players on this roster. How much that matters depends on several factors, but none more important than….
How good can this team’s offense be? Whatever misgivings I have about the Lakers defense, I have much fewer on the other side of the ball. The Lakers are going to be a devastating transition team and will score in bunches once they find their rhythm as a running team. LeBron and Russ are two of the best grab and go players in the league and both will leverage their speed and power to generate baskets for themselves (and each other) in the open court. AD is also going to feast on rim runs filling the middle lane, as will both Dwight and DeAndre. AD will also create transition and early offense chances after securing defensive rebounds and either taking the ball up himself or firing off a quick outlet pass.
With all the pressure the Lakers put on the front of the rim in transition, they’re going to get a ton of open 3’s when defenses collapse trying to race home to the paint to deter their fastbreaks. Malik Monk, Nunn, Ellington, Carmelo, Ariza… all will feast from behind the arc when LeBron and Russ spray the ball ahead on kick aheads to the deep corner or back out behind them to the wing or above the break after flirting with the paint on drives. The Lakers played with one of the fastest paces in the preseason and once they further refine and get comfortable playing wth that much speed and tempo, they’re simply going to dominate teams in the open court.
Succeeding in the half court will be trickier, but I do think it’s being a bit oversold how much trouble the team will have on that side of the floor. Understand, the same principles that will make the Lakers great in transition can be carried over to their half court attack. Bron, Russ, and AD will all threaten the paint and score for themselves and, in the process, create shots for teammates.
And while Frank Vogel has said the team will post up less often, those post ups will draw extra attention from the defense, opening up chances for off-ball screens and cuts that should translate into open shots. Yes, there’s a commitment to executing those actions that must not only happen with more consistency this year, but also with more precision than they’ve shown. But, the preseason did offer some glimpses of the team executing at a higher level and with more creativity there.
More encouraging beyond any of that, however, is that the team simply has much more natural offensive talent with this group than they have in the past two seasons. They have more shooting, more ball handling, and more shot creation. They’ll have pet actions they can go to in order to highlight whatever player groupings are on the floor and they still have the baseline of running ball screens with either LeBron or Russ as the initiator who can create a good shot, sometimes out of thin air. The same can be said for AD, but out of mid and low post touches or, simply, by isolating him with the ball vs. slower footed defenders.
Of course, I don’t expect this to always be simple or easy. The Lakers have, in many ways, gone away from the identity that won them a championship in the 2020 season in favor of something riskier, but with the potential to be more dynamic. They’ve swapped out higher level, career role players for a 3rd current star and a couple of former stars who must step into roles less glamorous than the ones they’ve traditionally held. The adjustments that some of these players will need to make to their individual games may not take at all, and that’s to say nothing of the adjustments the entire group will need to make now that they’re all playing together.
This is where I’m guessing people would hope I’d be reassuring and tell you that I expect things to work out. Honestly, though, I’m not sure it will. The Lakers are embracing a great experiment and their best outcome is far from a given. Maybe this team won’t defend enough. Maybe they won’t hit enough shots. Maybe this mix simply won’t come together as well as hoped.
But, if you’re asking me to bet against a team with LeBron and Anthony Davis, I simply won’t do it. Those two have earned my trust. Add in Russ, whose competitive spirit can be infectious, and I do think this team will compete night to night in ways that bring home a lot of regular season wins. The playoffs will offer different challenges, but, again, the braintrust of this team is strong and I believe they’ll put in the work to be as prepared as possible.
This team will give itself a chance to be the best version of itself. I think any team with LeBron and AD and Russ and Vogel will put their collective heads and wills together to push through the challenges they face. And, really, that is all any of us can really ask for. It won’t always be pretty and may not always work, but when it does, I think this team can be special. And, if nothing else, that’s why I’ll be watching this season — to see if they can actually get there.