The Lakers are hovering around .500, a far cry from where many experts expected them to be halfway through December. Russell Westbrook has struggled at times, LeBron James has been in and out of the lineup, and Anthony Davis is tossing up bricks from deep.
Mix in the Big-3’s problems with injuries to key Lakers reserves, Talen Horton-Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Kendrick Nunn, and Wayne Ellington, and you have a hitch in the plan.
Everything is magnified in LA. Minor glitches turn into gaping catastrophes, and a 5-5 stretch can feel like a massive losing streak. Things aren’t as bad as they seem in Hollywood, though.
Actually, things are looking up for the Purple and Gold. The Lakers are much better than most people think.
After Rob Pelinka traded for Russell Westbrook over the summer, expectations were high. Lakers fans saw a new Big-3 in La La Land, with a return to the mountaintop gleaming in their eyes. Then October happened, and all that pent-up championship hysteria quickly morphed into Westbrook catcalls and criticism.
Lakers fans were right to be upset with the former Bruin. He clanked his way through an awful October, connecting on a measly 25.0% of his shots from deep as he threw the ball away a league-high 5.1 times per game. Westbrook’s struggles trickled down through the rest of the squad, and under the helm of their new point guard, the Purple and Gold started off the year 4-3 against an easy schedule.
Fans in LA are always critical about the Lakers, but they’re highly intelligent. So, why did they expect Westbrook to come out of gates balling like an MVP? Everyone knew the nine-time All-Star struggles to adjust when he goes to a new organization.
In 2018-2019, during Westbrook’s first month in Houston, he shot 31.3% from three-point range and had 4.0 turnovers per game.
Last year, it was more of the same. Russell Westbrook shot 26.7% from beyond the arc and coughed the ball up 5.5 times per game during his first month of action on the Washington Wizards.
Lakers fans recognized there’d be an adjustment period, yet they still panicked. That’s like buying expired milk at the supermarket for 80% off and then crying when it’s sour.
Now it’s December, smack dab in the middle of the season, and the Westbrook narrative has only gotten worse. Type Russell Westbrook’s name into Google, and you’ll find thousands of “Trade Westbrook” articles or “Russell is awful” posts. Here’s the thing, though: Russell Westbrook is no longer playing poorly.
Throughout the Lakers’ last ten games, Westbrook is slashing a very impressive 19.8 PPG, 8.0 APG, and 5.4 RPG to go along with only 4.2 TPG and a 41.9% shooting mark from deep off of 3.1 attempts. Shrink that sample size down to the last five games and Westbrook is hitting 50.0% of his shots from beyond the arc.
Overall, his assist to usage rate, a statistic that measures a player’s assist percentage in relationship with how much they have the ball in their hands, and which also includes their turnovers, is a steady 1.16 (62nd percentile in the league), better than MVP Candidates Stephen Curry (10th percentile) and Luka Doncic (56th percentile).
His defense has been solid, too. He’s fourth on the Lakers in defensive rating (106.7), better than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Going deeper into the advanced stats, according to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers are 5.0 points per 100 possessions better with the former Bruin on the court, good for the 79th percentile in the association.
Russell Westbrook’s recent play is a reason for optimism in Los Angeles. He’s settling down and building chemistry with LeBron and AD. If he continues to shoot the ball at a high clip from deep while taking care of the ball, he’ll deserve All-Star consideration.
If the recent narrative on Russell Westbrook has been “puzzling,” then the account of AD’s shooting woes has been downright mystifying. It’s true Davis is shooting 19.2% from deep on the season, but we can’t simply cherry-pick one statistic and shout out, “Davis is one of the worst shooters in the league.”
Anthony Davis is connecting on 0.4 three-pointers per game of 2.0 attempts. At the same time, Giannis Antetokounmpo is hitting 1.2 three-pointers per game off 4.1 shots per contest. The math here is simple: Double AD’s attempts to match Giannis’s, and you have an accurate ratio of their outside shooting. If we double Davis’s attempts and makes, we see he’s hitting 0.8 threes while taking 4.0 shots, 0.4 less than Giannis, which is -1.2 points per game.
1.2 points less off of three-point shots per game!!!!!
Giannis is averaging 27.6 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 5.8 APG, and 1.7 BPG while shooting 53.0% from the field and playing top-shelf defense.
AD is averaging 24.1 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 3.1 APG, and 2.2 BPG while shooting 52.4% from the field and playing top-10 D.
Nobody is saying AD is as good as Giannis. The “Greek Freak” is a generational talent, while AD will have to settle for superstar status. Still, the negative buzz surrounding AD is unfair.
Look at Basketball-Reference's MVP tracker, and you’ll see Giannis sitting comfortably in second place with Davis nowhere to be found. Draymond Green makes the list, but not AD!!!!!
Scan each player’s statistics, and you’ll see Giannis is better, but not eyes bulging and slap yourself in the face better. He’s performed at a slightly higher level.
Maybe you want to use wins and losses as part of your argument, Giannis’s Bucks are 17-10, and Davis’s Lakers are 14-13. That doesn’t work either, though. Giannis went 3-7 without his running mate Khris Middleton in the lineup. In fact, the Bucks were well under .500 as Giannis ran solo at the early stages of the season.
Anthony Davis has struggled from deep, but it’s not a big part of his game. He takes 2.1 three-point spot-up looks per contest, and nearly all of them are wide open.
Anthony Davis is one of the league’s last genuine low block threats. He is averaging 1.01 points per possession via post-up attempt, good for the 78th percentile in the NBA and third among all centers. Outside of three-point territory, he’s shot the ball well, connecting on 78.3% of his shots at the rim and 45.1% of his attempts from 16 feet to the three-point line.
On the less glamorous end, he’s still a monster. He’s third in the association in blocks per game at 2.2. AD is fast enough to hound Jayson Tatum on the perimeter and big enough to stuff Rudy Gobert on the block.
Anthony Davis is a top-10 player, and despite hitting 0.4 three-pointers off 2.0 attempts per game, he’s a game-changer in LA and a big reason things look good for the Lakers moving forward.
Lack Of Continuity
What type of record would the Warriors have if Stephen Curry, their primary playmaker, had only played 16 out of a possible 28 games?
Where would the Suns sit if their primary setup man, Chris Paul, had missed nearly half their games?
The answer is straightforward. The first place Warriors and Suns would almost certainly be hovering a few games over .500 without the gravity and IQ of their best player.
Let’s go beyond hypothetical situations.
The Los Angeles Clippers brought back the same roster as last season’s championship contender squad, minus their top playmaker, Kawhi Leonard, and LA’s other team is 14-12.
Last season, the Dallas Mavericks finished things in fifth place out west with a 42-30 record. Their offensive generator, Luka Doncic, has missed three games and been slowed with an ankle issue this year. The Mavericks find themselves one game under .500 at 12-13.
It’s incredibly difficult to win without your best player in the NBA, especially if he’s responsible for initiating the offense.
LeBron James is not only the engine that drives the Lakers car; he’s arguably the best playmaker the league has seen since a prime Magic Johnson graced the court in Los Angeles. He’s played in a little over half of the Purple and Gold’s games, missing time with an abdominal injury, a suspension for throwing a random elbow, and a false-negative result on a coronavirus test.
Making things even more complicated, the Lakers have 12 new rotation players on their roster this season, most in the league. Is it any wonder the Lakers are 15-13?
Lakers fans have argued that the partnership of Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis should be enough to mitigate LBJ’s absence. That’s unrealistic. Westbrook hasn’t played top-dog since his Oklahoma City Thunder days.
He played second-fiddle to James Harden during 2018-2019, and last season he was Bradley Beal’s Robin on the Washington Wizards.
Russell Westbrook wasn’t brought to Hollywood to run the show. He’s past that time. Rob Pelinka landed him to be the Lakers’ third best player.
Here’s the good news. The Lakers are 9-6 with LBJ, a .666 winning percentage that would have them resting comfortably in fourth place in the Western Conference. All things considered, Lakers fans should be ecstatic.
LeBron James is still ageless. He’s dunking well above the rim, reading the floor better than ever, and playing bully-ball like he’s in his 20s. Even better, the Big-3 is healthy and slowly building a connection. With LeBron James in the lineup, this is a championship-caliber team that nobody in the Western Conference wants to see in the playoffs.
Better Lineup Choices
Frank Vogel is slowly fleshing out the best Lakers lineups.
DeAndre Jordan went from a starter in Brooklyn last year to riding the bench at the end of the season and in the playoffs. He could suffer the same fate on the Purple and Gold.
He began 2021-2022 playing significant minutes. Still, it became clear as the first quarter of the season progressed, his lack of an outside shot on offense and inability to move his feet on defense make him a net negative on this version of the Lakers.
Two of the Lakers most-used lineups have featured Jordan, and they’ve been some of the worst five-man groups in the Western Conference:
L. James, R. Westbrook, A. Davis, K. Bazemore, and D. Jordan: 47 total minutes played with a -16 net rating
R. Westbrook, A. Bradley, A. Davis, K. Bazemore, and D. Jordan: 40 total minutes played with a -15 net rating
Over the past five games, DeAndre Jordan has seen only 10.3 MPG across two contests, and the Lakers have looked much better over that time.
Kent Bazemore was also a significant factor in the Lakers’ two worst five-man units this season. He began the season in the starting lineup, and many predicted he’d play a substantial 3-and-D role for the Purple and Gold. Things didn’t work out that way. He’s averaging 4.4 points per game to go along with a 30.2 three-point percentage. Frank Vogel has smartly turned to the uber-aggressive Avery Bradley more as the season has pushed into December, and he hasn’t disappointed, shooting 41.3% from deep and playing solid all-around basketball.
Recently Frank Vogel has smartly toggled center Dwight Howard in and out of the starting lineup depending on the matchup, and he’s pumped up Talen Horton-Tucker’s minutes because of his ability to muscle in the lane and play solid defense. Vogel has also begun to lean on Malik Monk more off the bench, and he’s been good, connecting on 36.6% from deep while playing surprisingly good position D.
Frank Vogel is an intelligent coach, willing to experiment until he finds the right combinations. Lakers fans should rejoice at their head coach’s determination to make things click.
One Of The Best Shooting Benches In League
Over the last decade, the Lakers’ lack of outside shooting has been a topic of derision among fans in Hollywood. This season that is no longer the case.
The trio of Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, and Malik Monk has formed into one of the best shooting bench units in the association.
Carmelo Anthony: 41.2 3P% off 5.9 attempts per game
Wayne Ellington: 40.0 3P% off 5.0 attempts per game
Malik Monk: 36.1 3P% off 4.8 attempts per game
The Lakers now have three guys capable of spreading the floor for Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis, making a significant difference in the Lakers’ overall performance. In fact, the Lakers three best lineups this season (minimum 10 minutes played) feature at least two players out of this bench trio:
D. Howard, R. Westbrook, A. Davis, W. Ellington, and M. Monk: +22 points
D. Howard, R. Westbrook, C. Anthony, W. Ellington, and M. Monk: +19 points
A. Davis, R. Westbrook, A. Bradley, C. Anthony, and M. Monk: +16 points
All three players have offered Frank Vogel different looks he can insert into the game, taking opposing defenses out of their comfort zone. Carmelo Anthony has turned into one of the best perimeter spot-up options in the NBA, but he can also abuse defenders out of post-up situations in the mid-range. Wayne Ellington is an excellent spot-up shooter, but he’s also exceptional at curling around screens for quick launches beyond the arc. Malik Monk is the most athletic out of the bunch. He can explode at the rim, spot-up beyond the arc, or shoot off the dribble from deep.
The Lakers’ new trio has performed excellently on offense, and as they’ve grown comfortable with Frank Vogel’s defense sets, they’ve slowly picked things up on the less fun end. Overall, they’ve been a boon for the Lakers and another reason the Purple and Gold are better than most folks think.
What Does The Future Hold For The Lakers?
All signs are pointing up for the Lakers. LeBron James looks spry. AD’s got that angry glint in his eye. And Russell Westbrook is slowly figuring things out with this new group of players around him.
Add in the Lakers’ new hot-shooting bench threesome with Frank Vogel’s ability to mix-and-match, and you’ve got the recipe for a Lakers midseason push.
Look for the Lakers to slowly (don’t expect any miraculous 15-game winning streaks) push up the Western Conference standings. As the season winds down, barring any major injuries, the Lakers should land comfortably in the top-4, avoiding a date with the Suns and Warriors in the first round.