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Are The Los Angeles Lakers Preseason Struggles A Sign Of Things To Come?

Are The Los Angeles Lakers Preseason Struggles A Sign Of Things To Come?

LeBron James has gone on record saying he doesn’t care about the preseason:

“I care more about the practice court than I care about preseason games. You get out there and play rotations, and you’re trying to figure out things of that nature. There’s only so much you can get out of a preseason game, at least for me individually.”

We all know preseason wins and losses are meaningless, but only three teams over the last five seasons (excluding last year, when no squad played more than three contests) have finished the preseason with a point differential of -10 or worse and made the postseason. Out of the three teams that ended up clinching a playoff berth, none made it out of the second round.

2019-2020 Preseason:

Atlanta Hawks: -16 point differential (they finished the regular season 15th in the eastern conference)

Cleveland Cavaliers: -10.5 point differential (finished 15th in the west)

2018-2019 Preseason:

Minnesota Timberwolves: -15 point differential (finished 12th in the west)

New Orleans Pelicans: -11.8 point differential (finished 13th in the west)

2017-2018 Preseason:

New York Knicks: -15 point differential (finished 11th in the east)

New Orleans Pelicans: -10.7 point differential (finished 6th in the west)

Sacramento Kings: -10.3 point differential (finished 12th in the west)

2016-2017 Preseason:

Philadelphia 76ers: -10.7 point differential (14th in the east)

Brooklyn Nets: -10.2 point differential (15th in the east)

LA Clippers: -10.5 point differential (4th in the west)

2015-2016 Preseason:

Minnesota Timberwolves: -10.5 point differential (13th in the west)

Dallas Mavericks: -10.7 point differential (6th in the west)

The Lakers finished the preseason an ugly 0-6 with an even uglier -15 point differential.

We’re not saying the Purple and Gold will miss the playoffs. As long as LeBron James and Anthony Davis are healthy, they’re about the surest thing to a playoff guarantee there is in the NBA. What we are saying is that the preseason isn’t worthless like LBJ would have you believe, and we’ve found some warning signs that don’t bode well for a team like the Lakers that isn’t just looking to make the postseason, but that has title aspirations.


Defense

The Lakers might have the three worst defenders at their positions in the NBA.

DeAndre Jordan began the 2020-2021 season as the Brooklyn Nets starter. As the year progressed, his minutes slowly dwindled until he fell out of the rotation entirely, losing his job to Blake Griffin (a guy who’s not exactly known for his defensive prowess). In the end, Nets head coach, Steve Nash, decided not to play Jordan a single minute in the playoffs.

Last year, DeAndre Jordan finished the year ranked 98 out of 107 centers in defensive rating (114.8), which is somehow worse than it looks. He was on a Nets team stacked with offensive weapons like Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving, and Joe Harris, making his job incredibly straightforward; he was there to defend the rack and pull down rebounds. Jordan could save his legs for the less glamorous side of the ball. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to help him stay in front of perimeter players or close out on open three-point shooters.

This preseason on the Lakers, it was more of the same for DeAndre Jordan. He still looked lost in pick and roll situations, and opposing wings hunted him mercilessly on switches, eyes alight, as they pranced around him into the lane for an easy look at the rim.

Last season, Wayne Ellington came in 19 out of 21 players in defensive rating (114.2) on a Detroit Pistons squad that finished the year with the second-worst record in the league. Wayne Ellington was one of the worst defenders on one of the worst defensive squads in the NBA (yikes!).

Ellington’s struggles aren’t based on his size. He’s 6-4, 207 pounds. He should be capable of at least bothering his assignments. Instead, he avoids contact towards the rim, closes out slowly on perimeter shooters, and generally likes to save energy to increase his shooting numbers on offense.

This preseason in La La Land with LeBron James and defensive guru Frank Vogel barking in his ear, Wayne Ellington seemed to expend more energy on the less glamorous side of the ball, but old habits are hard to break. Ellington still shied away from any type of play that could lead to a bump or bruise.

We’re getting into broken record territory here, but sadly, last season Carmelo Anthony was last in defensive rating (115.8) on the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that finished the year as the second-worst defensive squad in the NBA.

Last year Carmelo Anthony was the second slowest player in the NBA with an average speed of 3.61 MPH. At 37-years-old, the former Nuggets All-Star has lost a step or two or three on defense. He doesn’t have the agility to keep anybody (including most NBA centers) in front of him on the perimeter, which is an issue. Still, the bigger problem is that he’s probably the worst player in the association at closing out on long-distance shooters. In today’s modern three-point happy NBA, teams must work on a swivel to keep opposing sharpshooters in check, and if you have one weak link, you’ll get picked apart.

Throughout the preseason, Carmelo Anthony looked about as athletic as a 50-year-old geometry teacher. He struggled to keep G-Leaguers in front of him, and his rotations along the perimeter would have made a middle school basketball coach lose his temper.


Russell Westbrook

It hasn’t been all bad for Russell Westbrook during the preseason. His defense for the Lakers was solid. During the previous two seasons in Houston and Washington, Westbrook didn’t focus on stopping the man in front of him. So it was nice to see him extending energy on D for the Purple and Gold. “Brodie’s” 6-3, 200 pounds with enough athleticism for two players, and now that he’s engaged and taking pride on the less glamorous side of the ball, it bodes well for the Purple and Gold.

A lot has been made about Westbrook’s six turnovers per game during the preseason, but those are just growing pains with a new team. In fact, Russell’s passing was spectacular at times throughout the Lakers’ six preseason losses.

When we talk about Russell Westbrook, it always seems to come down to shooting, and unlike his passing ability, the way he clanked shots in the preseason isn’t going away anytime soon. Westbrook shot 35 percent from the field throughout four practice contests on mostly open looks, which should rise slightly towards his 43 percent career average during the regular season. Still, on this Lakers roster, they’re going to need more.

If Westbrook can’t stop and pop as the ball handler in pick and roll situations, the two players guarding the Lakers’ actions will simply hang back on the block, cutting off driving lanes to the rack. If Westbrook can’t hit open spot-up threes, his man will be free to roam and clog up LeBron James’ bullrushes to the rim or Anthony Davis’ post-up attempts. Unfortunately, this is what we saw as the Lakers struggled during the preseason; opposing players have hung off Westbrook, daring him to shoot, and he’s missed.

After the Lakers made the trade for Russell Westbrook over the summer, all the talk was about “fit.” LeBron James thrives within space on the court, space that only excellent three-point shooters can help create. Thus far, Russell Westbrook’s “fit” on the Lakers is about the same as Shaq trying to squeeze a size 10 shoe onto one of his massive feet.


Injuries

The good news is that the Lakers' Big 3 of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook finished the preseason intact. The bad news is that we can’t say the same for the rest of the squad.

Malik Monk and Wayne Ellington missed time during the preseason with minor injuries. Typically, when two role players miss a week or two of practice time, it’s not a huge deal, and with the Lakers, that holds true. Still, it is a nuisance. The Purple and Gold turned over the most players in the association over the offseason and are desperately looking for continuity. Even a week without Monk and Ellington hurts a little.

Talen Horton-Tucker and Trevor Ariza each suffered significant injuries over the last ten days, which does create a major problem for LeBron James and company. First, Ariza went down with an ankle issue. He underwent surgery to remove debris from his right ankle and will be out for at least two months. Then Horton-Tucker suffered a torn ligament in his thumb that will require surgery and should leave him sidelined for six weeks.

THT and Ariza are the Lakers’ two best wing defenders outside of LeBron James.

Trevor Ariza is 36-years-old, but he was still a solid defender for the Miami Heat last season, holding his assignments to nearly four percent lower than their average field goal hit rate. Ariza’s long and wily. He’s a guy that’s more than capable of coming in and cooling down an opposing player on a hot streak.

Talen Horton-Tucker wasn’t quite at ex-Laker, Alex Caruso’s level last year, but he wasn’t that far behind either. THT finished the 2020-2021 season tied for 21st in the league with ballhawk, Matisse Thybulle in defensive rating.

Lakers management let defensive ace Caruso walk during the offseason and paid THT $30 million over three years, signaling their belief that he can step in and use his massive 7-1 reach to shut down opposing wings. In the three preseason games he took part in, THT didn’t disappoint. He hounded the opposing wings on the perimeter and looked more than capable of bodying up bigger forwards on the block off of switches.

THT and Ariza’s absences have left a major hole in the Lakers’ perimeter rotation which could lead to a few extra early losses. On the surface, letting a handful of games slip away doesn’t seem like a big deal, but we all saw what happened to the Lakers last season in the playoffs when they entered as the 7th seed and got knocked out in the first round against a tough Phoenix Suns squad. The Western Conference is deep this year, and three losses could be the difference between home-court advantage in the first round and having to fight your way into the postseason via the play-in tournament.

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