Latest loss shows Lakers’ issues extend beyond Russell Westbrook
The Lakers season ended last spring inside Denver’s arena, the Lakers leaving the building and heading into an offseason of certain change.
It was at the final buzzer of that game that word of Frank Vogel’s eventual firing went public, undoubtedly a regrettable first step toward the change the Lakers sought after finishing 11th in the West.
On Wednesday they returned to Denver with new coach Darvin Ham, seven new players and a bunch of the same problems, the vibes inside the locker room undeniably bad just four games into the season.
Losing can do that, but something bigger seems to be weighing on this team — and especially its stars.
For the second consecutive game, Anthony Davis sat at his locker in total silence before and after his solemn postgame comments. Pregame, Ham said that words from actor Will Smith (as part of the team’s “Genius Series” of guest speakers) about adversity resonated with him because “we’ve all seen our share of that, especially I found that out pretty quickly being the coach of this team.”
Patrick Beverley, looking for signs of optimism, pointed to the Lakers shooting 26.5% from three-point range as a positive (considering they were shooting 21.1% heading into the game).
Russell Westbrook sat out with a bad hamstring as the Lakers remained winless on the season with a 110-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday.
And then there was LeBron James, fresh off an eight-turnover game looking at the team’s offensive woes and declaring that he needed to take more on himself just four games — and four losses — into his 20th season.
All of it, for James, Davis and others who were here last season, makes it seem as if the Lakers aren’t at the beginning of a season but are more or less continuing down the hopeless road last year’s team walked en route to the bottom third of the West.
“Some of it’s early-season stuff obviously. Obviously, it’s a new system, a new group of guys together, still trying to get familiar with one another,” James said. “I think defensively, besides tonight with our transition — I think we gave up over 30 in transition. That’s not good. But overall throughout the season so far, we’ve been third overall in defensive ratings, top 10 in pretty much everything defensively. And we’ve been bottom everything offensively.”
James is right — the Lakers defense fell to fourth after Wednesday’s 110-99 loss but the offense is still the league’s least efficient. Jason Kidd’s Dallas Mavericks have the best offense in the league, scoring 122.9 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are last at 97.1, the only team under 100 points per 100 possessions. Last year, the gap between the best and worst offense in the NBA was 12.4 points.
James vowed to be more aggressive looking for his own offense as one remedy.
Davis, who said his sore back wasn’t anything serious, seemed almost offended when asked about matching up with Minnesota on Friday.
“It doesn’t even matter at this point,” Davis said. “At this point, it’s all about Lakers and what we gotta do. I don’t care about any other team. We gotta figure ourselves out first before we can focus on any other team, and I think that’s what our focus is gonna be. How can we get better?”
Russell Westbrook’s absence from the lineup was revelatory in two ways.
Amid the Lakers’ string of losses, Will Smith met with the L.A. team to discuss ‘togetherness, and practicing gratitude in times of great challenge.’
One, it showed that the blame Westbrook has shouldered for the Lakers’ offensive woes early this season should be more evenly spread across the room. Everyone has a hand in the way the Lakers are playing offensively.
The shooting issues extend far beyond one player — James is third on the team in three-point percentage and he’s barely making more than 25%.
Among players leaguewide with 10 or more three-point attempts this season, four Lakers (Westbrook, Lonnie Walker IV, Davis and Beverley) are in the bottom 12 with three-point percentages below 20%.
Asked how the Lakers can turn things around, James simply said “make shots.”
“We gotta figure ourselves out first before we can focus on any other team, and I think that’s what our focus is gonna be. How can we get better?”
— Anthony Davis
And that’s not really Westbrook’s thing, either. While the blame for the Lakers’ struggles can be shared, his skills don’t do much to address the team’s biggest weaknesses.
Westbrook, to his credit, has been a more active defender, but he doesn’t add an inch of room to the team’s spacing issues offensively (only Denver’s Aaron Gordon and the Clippers’ Norman Powell are shooting worse from deep this season).
But his value as a shot-maker has long been from the midrange in, with an emphasis at the rim. And with less space than ever near the basket, as the Clippers’ Paul George said last week, the team’s spacing issues aren’t doing Westbrook any favors either.
It points back to the decision that’s lingered since the offseason, whether to try and package the team’s remaining tradable future draft capital with Westbrook for shooting help.
The stance among the front office has been to reject any deals including two future unprotected first-round picks unless it vaults the Lakers into title contention.
Have the Lakers defended well enough in the first week to push them into a deal that returns significant shooting upgrades? Are the other holes on the roster and prospective future problems like Davis’ already worrisome back too big of red flags?
Or will the offensive numbers naturally progress enough? Can the Lakers afford to wait with stars like Davis and James already so obviously frustrated with losing?
The Lakers left Denver a lot like they did at the end of last season, with real questions about the right way to move forward without any straightforward answers.
It’s not the position any team would want to be in after four games, but it’s the one the Lakers are in.
When: Friday, 5 p.m. PDT
On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet; Radio: 710, 1330
Update: The Lakers, to this point, have been incapable of playing a basketball game that doesn’t seem like it carries massive stakes, and that’ll probably be true until they break through and get their first win. Friday against the Timberwolves, the Lakers could be without Anthony Davis (back) and Russell Westbrook (hamstring), with both players listed as questionable. The Timberwolves, who threw the NBA offseason into chaos with their acquisition of Rudy Gobert, are still figuring things out and have losses to the Jazz and the Spurs already. The winless Lakers could actually be their toughest test to date.
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