Newsletter: A subtle move that paid off for the Lakers


Happy Friday, everyone. It’s Dan Woike with the Los Angeles Times writing to you from some room in some city on some day. All I know for sure is that this is the Lakers newsletter.

Everything else? I’m really just guessing.

Things are more of the same with this team — injuries, returns, inconsistencies, glimmers of hope. So in this week’s newsletter, we’ll look at a subtle decision the Lakers made that’s paid off some, one bigger decision that really hasn’t and the latest attempt to try and translate Russell Westbrook.


Smooth move

Before the Lakers lost to Philadelphia on Thursday, we got a chance to speak with Stanley Johnson, whom the team officially signed earlier in the day. Sources say the contract is for two years, with next season being a team option.

Johnson, who wasn’t on an NBA roster until the coronavirus wave forced teams to deeply expand, has settled in with the Lakers after a trio of 10-day contracts. The former No. 8 overall pick making it clear just what he brings to the table.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Stanley Johnson
Los Angeles Lakers forward Stanley Johnson drives against the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this month.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

“It was noticeable right away that he had a juice and an energy to his game that our team sorely needed,” Frank Vogel said. “And just the, I don’t know, the athleticism, the toughness and the speed — the way we were using him as sort of a small-ball center, continue to open things up in the lane. We saw some things right away we felt like could really help us this year.

“He’s continued to prove himself as an elite defender and someone who plays within himself offensively, and honestly a versatile offensive skillset we feel like is really gonna help us.”

Some of that stuff stands out — particularly the energy — because of flaws within the Lakers’ veteran roster. And some of it, such as his defensive contributions, can be tracked to a minor move the Lakers made this offseason.

Miles Simon, an assistant on Frank Vogel’s staff, was promoted to head coach of the South Bay Lakers in early September. The move gave the G-League team an expert at Vogel’s systems, opening the door for someone like Johnson, who began the year with the team, to step right in and contribute.

“It’s very, very similar. That’s kind of one thing that probably doesn’t get talked about enough — what they do and what the Lakers do are very similar,” Johnson said. “Coming in, our coverages and stuff, the language is the same. When you’re on the court, especially for a guy like me that defends, not having to be like ‘What’s that?’ — it does help.”

Before he spoke with the media in Philadelphia, Johnson met with Stan Van Gundy, the man who drafted him in 2015 in Detroit. Since then, Johnson’s had to find his place in the NBA, his latest chance coming with the Lakers in a supporting role.

But when he was told that Vogel believed Johnson was giving the Lakers what they needed, he countered.

“I think it’s the opposite. What they do, I needed. Everything I’ve looked for leadership-wise and getting put into the right directions, I think I’ve found it here with the Lakers. They’ve done a good job being honest and putting me in the right direction,” he said. “You know how communication goes. If you have it, it’s awesome. If you don’t have it, it really does suck. So having that communication has been a blessing.”

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With so much attention on Russell Westbrook and injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron James, Talen Horton-Tucker’s season has maybe flown under the radar some. And after the Lakers paid him more than $30 million this past summer, they had to be hoping for more.

On the current road trip, THT has just 14 points, needing 23 shots to score even that.

Offensive inefficiency has been a problem, particularly when you consider that most of his offense should either be at the rim or on spot-up shooting opportunities. Since Dec. 21, when he returned after missing four games following a positive coronavirus test, he’s been below 40% from the field and right at 22% from three-point range — his rebounding and assist numbers hovering right at 2.3 per game.

With the Lakers losing key offensive players on a regular basis, Horton-Tucker hasn’t been able to consistently be a factor for the team. Still, at just 21 years old and occasionally flashing a mature offensive game, hope isn’t lost. But the Lakers need him sooner than later.


Twice on this trip, I’ve tried to ask Russell Westbrook questions postgame that have been met with blank stares and a “Huh?”

I’ll admit, my attempts to get him to talk about internal expectations in Brooklyn were a little too wordy, but after the Lakers lost to Philly, Westbrook leaned into one of his common phrases.

Answering a question from another reporter, Westbrook said the team just needed to “figure it out.”

I pressed and asked him what, specifically, needed to be figured out. Eventually (after a few tries), here’s what he said:

“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t have that answer. We don’t have all our players, that’s No. 1. Is that what you’re trying to get at, or is it something else?”

I replied by asking why they’re not figuring it out more regularly.

“What happens when you try to figure it out on the fly sometimes [is] it’s not how you want it to be,” he said. “And then for a couple games, you try to figure it out on the fly with somebody out and somebody in. And you see, now you have to change your lineup again, so you have to figure that out as well. So that is the nature of our season thus far, and that’s why I keep saying you gotta figure it out. It just means throughout the game, before games, you have to have a next-man-up mentality.”

Song of the week

“Down by the River” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (Live Farm Aid 1994)

Can’t listen to this on Spotify anymore, so I thought I’d share one of my favorites. Love this version of this song, haunting, intense and, mostly, rocking. So many great guitar solos.

Until next week ...

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