After beating the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday night, the Lakers are 27-7 and sit on top of the Western Conference. Despite their early-season success, the Lakers have encountered their fair share of challenges that have revealed all the potential areas of improvement. If we could break that down into five specific things the Lakers could fix entering the new year, what would that look like?
In no particular order, here are my top 5:
- LeBron needs more rest
Let’s be real here; as much of a freakish athlete and elite basketball player as LeBron James still is in Year 17 of his NBA career, none of us can rely on his body to be the same entering the latter stage of his career. Sure, he’s a machine, but he’s also 35 with a groin injury that seems like it’ll be a problem all season. Keep in mind — this may not be the same, but is certainly similar to the groin injury he suffered on Christmas Day last year, which forced him to miss 17 straight games.
Though it’s not an absurd number, LeBron is playing 35 minutes a game, good for 13th in the league. It’s the lowest number of minutes per game in his career, but at age 35 and nursing a groin injury that could be more devastating if he were to severely reaggravate it, he needs to rest a bit more and be at 32 or 33 minutes per game. I honestly wouldn’t even be opposed to LeBron sitting out a game here and there, despite his claims that he would never “load manage.” Even if Frank Vogel has to add some more dopamine to his protein shakes, I’m all for it. Why? Because as competitive as the West is this year, the Lakers need LeBron healthy and ready to go into #RevengeSZN mode during the playoffs.
- Give Caruso and KCP more minutes
Who thought we’d be saying this by the end of 2019? As crazy as it sounds, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have become two of the better role players on this Lakers squad. Both have always been solid defenders and have had much success playing within the team’s defensive schemes this year. After getting absolutely destroyed on social media by Laker fans throughout the beginning of the season, KCP has turned the tide with his solid play as of late, raising his 3-point percentage on the season to 43%, which leads the team. And Caruso, as much as he garners attention for looking like a math professor who somehow pulls MVP chants during a game, has also begun to find more of a flow lately in his own offensive role.
What does this all mean? Well, when KCP and Caruso are out on the floor together, there is a huge upgrade on the defensive side without substantial regression on the offensive side of the floor. The problem is, when healthy, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has some decisions to make with which guards he wants to play — lately, those minutes went more to Avery Bradley and Danny Green. In order for the Lakers to be elite moving forward, Caruso and KCP deserve those minutes as long as they’re playing the way they are right now.
- Rondo holding onto the ball
As elite of a passer as Rajon Rondo used to be, he’s no longer the guy that’ll average 10+ assists per game. He makes routine passes that are often a bit off the mark, and his reads aren’t as lightning quick as they used to be. One of the worst parts of his game is his tendency to hold the ball longer than he needs to. Yes, in the clip above, he gets the assist, but the pass wasn’t the safest look on the play and he certainly didn’t do himself any favors by holding onto the ball for nearly 5 empty seconds (sometimes, when you have a freak like Anthony Davis under the basket, you get away with miscues like this). Rondo’s like the guy that you play with in your nearest recreational park; he might not be a “ball hog” because he doesn’t end up taking all the shots, but he just keeps dribbling and dribbling and…dribbling and often goes around the entire court before making a routine pass that he could’ve made at the very beginning of the possession. OR, once he receives a pass, he just holds the ball without making any plays, jab steps, or additional passes. He just holds the ball for a few seconds as if he’s reading the rest of the court, and by the time he decides to make a play, it’s either the wrong read or the rest of his teammates are just caught by surprise by an errant pass because they were standing around for nearly 10 seconds.
In an NBA shot clock, you get 24 seconds, and more often than not, there will only be 14-16 seconds left on the shot clock when a team begins to run their play or designed action. Take away an additional 4-5 seconds from that, and you’re now sitting at about 10 seconds. A couple extra dribbles and you’re now at 6-7 seconds. As you can tell by now, 6-7 seconds is NOT a lot of time to run any play or get an efficient look, and 4-5 seconds is so valuable within a set 24-second shot clock. There may not be a ton of these plays just yet, but it seems like every game there are a few of these moments where Rondo just holds onto the ball for too long or dribbles aimlessly around the entire court trying to create an open look, and often these plays end up in a desperation shot hoisted at the end of the shot clock or a turnover when he finally decides to make a play; while these might not be game-changing plays, the Lakers must avoid simple miscues like this that could swing the momentum in a game. The margin for error is slim in a Western Conference that’s packed with talent, and will be even more slim come playoff time.
- Play Kuzma more minutes without LeBron
Look, I get it. Kyle Kuzma doesn’t have the handles and the shot-creation ability that’s elite enough to get more looks by himself. His handles look like that of a high school player, his herky-jerky movements don’t get him anywhere sometimes, and his inconsistency kills us all. Additionally, Kuz has some pretty awesome chemistry with LeBron. However, in order for Kuz to be himself and become the capable third-scorer behind AD and LeBron, he needs to be able to have the ball in his hands a bit more. Kuz is very much a rhythm player, meaning that every so often he needs to be able to try to create his own shot and take it to the basket for his funky floaters or post-up smaller guards on pick-and-roll switches.
Just watch the clip above: LeBron is on the floor, but Kuz gets almost half the court to himself to operate against the smaller C.J. McCollum, who he promptly backs down and then makes a turnaround jumper against. As much as Kuz is effective slipping screens, diving to the basket, and spotting up for threes while LeBron orchestrates the offense, continuing to only put Kuz on the floor while LeBron is there means that his role and confidence are both being limited. There’s an argument to be made that part of the Lakers’ solution off the bench wouldn’t be filled by Kuz’s scoring capabilities, that the team still needs a playmaker off the bench who can shoot and threaten a pick-and-roll more than Rondo can. While that is certainly true, in order for the Lakers to rest LeBron a bit more and stagger his minutes, they need to allow for Kuz to be himself and get some floor minutes without LeBron and even without AD at times. Let Kuzmania happen.
- Run more plays
It’s as simple as that. The Lakers rank 3rd in the entire league in their frequency of using isolation and post-up plays at 8.4% and 7.8%, respectively. While a lot of the Lakers’ usage of such isolation and post-up plays are driven by their superstar talents they possess in Anthony Davis and LeBron James, it often stagnates their offensive flow late in games and has proven costly especially against tougher teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Considering the Lakers have some pretty decent shooters out on the perimeter, Vogel needs to maximize their talents and make it difficult for opposing teams to read and predict the Lakers’ offense. Notice how the Nuggets’ defense sets up here on AD’s post-up, and AD, who often struggles to make the right read in these situations, makes a pass so poor even my younger brother would shake his head. The games the Lakers have had against the Bucks and Clippers exposed weaknesses the Lakers have when relying on isolation and post-up plays a bit too much, and will be the difference once the Lakers hit the playoffs and defenses lock down.