Expecting the Los Angeles Lakers to start the season off 5-0 or 4-1 would have been asking for a lot, and probably unrealistic. The schedule was tough, to begin the season, and they were trying to ingratiate a brand new cast of players into the team. It was obviously going to take time. As LeBron James said after the opening night loss to the Portland Trailblazers, team chemistry doesn’t come immediately.
“Um, not as fast as you guys think it’s going to happen,” James said when asked how long it will take for the Lakers’ chemistry to develop. “I always kind of compare it to like instant oatmeal. It is not that fast. It takes a while to get to where you can close your eyes and know exactly where your guys are.”
It’s not an excuse; it’s a legitimate reason. This is the first time that the young core on the Lakers is playing with a star, and that takes time getting used to because the focus of the team changes entirely and you have to understand your role. Not to mention, Rajan Rondo, Michael Beasley, and Lance Stephenson need the ball in their hands too. There is a lot of depth on the roster, and Luke Walton is still trying to figure out rotations.
But they are starting to slowly gel together, winning back-to-back games after losing the first three to open the season. And it’s not like the losses were terrible. They were against three Western Conference playoff participants from a year ago in the Portland Trailblazers, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs.
Portland had the third seed in 2017-2018 while Houston was the top seed and a Chris Paul hamstring away from winning Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals and making it all the way to the NBA Finals. And the Spurs are better this year than they were last, after replacing nine games of Kawhi Leonard with a healthy All-Star in DeMar DeRozan.
The Portland game was on the road in a hostile environment against a team and crowd that was emotional after losing beloved owner Paul Allen. It was an extra special night for them that saw Nik Stauskas, who is playing for his fourth team since being drafted in 2012, go off for one of the games of his life.
Not to mention, the Lakers had not beaten the Trailblazers in 15-straight previous meetings and have historically been much worse when visiting Portland. Oh, and it was the first time that the Lakers’ squad was playing together, to make things worse, and the team made just seven of 28 three-point attempts, including missing a handful of open ones. The Lakers lost by just nine, and the game was extremely close down the stretch. It was a competitive loss for the new-look Lakers.
And during the home opener, they lost to an elite team in the Houston Rockets that was mad after a beatdown in the game prior. It was a one-possession game late before the craziness of the fight involving Brandon Ingram, Rajan Rondo, and Chris Paul happened which put the game up for grabs.
And the loss against the San Antonio Spurs could have been avoided if LeBron James had not missed his two free throws to ice the game in overtime. Even one of two would have probably ended the game.
Just three tight losses against good teams. The Lakers then rebounded to beat the Phoenix Suns on the road before welcoming the 4-0 Denver Nuggets and taking care of business. 2-3 isn’t so bad and was a realistic expectation.
It shows that they are going through initial adversity, which will only make them stronger. Starting off perfectly with nothing going wrong isn’t what you want with this squad, and mainly because of the youth. If the youngsters were on top of the world, they would be less likely to make the adjustments necessary, which would make it even tougher for them to cope with their first rough patch.
The last two games have shown that the Lakers are getting more comfortable. The defense is lacking, but you can expect it to improve eventually. Last season the team was above-average in defensive efficiency and this year’s squad is built to improve on that. But defense requires a lot of communication, and as James said, it will take time. Plus, Brandon Ingram and Rajan Rondo are out because of suspension, and both are good perimeter defenders that bring elite length at their respective positions.
One big bright spot is the emergence of the younger players. Brandon Ingram was supposed to cement himself as Los Angeles’ second star, but is serving a suspension. In his absence, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball have taken the next step while Kyle Kuzma continues to ball.
Hart is averaging 15.6 points on 44.3% shooting from three and an excellent 62.3 effective field goal percentage. Kuzma is averaging 20.4 points-per-game, although he has yet to find his three-point stroke. But he’s been better in all facets during the past three games, so it’s feasible to see him turn it around.
But it’s probably Lonzo Ball that has taken the most significant step. The 21-year old has an effective field goal percentage over 60% like Hart and is shooting the three-ball like he’s back at UCLA (40.7%). You can tell that the strength the point guard added on during the offseason is making a difference and Ball looks more comfortable out there after one year under his belt.
In 28 minutes of play, he is averaging 11.8 points, five assists, and 5.8 rebounds while being an efficient scorer. His numbers go up as starter-12.7 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.3 rebounds in just under 32 minutes of play.
Thursday night’s game vs. the Nuggets was the perfect example of what Lonzo brings. He’s not going to be an elite scorer, but that’s not his game. The point guard chipped in 12 points, eight assists, six rebounds, and five steals (and some clutch ones) while making two of five three-pointers. He was excellent and smart on defense, and the offense runs smoother and faster with him starting. Most importantly, however, Ball showed that he could fit with LeBron.
JaVale McGee and Stephenson have looked good too. ‘Make ’em dance Lance’ sparked the comeback against the Nuggets while McGee has quietly put up 17.2 points on 62.7% shooting, seven rebounds, and an elite 2.8 blocks-per-game in just 25.4 minutes of play. Those are per-36 numbers of 24.4 points, 9.9 rebounds, and four blocks.
They have not been a deterrent to team chemistry as many predicted. The duo has helped create what appears to be a fun, but hard-working, environment. The players genuinely seem to fit seamlessly in with each other, and that is yet another great sign.
There has been bad, but even with a 2-3 record, the Los Angeles Lakers are far from panic mode because there have been favorable takeaways, along with the younger players blossoming in front of our very own eyes.