LOS ANGELES — The Lakers are going to be a quality NBA team. Sooner rather than later.
Don’t take my word for it, take Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich’s.
“They’re just going to get better and better,” Popovich said after his team became the latest to execute better in the clutch and knock off the Lakers this season. “Luke (Walton) has done a great job with this group, still a very young group… and LeBron’s a great teacher, a great role model, and they’ll just get better and better and better. By that I mean mentally, as much as physically…
“The leadership of LeBron, he’ll demand a lot and he’ll help them all raise to another level for sure.”
Nobody around the Lakers doubts that.
Nobody expected a 0-3 start with the sixth-worst defense in the NBA, either. Los Angeles is allowing 131.7 points per game through three games (their top three pace is part of the reason for that eye-popping number, the Lakers play fast so the opposing team gets more chances against a porous defense).
The Lakers’ shooting was a concern going into the season and those worries have proven justified — Los Angeles is taking 31.4 percent of their shots from three (close to the league average) but are hitting just 29.3 percent of those shots, third worst in the NBA. While their shooting has had hot streaks — L.A. hit 6-of-7 at one point against the Spurs Monday, after starting 4-of-20 —the lack of consistency is not keeping opposing defenses honest. Opposing defenders are packing the paint and making it difficult to execute in the halfcourt, cutting off post passes, jumping in lanes and closing off angles used by the brilliant passers the Lakers have on their roster.
It’s been frustrating. For the team and the fans (who came in with wild expectations with LeBron James in purple and gold).
Yet, nobody around the Lakers is reaching for a panic button, or even looking to see where it is located yet.
“We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in,” LeBron James said after the latest loss. “Obviously, we don’t have too many wins right now but it’s such a long process….
“We want to defend, we know that’s going to be our staple. We know we’re going to have to defend. When we defend and rebound, we’re very good, just trying to figure out how to defend without fouling.”
“We still have to get used to each other defensively,” Josh Hart added. “We have to know individually when [we] have guys contained and work on not overhelping, not giving up open threes like that. We’re good. We have a young team and it’s a learning experience.”
“We’ve gotten better. It’s only been a month together,” said coach Luke Walton (whose name came up on the top of a gambling site’s list of odds for the first coach to be fired). “We’re rebounding the ball better, we might even have had more rebounds than they did tonight (the Lakers did have more rebounds and more offensive rebounds total than the Spurs). Our assist numbers are up where we want them and we haven’t even started hitting shots yet….
“The way we want to play, I think the pace has been great. All these things as far as who we are as a team are happening. And now we’ve got to close out games and get stops down the stretch and not foul down the stretch. I feel very good about where we’re headed.”
This Laker team is going to find its footing and win games (next up is the Suns, in Phoenix, on Friday).
However, this is also a flawed roster, and how far LeBron and the offense can lift this team is a question back in the spotlight after this start.
Continuity is one problem for Los Angeles.
In each of Lakers’ three losses — Portland opening night, Houston, San Antonio — have come to playoff teams from last season, and teams that have a strong identity. Continuity matters early in the NBA season and the Lakers don’t have any after a lot of roster turnover last summer. That lack of familiarity has come to a head in crunch time in each game — especially the first two. However, against the Spurs, it was the Lakers making plays when down 8 with 1:10 left in regulation, and a LeBron three sent it to overtime. An overtime the Lakers dominated, they were up 6 with :55 left… and then the continuity issues returned, the Spurs executed better, LeBron missed two free throws, and San Antonio went on a 7-0 run to get the win.
“I don’t like to use moral victories, but kind of bodes well,” Kyle Kuzma said. “The three teams we have played all played together for quite sometime. We are a new team and to be in every single game, it sort of means something.”
The Laker offense will be fine, mostly because of the commitment to run (23.7 percent of the Lakers’ possessions this season started in transition, the highest in the league, stat via Cleaning The Glass). The concern is the Lakers lack the shooting needed in the modern game — something Magic Johnson said the Lakers did consciously, they wanted to put more playmakers around LeBron, not just shooters as had been done in Miami and Cleveland — but LeBron is right that when the Lakers get stops and run they are a good team.
Whether they can get enough stops is another question.
When JaVale McGee is on the court this season, the Lakers are a good defensive team (allowing 103 points per 100 possessions, which would be fifth best as a team in the league). However, the team is a dismal 18.1 per 100 worse when he sits. JaVale’s rim protection and rebounding matter that much in the paint. Luke Walton has rolled McGee out there for 23.3 minutes per game, the most he has played since the 2011-12 season, and he was on the court more than 28 minutes vs. San Antonio. McGee only has so many minutes in him a night, and the Lakers may be bumping up against that.
For the Lakers, much of their issues are about communication and recognition on defense — things that come with time and familiarity. Or, continuity. The Lakers look like a team assembled this summer that is still figuring everything out.
Which is exactly what they are. What they should have been expected to be, rather than the pressure some put on them of a three-seed and 50+ win team. This was always going to take time. The only challenge is, in the deep West, time can run out much more quickly.
“It’s early in the season, it’s three losses,” Hart said. “Like you said, it’s always tight in the West. Sometimes getting into the playoffs can be one game, or half a game. It’s tough. But I feel like once we get that first win, the team will be rolling. We just have to get that first one.”
The optimism remains. And there’s not a panic button in sight in Los Angeles.