How Lakers Lost the Battle for LA!

Poor decisions, shot selection, defensive matchups, load management, and instant replay ultimately cost the Lakers the Battle for Los Angeles

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While nothing’s more frustrating than losing to your upstart little brother, the Lakers should take solace that championships are not won in December and this was just a game they gave away more than one the Clippers won.

While the Clippers do deserve credit for outplaying the Lakers down the stretch, they know in their hearts they were fortunate to win the game and would be foolish to celebrate the victory as anything but a game they stole. Yesterday’s Christmas Day win was merely another preliminary skirmish as the real Battle for LA won’t be decided until June when the Lakers and Clippers will ultimately meet in the NBA’s Western Conference Finals.

The challenge for the Lakers is to learn from the disappointing loss and take the necessary steps to make sure not to repeat the same mistakes that cost what should have been a satisfying victory over the annoying Clippers. Mired in a four-game losing streak that’s unmasked frustrating strategic issues and obvious roster deficiencies, the Lakers need to take a hard look in the mirror and make the necessary adjustments to fix the problems.

Among the problems the Lakers need to fix are several strategic issues that have led to the four-game losing streak, including poor lineup and rotation decisions by the coaching staff that just don’t pass the eye or analytics tests. The two most egregious examples are Vogel’s decisions to play Rajon Rondo in critical lineups alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis and his decision to start Avery Bradley instead of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

While roster deficiencies affect these decisions, playing Rondo alongside LeBron and AD and replacing KCP with Bradley has limited the Lakers’ three-point shooting and spacing and made it harder to get into the paint. As a team, the Lakers’ three-point shooting percentage has plummeted to dead last in the league at 27.5% over the last five games with Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley shooting an atrocious 22.2% and 21.4% respectively.

We saw more of Vogel’s recent disdain for analytics last night when, in the fourth quarter, he inexplicably refused to play the LeBron, AD, Kuzma, Green, and KCP five-man lineup that had created the team’s first half lead. For the most part, coach Vogel and his staff have done a great job with lineups and substitutions. Hopefully, they will look back and see how the recent moves to feature Rondo and Bradley have hindered the team.

The unfortunate result of Vogel’s decision to ignore the analytics of the game was the wrong Lakers players being forced to shoot too many threes. The Clippers clogged the paint and dared the Lakers to shoot from deep. The outcome was the Lakers hitting just 12 of 45 three-point shots for an abominable 26.7% with LeBron going 2 /12, Davis 0/6, Green 2/7, Rondo 1/5, Bradley 0/2, and Caruso 0/1 while Kuzma went 4/9 and KCP 2/3.

With LeBron limited physically by a strained back and reinjured groin, Vogel likely felt forced to play Rondo more, which played into the Clippers’ game plan to clog the middle and force the Lakers to cast off from deep. The silver lining from the loss could be the front office making moves to upgrade the roster and bring in a third star who can get his own shot and create opportunities for teammates to take pressure off LeBron James.

The point guard who is the perfect fit for the Lakers is New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday, who checks all of the boxes as an elite defender averaging 19.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 6.5 assists in 33.2 minutes per game for Pels. Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and removing protection on our 2021 first round pick and adding a 2026 unprotected first round pick should be enough to tempt the Pelicans.

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The other area of poor decisions by Frank Vogel and the Lakers’ coaching staff were their strategies for defend opposing superstars like the Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. The NBA is a matchup based, superstar driven league and when two teams with superstars meet, the defensive game plans used by the head coaches to stop the opposing team’s superstar(s) often determines the winner.

I wrote an extensive pre-game preview of last night’s game where I explained in detail the defensive adjustments the Lakers needed to deploy to prevent Kawhi from dominating the game like he did opening night.
The two adjustments I suggested were first having LeBron James be the primary defender and second icing or trapping Kawhi to force him to give up the ball whenever he tried to use a screen to get the Lakers to switch.

Unfortunately, the Lakers made neither adjustment and were unable to stop Kawhi. Danny Green started as his primary defender but allowed him to switch at will and bully his way to easy fadeaway jumpers in the paint. The Lakers’ lack of a cohesive strategy to defend Kawhi cost them dearly as he scored 11 of his game high 35 points in the fourth quarter, including four clutch free throws as the Lakers couldn’t avoid fouling him.

Ironically, the likely outcome of last night’s Battle for LA was determined by a another strategic mistake by the Lakers’ front office and coaching staff via their decision not to emulate the Clippers’ load management program. The Lakers decision not to limit the games or minutes played LeBron James and Anthony Davis to keep them healthy and fresh like the Clippers did with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George ultimately backfired on the Lakers.

James and Anthony played in 29 of the Lakers’ 30 games, averaging 34.9 and 35.1 minutes per game while Leonard and George played in 24 and 22 of the Clippers’ 32 games, averaging just 31.6 and 30.9 minutes per game. The result was LeBron entered the Battle for LA with lower back and groin injuries, the latter exacerbated when he tried to take a charge against Patrick Beverley, while AD was limited with ankle and knee injuries.

Going forward, it’s obvious the Lakers need to rethink their strategy on load management because they may be even more dependent upon making sure LeBron and AD remain healthy than the Clippers on Kawhi and PG. While James and Davis are both against not playing if they’re able to, LeBron reinjuring his groin yesterday was exactly why the Lakers need to change their policy on load management to keep their superstars healthy.

On the NBA’s understandable decision to reverse the call on the court and award the ball to the Clippers after Patrick Beverley blocked LeBron James’ three-point attempt, I just wish the refs would consistently make that call. The reality is the offensive player always is the last one to touch the ball when his shot is blocked while the ball was still in his hand. It would have been nice if the Lakers had been given that last 3.9 seconds to tie the game.

While the Lakers lost last night’s Battle for LA, the real Battle for LA will happen next June when the Lakers and Clippers likely meet in the NBA Western Conference Finals. By then, the Lakers should be ready to win.

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