It would be a understatement to say yesterday was not a good day for the Los Angeles Lakers. Their failure to take advantage of a golden opportunity to improve their roster at the expense of the cross-town rival Clippers at the trade deadline was then exacerbated by their failure to embrace analytics and their sloppy, uninspired play which led to a discouraging loss to the small ball Houston Rockets in front of a stunned crowd at Staples Center.
The Lakers had the Clippers right where they wanted them and could have swung the balance of power in the Battle for LA decisively in their favor but they let the opportunity slip away when they wrongly decided Kyle Kuzma, Danny Green, and a second round pick was too steep a price to pay the Knicks for power forward Marcus Morris. That’s where the Lakers screwed up. Overpaying for Morris would prevented him from joining the Clippers.
For a team whose championship window is right now, the Lakers made an egregious error by not going all in to trade for Morris. Instead of acquiring the third scorer, bigger wing defender, and elite three-point shooter they desperately needed, the Lakers’ decision allowed the Clippers to reap all those advantages and tilt the playing field in their direction. The Lakers’ decision opened the door for the Clippers to become the better team.
The game last night highlighted the Lakers’ mistake in standing pat. They sorely missed having a proven veteran scorer, bigger wing defender, and elite three-point shooter like Morris. Their old school center-dominated lineups couldn’t match up with the quicker, faster analytics-driven small ball lineups of the Rockets. If the trade deadline showed anything, it was teams like Houston and Miami looking to build small ball powerhouses.
In less than twelve hours, the Lakers went from being the favorites to win their seventeenth NBA championship to a team that may have fatal flaws in its roster construction and an outmoded mentality and approach to the game that dominates against teams with losing records but gets exposed when they play teams with comparable talent and a more innovative style of play, like the Houston Rockets whose small ball attack befuddled them.
The big question for the Lakers is where do they go from here. They still have the second best record, fourth best offensive and defensive ratings and third best net rating, and two of the top five superstars in the league. But to win a championship, they still need a second playmaker to run the offense when LeBron sits, a bigger wing defender to guard other team’s elite wing scorers, and an elite stretch four who can play small ball center.
Fortunately, the Lakers still have the rest of the month to add players from the free agent and buyout markets. Darren Collison is the top target to fill the Lakers’ need for a second playmaker and elite three-point shooter. Collison was Jeanie Buss’ guest at the Lakers game against the Rockets last night and saw first hand why the Lakers need him. Fortunately, the Lakers can offer him a bigger role and more minutes and money than the Clippers.
In addition to Collison, the Lakers could use a bigger wing defender, veteran three-point shooter, and bench shot creator from the free agent and buyout markets. They’re scheduled to give JR Smith a workout to see what he has left and will be watching to see if a bigger wing like Marvin Williams or Moe Harkless gets bought out. They may even consider trying to redeem a player like Dion Waiters who’s capable of creating his own shot.
Besides fixing the holes in their roster construction, head coach Frank Vogel need to make changes in the Lakers’ offensive schemes to take better advantage of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and especially Kyle Kuzma since the Lakers paid such a high price to retain him. We’ve seen a pattern in the losses to the Clippers, Bucks, and now the Rockets where the Lakers become stagnant and end up playing iso-ball and settling for long jumpers.
While the Lakers’ big lineups can dominate most teams, they’ve become vulnerable to teams with long athletic defenders who use the presence of a traditional low post center as a key element of their game plan to clog the paint and make it difficult for LeBron James and Anthony Davis to attack the rim. Even with Davis at the five, the Lakers’ offense against these teams becomes predictable, lacks enough shooters, and can easily be stifled.
The Lakers need to figure out how to play small ball because they’re going to see more and more of the rest of this season and in the playoffs. Teams are going to naturally want to neutralize the Lakers’ biggest advantage. Playing Davis at the five is only part of the solution because he’s just not a good enough three-point shooter to make teams fear him. Most teams would be happy to see him spend his time out there instead of in the paint.
That’s why Marcus Morris would have been such a great fit on the Lakers. He could have played small ball five to stretch the floor and spread the defense to give LeBron James and Anthony Davis the space and freedom to attack. Surrounding LeBron and AD with a traditional center and players who aren’t outside threats like Rondo just invites teams to sag off and clog up the middle. The Lakers need more and better shooters on the floor.
If the Lakers are going to win a championship, they’ll need to change their approach when they play teams like the Clippers, Bucks, Rockets, Heat, and others who will challenge them by going small. Rather than trying to out-big these teams, the Lakers need to deploy small ball rotations to create optimal spacing for LeBron James and Anthony Davis. LeBron and AD are the Lakers best and most powerful weapons, not McGee and Howard.
Whether Rob Pelinka and the Lakers’ front office can find solutions to fix the roster and Frank Vogel and his coaching staff can make adjustments to unleash the offense will be the key to the Lakers winning a championship.
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