The Lakers wanted 20 games to evaluate the roster before making a trade, so what have we learned in that time?

The Los Angeles Lakers probably should have traded Russell Westbrook before the season. It’s hard to argue otherwise when they’re 8-12 through 20 games. As well as Westbrook has adapted to a bench role, there is simply no path to contention that involves a $47 million sixth man. The Lakers surely knew this before the season began. They didn’t act on it. Part of the reported logic was a desire to see how this team would actually look on the floor.

Well, the proposed 20-game timeline has come and gone. It’s December. A quarter of the season is behind the Lakers, and while there are still questions to be answered, we have a pretty good idea of what this team is. So through more than a month of basketball, what have we learned? What do the Lakers now know that they can act upon in trade negotiations? Here are the five biggest lessons this team has learned through the first month and a half of basketball. 

1. Anthony Davis is the best player on the team

You wouldn’t notice it looking at the box score. It’s hard to argue with 26 points, nine rebounds and six assists per night. But Father Time is starting to gain some ground on LeBron James, and the advanced metrics are picking up on it. ESPN’s Real-Plus Minus ranks him 18th in the NBA, and that took a recent surge. He’s ranked 37th by EPM, and amazingly, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR is currently giving James what must be the first negative rating of his career at minus-0.4, as of this writing. 

That’s a touch extreme, and to some extent, these metrics are picking up on unsustainable trends. James shot 24 percent from deep in his first 10 games and has bolted back up the boards after making 16 of his 30 attempts over the past three. James actually has the worst net rating (minus-5.2) on the team among players with at least 150 minutes of playing time… but remember, he missed wins over the Pistons, Spurs and unhealthy Nets. That’s a scheduling quirk as much as anything. These numbers are going to normalize. You have to dig a bit deeper to find the more troubling trends.

For the first time in his career, less than 30 percent of LeBron’s shots are coming within three feet of the rim. He’s only driving 7.4 times per game and attempting 3.1 shots out of those drives. Forget about his prime… James was driving more than 14 times per game as recently as 2020. For the second straight season, James ranks second in the NBA in transition shot attempts per game. Pace contributes to that somewhat, but so does intent. James is struggling to get to the rim in a half-court setting. He’s making up those lost layups in transition. Better spacing would help, but at a certain point, it’s just hard to deny that James has lost a step. It’s a testament to his greatness that he remains one of the NBA’s better athletes. He just isn’t the nuclear cyborg he was at his peak.

Fortunately, Anthony Davis still is. Similarly to James, the raw numbers aren’t what jumps out. Here’s the one that does: 100 percent. That’s how often Davis has played the center position this season, according to Basketball-Reference’s estimate. Cleaning the Glass gives him a whopping 23 possessions at power forward. For his career, the split is roughly 50-50. This season, Davis isn’t just the nominal center. He’s playing like a big man for the first time in years. Davis was taking almost eight shots per game outside of the paint when he first arrived in Los Angeles. He’s down to around four this season. 

His rebounding is up to a career-best 12.7 per game due in part to one of Darvin Ham’s smarter tweaks. Frank Vogel frequently leaked Davis out on missed shots and opposing free throws to create one-on-one transition post-ups. This team is athletic enough to generate transition looks more traditionally. As long as someone gets the board, they’re running. Most of the time, Davis is that rebounder. If the Lakers can get Davis above .500, he might win Defensive Player of the Year. He’s the first player since Shaquille O’Neal in 2001 to average 26 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks per game. We could sit here and list statistical superlatives all day.

The current roster isn’t built to optimize James and Davis as a duo. Westbrook’s presence completely defangs their beloved pick-and-roll. As such, James has assisted Davis only 25 times in 12 games together. As such, the Laker lineups featuring both players rank in just the 21st percentile league-wide in terms of offensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass. But Davis is making up for it by making the most of his solo minutes. This is the most aggressive basketball he’s played as a Laker. It’s the kind of basketball James just isn’t suited to play on a night-to-night basis anymore.

That’s by no means a death blow to the Lakers. A declining James is still better than the overwhelming majority of the NBA. But right now, the Lakers don’t have two superstars. They have one MVP candidate and one All-Star. Adjust your expectations accordingly. 

2. Austin Reaves and Lonnie Walker are the keepers

Let’s go over our preseason Lakers bingo cards. Trade rumors? Check. Westbrook drama? Check. Austin Reaves dream shakes? Che– wait a second. Austin Reaves dream shakes? Yup. That’s a thing now.

I’ll grant that he didn’t finish that dream shake… but he did finish this Smitty. 

To say this is jarring would be an understatement. Reaves’ major flaw as a rookie was his hesitance. He’d too frequently pass up open shots. Now he’s just out here guns blazing pulling tricks out of every Hall of Famer’s bag as he attacks the basket with reckless abandon. The Austin Reaves we watched a year ago was a good if slightly measured wing. The Austin Reaves we’re watching now is a point guard using every game and every possession to push the limits of what he can become. It’s not just the scoring. The sheer audacity of some of these passes out of a second-year undrafted free agent is almost inconceivable.

It’s fitting, then, that while Reaves has ascended through his highlights, Lonnie Walker IV is thriving by being boring. That’s an oversimplification, of course. They don’t call him Skywalker for nothing. But everyone knew that Walker could dunk coming into the season. The occasional 30-point outburst was to be expected. Here’s what wasn’t: Walker has been held to single digits only four times this season. That happened 25 times a season ago. He’s making 36.3 percent of the 5.4 3-pointers he takes per game, but he’s trimmed roughly a third of the ugly pull-up looks he was taking in San Antonio out of his shot diet in favor of cleaner catch-and-shoot attempts. FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR has graded him as low as minus-3.9 defensively as a Spur. This season? He’s rated as a net positive defensively. The highlights have come as expected, but they’ve been paired with the most consistent night-to-night play of Walker’s career. 

It’s as if Reaves and Walker are taking perpendicular journeys—starting at opposite ends of the skillset spectrum and meeting in the middle to create role player nirvana. Reaves and Walker are as capable of creating for themselves as they are blending into the team concept, and in doing so, they’ve given the Lakers the outline for a sensible supporting cast.

Davis and James are the stars around which everyone else orbits, but in considering moves to support them, the Lakers must also consider how the presence of any new player might impact Reaves and Walker. Ball handling is no longer a need even on a Westbrook-less version of this team. Shooting is a priority, but the Lakers can afford to add size as well because Reaves and Walker aren’t going to clutter the floor. Of the dozen or so lottery tickets the Lakers bought this offseason, these are the two that hit. If nothing else, the Lakers can move forward this season knowing that they have two high-end role players to support James and Davis. That’s not enough, but it’s two more than we thought before the season began. 

3. The offense is better than it looks, and the defense is worse

Perhaps no team’s reputation has been impacted more by a single five-game stretch than the 2022-23 Lakers. They rank 26th in offense as of this writing… but 11th in their past 15 games. Granted, those first five games count. The Lakers making 24 percent of their 3-pointers in that span was emblematic of very real problems, and even in the period since, they rank dead last in the NBA in 3-point attempts. They went from being a historically inept shooting team to just being a garden variety bad one. There are still problems, of course. The Lakers rank 28th in the NBA in passes per game. That’s what happens when everybody wants to dribble, and it’s almost as big a problem as the spacing.

But the Lakers are so athletic and so skilled with the ball that they’re making up for their limitations where they can. They rank fifth in the NBA in fastbreak points and third in points in the paint. They draw the fourth-most free throws in basketball and attempt a below-average amount of mid-range shots. It’s a brute force offense, but a moderately effective one. Not a strength, not the overwhelming weakness it’s made out to be. It can land somewhere in the middle if the defense is good enough.

But the No. 7-ranked defense is probably playing above its head right now, though only slightly. Opponents are making only 36.4 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers against the Lakers, well below league average and likely a symptom of their schedule thus far. The Lakers have played the sixth-easiest schedule in the NBA thus far by opponent’s record, but beyond that, they’ve played 60 percent of their games at home and have had five rest advantages, according to positive residual.

The shooting luck will turn. Their energy advantage likely dips a bit as well. The Lakers rank third in the NBA in contested shots and 11th in deflections. Do those legs hold up across lengthy road trips? We’re about to find out. The Lakers will play 12 of their next 16 games on the road. Darvin Ham has done an admirable job getting his players to buy in defensively. He’s going to get tested this month. 

4. Backup center might be their second-biggest need

The Lakers have 11 five-man lineups that have outscored opponents by eight or more points this season. You’ll be shocked to hear Davis is in 10 of them. Lineups without him are 6.2 points per 100 possessions worse than their Davis-included counterparts, and when you factor in superior shooting luck for opponents when he rests, the gap is probably bigger than that. Still, his absence is felt even more on offense.

The Lakers score a paltry 101 points per 100 possessions when Davis is on the bench. Before you assume that the games without LeBron are deflating that number, Cleaning the Glass lineup data shows that Laker lineups with James but no Davis rank in just the fifth percentile league-wide in terms of offensive efficiency. This team is completely and utterly dependent on Davis to generate offense. That’s going to be the case so long as James isn’t surrounded by proper spacing when Davis rests. The Lakers could fix this by playing James at center as they did for much of last season, but a recent win over the Spurs shows what happens when the Lakers overcommit to those lineups. The final score in that game was 143-138. It’s not as though the Lakers are lighting the world on fire in the Davis minutes, either. If you’re playing opponents to a draw when your best player is on the floor, you can’t afford to get blown out when he rests.

Thomas Bryant has been promising in the 88 minutes he’s given the Lakers since returning from injury. The Lakers have won those 88 minutes by 15 points, and athletically, he looks like his old self after two injury-riddled seasons. Will he rediscover his shot? He’s only 1-of-4 from deep thus far. If he can’t back to the 37-of-91 level he reached in 2020, the Lakers may have a solution for their bench spacing issues that doesn’t boil down to playing smaller.

But the sample is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions either way. For now, surviving the Davis-less minutes is the immediate problem facing this team. Shooting is a higher macro priority, but that problem can only be solved externally.

5. They still sorely lack cohesion

If some of those lineup samples and minutes totals look small to you, well, they should. The Lakers have played 20 games. They don’t have a single lineup that has played more than 43 minutes together. To put that figure in perspective, Atlanta’s starting lineup has already played 314 minutes together this season. Between injuries, health and safety protocols and Patrick Beverley’s suspension, the Lakers have literally never had their entire roster available for a game this season. It hasn’t happened once.

The offensive issues this has presented speak for themselves. This is a team that, by and large, relies on individual creation and struggles when those individuals can’t create. But it’s even manifested defensively at some of the worst possible times. Their devastating loss to Indiana on Monday? Many of the 3-pointers they gave up down the stretch boiled down to poor communication. Watch Davis point out a wide-open Myles Turner and get frustrated when nobody closes out on him.

On this play, both Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook follow Buddy Hield, leaving Andrew Nembhard wide open.

Ham bears some of the responsibility for issues like this. Schroder and Westbrook should never share the floor under any circumstance. In general, lineups frequently feature more redundancies than even this limited roster necessitates. But it’s hard to build chemistry when the team is never fully together. In that sense, pretty much everything written here needs to be taken with a grain of salt. We haven’t learned anything about the Lakers definitively because we’ve never fully seen the Lakers. This upcoming road trip is going to be instructive. The team is getting healthier. Good teams await on the schedule. If this season is worth saving, we’ll find out in the next few weeks.

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