To begin the past week, the Los Angeles Lakers completed a brutal four game road trip in Brooklyn. The team was already depleted due to the absence of Brandon Ingram, Rajon Rondo and Michael Beasley, and when JaVale McGee was unable to play due to flu-like symptoms, the Lakers could not compete with the hot shooting Nets and fell, 115-110.
The Lakers received welcome relief when the road trip ended as Ingram and Rondo returned to provide much-needed depth, and the team responded with a solid all-around game in defeating the New Orleans Pelicans, 112-104.
Julius Randle returned to Staples Center for the first time as a member of the Pelicans, and he played well. The game also featured another virtuoso performance from Anthony Davis, who finished with 30 points and 20 rebounds.
Davis has been the subject of nonstop trade rumors of late, which in the days preceding the game resulted in cries of tampering from Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry and other small-market teams after LeBron James responded to a reporter’s question that it would be “amazing” to play with Davis.
The rumors are not likely to abate anytime soon, especially after James and Davis reportedly had a private dinner together after the game.
The week ended on a sour note with the Lakers falling to the Memphis Grizzles, 107-99. The game was tied 97-97 but the Lakers were unable to close. Losing at home to the Grizzles was a big disappointment, and it meant that for the week the team had a losing record.
What Went Right
The Lakers received strong efforts from all the starters this past week. James was his usual self with 36 points against the Nets and a triple-double with 22 points, 14 assists and 12 rebounds against the Pelicans. He finished with 22 points against the Grizzles but took only two shots in the first half and 14 for the game.
An unexpected highlight of the week was the play of Ivica Zubac. With McGee suffering from pneumonia and unable to play, the coaching staff surprisingly turned to Zubac, and the results were better than anyone could have imagined.
Zubac, who has barely played at all since his rookie season, started against the Pelicans and played 32 minutes. He was outstanding, finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 key blocks; one on Davis and the other on Randle.
In the next game against Memphis, he played 32 minutes and had 19 points and 4 blocks. Zubac suddenly looked like a confident, aggressive player for the first time in two years.
At one point in the Pelicans game he and Davis were fighting for the ball, and Zubac ripped it out of Davis’ hands. In McGee’s absence, Zubac gave the lakers a huge lift.
Kyle Kuzma continued his hot December in which he has scored 20 or more points in nine of his last 11 games. Oddly, he took only eight shots against Memphis and finished with 11 points, although he did have 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
Kuzma is trying to assert himself on defense, often defending the other team’s best players in recent games, even the guards. The results are not always great, but he is trying and the team clearly plays better when he is on the court.
Lonzo Ball had a strong week, with the exception coming against Memphis, and there are signs that he and James are beginning to play well together. Even though the Lakers lost, Ball had one of the best games of his career against Brooklyn, finishing with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting and 5-for-9 from 3-point range, to go along with 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
Ball had been playing big minutes, but since Rondo has returned, the minutes have been more evenly split between them. How this impacts Ball’s continued growth is something worth watching carefully, as head coach Luke Walton appears to be enamored with the veteran Rondo.
The Lakers were relieved to get Ingram back. Whether he turns out to be the second or third option on the team, it is crucial that he plays and contributes every night. Yet, between injury and suspension, he has missed a third of the season, which has really impeded the team’s ability to meet its full potential.
One positive is that with Rondo back, Ingram will not have to handle the ball as much, which he was not doing well before he was injured. Ingram contributed a solid 18 point against the Pelicans and 20 points against the Grizzles.
What Went Wrong
Ball had been playing better and gaining consistency until the final game of the week against the Grizzles, when he gave his critics more ammunition with a 4 point effort on 2-for-10 shooting from the floor and 0-for-7 from deep, with only 3 rebounds and 2 assists. This was the kind of game fans have seen too often from Ball.
If, in general, the starters are beginning to show signs of coming together, the same cannot be said of the bench. The reserves were outscored by their counterparts on the Nets 48-18, on the Pelicans 31-21, and on the Grizzles 30-23.
When everyone is healthy and available, the second unit is supposed to consist of Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope at guard, Lance Stephenson and Josh Hart at forward, and Tyson Chandler a center.
This alignment is awkward since Stephenson and Hart are really guards, but the team is thin at the forward position, especially with Michael Beasley unavailable for most of the season and the rookies not ready for regular minutes.
A great deal was expected of Hart this season after a strong finish last year and a stellar offseason. He was supposed to complete for a starting role, and with Ingram missing so much time already, Hart had a golden opportunity to prove he deserves to be a starter. Unfortunately, he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.
Hart is shooting only 43 percent. He was making 3-point shots at a torrid pace to begin the season but has cooled off considerably the past month. On the season, he is averaging 8.8 points per game, significantly lower than what is needed from him.
Stephenson is an enigma. At times he makes key shots and is a catalyst but other times he over-dribbles which ends in a poor shot or a turnover. The latter occurs more often than the former, so much so that against the Pelicans, when the Lakers really needed to win after dropping two consecutive games, Stephenson didn’t play at all. He played only one minute the next game against the Grizzles.
A great deal was expected of Rondo on and off the court, but he has been absent so much that he is yet to make a big contribution. As opposed to Ball, who pushes the pace and keeps the ball moving, Rondo holds onto it with the shot clock expiring waiting to find an open teammate at the last moment.
It can be frustrating at times, but Rondo has had big assist games already this season even in relatively few appearances
The Lakers turnaround from a poor start to the season coincided with the signing of Chandler when he was bought out by the Phoenix Suns. In the twilight of his career, Chandler continues to be a strong rebounder, but the experiment trying to start him in McGee’s absence did not go well. He is better coming off the bench and playing a maximum of 20 minutes.
Caldwell-Pope has been as expected, which means that nearly every time he touches the ball he shoots. Sometimes it goes in and sometimes it doesn’t, with not a great deal of consistency. Every time he steps on the court, Caldwell-Pope is capable of being a difference-maker, but more often than not he is just a high volume shooter.
There is some possibility that as the season goes along Moe Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk could provide a scoring punch off the bench, but they are not ready to contribute regular minutes at this time. The dilemma is how to find minutes for them so they can get experience while the team is trying to win as many games as possible.
There is a school of thought that the Lakers are a shooter or two away from being a really good team. The front office should be scouring the rest of the league to find such a player on a team willing to trade. There is no point waiting for the trade deadline in February.
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