LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers Are out of OptionsDecember 10, 2021
What if the best version of the Los Angeles Lakers isn't good enough?
For most of the season, the Lakers have had excuses. Injuries, LeBron James' inconsistent availability and dubious lineup constructions featuring two big men all gave L.A. cover for an uneven start. Sort those issues out—especially the lineup stuff—and the Lakers would be fine. Or so the thinking went.
After Thursday's 108-95 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, it might be time to acknowledge that these Lakers, regardless of how they're configured and deployed, just don't have what it takes to reach the championship level they're straining to grasp.
The Lakers started Anthony Davis and LeBron James at the 5 and 4, respectively, trotting out the frontcourt look everyone's been clamoring for. That combo helped produce Tuesday's 117-102 win over the Boston Celtics, which some viewed as a potential turning point in Los Angeles' season.
It looked more like a dead end against Memphis, which was on the second night of a back-to-back set, playing without Ja Morant or Dillon Brooks.
The Grizzlies, who started twin towers Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams up front, made a gaudy 14 of their 17 shots at the rim and dominated the offensive glass. Adams' eighth offensive board led directly to Desmond Bane's game-sealing triple.
Going small creates disadvantages exactly like the ones that hurt the Lakers against Memphis. Rebounding and defending the rim are just more difficult when you lack size. Deficiencies in those areas are expected costs. But the most troubling aspect of L.A.'s loss, which dropped it to 13-13 on the season, was that it got none of the benefits of small-ball.
The Grizzlies turned the Lakers over 22 times on the night, matching a team record for steals in a quarter and racking up a whopping 27 points off those giveaways.
The 17-to-1 Grizzlies advantage in second-chance points? Jarring, but not totally unforeseeable with the Lakers sacrificing size down low. But losing the turnover battle and struggling to move the ball all night against an opponent with bigger, slower personnel on the floor?
That's not how a lineup change designed to maximize playmaking and skill is supposed to work.
Memphis, undeniably playing with greater effort and urgency, ran over the Lakers.
And then it ran around them.
In light of the information we have on past Lakers' attempts at downsizing, maybe we should have seen this coming.
Prior to Thursday's loss, the Lakers allowed opponents to shoot 67.8 percent at the rim with Davis at center, a horrendous figure that will look even worse after the Grizzlies' layup parade. Filter the data to include James as the 4 alongside Davis at the 5, and opponents were even more accurate at close range.
We're dealing in tiny samples, but the Lakers have a negative net rating with James and Davis as the only bigs this season. Injuries rendered last year's lineup data too small (78 total possessions) to be trustworthy, so there's really no evidence that the lineup we've all wanted L.A. to use will actually work.
And please, don't point to L.A.'s championship 2019-20 season as a rebuttal. The numbers with James and Davis up front were fantastic that year, but defensive studs Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green played most of the minutes at the other three spots in those lineups.
All of them are grazing in greener pastures now.
Good luck getting similar two-way play from Russell Westbrook, Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker or the 2021 version of Avery Bradley.
The most concerning element in all of this is that the LeBron-Davis 4-5 combo still seems like the optimal one for the Lakers. The alternative is reinserting DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard into the first unit, and nobody wants that. Although, in a move that conveyed the desperation head coach Frank Vogel must have felt, he did start Howard over Horton-Tucker in the second half against Memphis. Predictably, that didn't solve anything.
Where, then, do the Lakers look for solutions?
Even if they continue to get killed on the glass and surrender ridiculously high percentages at the rim, they have to stay small and space the floor. It's the only way Westbrook has been able to contribute in recent seasons. It was just two years ago that the Houston Rockets completely abandoned centers so Westbrook would be the only non-shooter on the court, and the 2020-21 Washington Wizards made significant changes to accommodate Russ' hard-to-fit style.
Winning night to night is difficult when Westbrook shares the floor with a conventional center. Contention is impossible.
A trade for another small-ball center or versatile defensive wing who can make plays and hit open shots (of which there are, what, 10 in the entire league?) is basically out of the question. The Lakers have almost no desirable trade assets outside of James and Davis. This is one of the least flexible rosters in the league from a transactional standpoint, and it's hard to imagine Kendrick Nunn and Trevor Ariza, who have yet to play, are going to magically make everything right.
The buyout market is the more realistic option, but that's months away and might bring help too late to make a difference. And ESPN's Kevin Pelton's research last season determined that buyout acquisitions tend to grade out at below replacement level for their new teams. Salvation isn't coming via that avenue either.
The Lakers are facing the consequences of a deeply flawed roster-construction plan—one that was the subject of offseason criticism that looks more prescient every day. They have little recourse but to trust, in the absence of proof, that this latest lineup change will produce better results than it did Thursday night.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through Dec. 9. Salary info via Spotrac.