The Lakers’ return to greatness – or, at least, goodness – continues, wobbly as it is.
The team went six games over .500 last week for the first time in six seasons. Not that it was met by rejoicing.
In keeping with the ongoing transition from last season’s team of young prospects to next season’s with multiple superstars (they hope), there was more finger-pointing, er, focus, on which Lakers may not fit with LeBron James.
Surely not the recent arrivals, Make ‘Em Dance Lance Stephenson, No More Travail JaVale McGee or Ragin’ Rajon Rondo?
None of them?
Chaotic as it seems with saturation coverage of LeBron teams, the Lakers have to do this, in the rare and thrilling position of reinventing themselves as in days of yore.
Lakers management is definitely excited about something. In-the-loop Kobe Bryant used his appearance at last week’s all-access event to taunt two-time defending champion Golden State (“We’ll be champions before you know it and then we’ll just be laughing at all the Warrior fans, who all of the sudden came out of nowhere.”)
The dumb part, of course, would be thinking you can arrive at any conclusions about who fits with LeBron at this point.
There’s an intelligent answer to all the questions now posed daily: “We’ll see.”
Young players run hot and cold, especially in the all-important three-point shooting that decides who fits with whom.
These decisions are hard. The Lakers had Julius Randle for three full seasons (and a fourth in which he played one game) before letting him walk last summer, thinking he would be a bad fit with James (which, I should note, I agreed with).
That left them with nothing to show for their 2014 lottery pick and four-year investment and can now see Julius tearing it up in New Orleans, even if he still doesn’t go right or make threes.
There’s an important lesson that no one is in a hurry to tell you:
It’s really easy to be wrong about this stuff.
Before writing off anyone else for failing the LeBron test, let’s take a closer look at some old faves now under the gun:
At last season’s end, the Lakers considered him their best, hardest-working, most grown-up young player.
If it was true then, it should be true now, but doubt entered in as soon as he leveled off, early as it is, with arch-supportive Coach Luke Walton acknowledging, “We need him to get better, he knows that.”
Since Magic Johnson called Luke out even earlier – the seven-game mark – you begin to see the pressure they feel, from Magic down.
Ingram’s drop from 16 points a game to 15 is no biggie with the arrival of a 25-point-a-game scorer. On the other hand, Ingram’s three-point shooting, which zoomed from 29% to 39% last season, has wilted to 32%.
With James, a ball dominator but willing passer who draws defenses, nothing is handier than teammates who make open shots.
(Of course, that’s the approach the Lakers resisted to build a better defense – an ongoing challenge as suggested by Friday’s 133-120 loss in San Antonio – and had better rethink.)
In LeBron Team style, the questions about Ingram became a media pile-on that included an esoteric NBA.com stat measuring the effectiveness of two-man combinations.
With James and Ingram, the Lakers’ offensive rating is a mere 0.4 points per possession higher than their defensive rating.
This dovetailed with an unnamed scout telling ESPN that James and Ingram were “not working.”
On the other hand, there’s a question of how well any of the Lakers’ top prospects work with James.
Going into the weekend, the LeBron-Kyle Kuzma tandem had a mere plus-2.4 net.
Bron and Ball had a 2.7.
The best rating for any young Laker with James was 9.4 for Bron and darkhorse Josh Hart.
The Lakers’ three highest net ratings were all with 36-year-old Tyson Chandler, alongside Hart (18.8), Kuzma (17.7) and James (15.6).
If you can see why Chandler has taken minutes from McGee, you wouldn’t want the Lakers to bring in a lot more 36-year-olds.
Personally, I prefer less-esoteric, more meaingful Old School stats like shooting percentage. Believe this: Bron and Ingram will work a lot better if Brandon goes back to knocking down threes.
Brandon’s track record suggests he will, but time will tell in 100 percent of cases.
If it was Ingram’s turn in the barrel last week, it was Lonzo’s the week before.
Lakerdom has seen Ball sparkle when he makes threes and takes the ball to the hoop … and disappear when he’s too deferential.
Unfortunately for Lonzo, he has to do this the hard way – amid expectations, sharing his job with Rondo, when healthy, and sharing his playmaker role with James.
Insiders say LeBron understands this is a transition, but the expectations pressing so heavily on them all press first and foremost on him. Last week, Bron told Yahoo’s Chris Haynes he had almost “cracked” under the pressure.
James responded by taking over, averaging 32.5 points in the recent four-game winning streak.
However, it comes at the expense of Ball’s opportunities, with Lonzo scoring 2-10-7-14 in the streak with assist totals of 4-4-4-9, going 4-16 on three-pointers.
I thought pulling last season’s young team out of a 11-27 start to finish 23-20, with ownership doting on him, would earn him a full season of support in this rolling experiment, no matter how bumpy it got.
I was wrong. Johnson went off on him after a 2-5 start. Of course, they’re 13-4 since.
Unfortunately, when Johnson upbraids his coach and it gets out in decibel-by-decibel detail – and then says Luke “will finish the season” in the closest he comes to reassuring anyone – the press will assume Magic will blame Luke for anything else that goes wrong and “Walton Under Pressure” headlines will bloom like spring flowers.
Internet pundits who have never been to a Lakers game will say Luke has “lost the team”– Gee, I had it here a minute ago – a cliche that’s meaningless with players continually sniffing the air to see who management is and isn’t backing, but suggests inner-circle intimacy.
Good luck, Lakers. You’re all going to need it.