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LeBron James and the Lakers Have a Lot of Work to Do

The Lakers' season is 20 games old and a long list of questions still need answering. From the fit of LeBron James to the development of Brandon Ingram, L.A. remains a half-finished project.

The most impressive win of this Lakers season happened a month ago in L.A. The Lakers were 1–3 after opening the year with losses to the Blazers, Rockets, and Spurs, and the Nuggets entered the Staples Center at 4–0, fresh off a win against the Warriors. Given how appalling the L.A. defense had looked through the first two weeks of the season, it was a wonder whether the Nuggets were about to put 150 on LeBron on national television. But they didn't. The Lakers succeeded in making the game ugly as hell, and the Nuggets had no answers when it mattered. LeBron finished that night 28 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists. Lance Stephenson came off the bench to be a hero in the fourth. Lonzo Ball successfully neutralized Nikola Jokic on a key possession down the stretch, and then Ball hit a 26-foot stepback three to break the game open in the final minutes. It was like Lakers fan fiction.

The Lakers were playing that same Nuggets team Tuesday night and they were blown off the floor. Things spiraled early in the third quarter, and it was a 32-point blowout by the end. LeBron finished with 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting. L.A. was outrebounded 60–38. The team shot 14% from three. Also: all of this happened immediately after the team was embarrassed at home on Sunday, when the Orlando Magic went into Staples and beat the Lakers for the second time in 10 days. 

This L.A. season is 20 games old now. It's early in the year, but not that early. We are at the quarter-mile mark. It seems like a good time to lift the embargo on Lakers takes.

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There are times when this Lakers team looks like a cautionary tale designed to warn people against taking the lessons of modern basketball too literally. Smallball, the positionless revolution, three-point shooting, or even just the idea of LeBron James as savior—the Lakers are all-in on every front. So far the results have been mixed. The Lakers are 11–9 and sitting in seventh place in the West, one game ahead of the Kings. They are playing positionless basketball with a number of players who can't guard a single position. They are shooting threes with players who can't shoot. They are going small, but LeBron doesn't want to play the five, and they weren't able to keep Julius Randle, who looks dominant in New Orleans.  

The state of LeBron could be its own discussion. He is currently executive producing a dozen different projects in Hollywood (literally) and he's still easily the biggest star in the sport. On the court, he's still excellent in all the reflexive ways he's always been, but he has seemed disengaged for most of the first two months. It's almost like he's treating the first trimester of this season as one long "feel-out game". That autopilot posture manifests in a few different ways. On defense, Autopilot LeBron is doing the bare minimum almost all the time. If he's conserving energy, that makes sense, but it's still problematic for the rest of the team. L.A. just doesn't have many plus-defenders on the roster, and removing James from the equation makes it even harder to build any kind of defense that isn't a full-blown embarrassment. 

On offense, LeBron is still one of the most valuable players in the league, but he's picking his spots. He is not taking the floor looking to tear through teams each night. He doesn't want to play much of the four or play small-ball five. It's rare that he attacks the rim more than once or twice per quarter. He spends most Lakers possessions probing the defense and either kicking to Lakers shooters, finding an open cutter at the rim, or settling for a jumper himself. He remains a one-man offensive system, and he's fairly effective getting everyone involved, but he only looks truly dominant when his threes are falling. 

It's hard to know whether LeBron made a conscious choice to play this way. It's certainly possible that he's staying in a low gear so that he see what he has with the rest of the roster while also conserving energy for the stretch run. But part of me wonders whether this is what LeBron will look like as he gets older, and whether this is what he's quietly looked like for the past year or two, and this is just happens when great players get old. His engagement waned through parts of last year in Cleveland, too. Peak LeBron is still better than any player on earth, but he may not be capable of doing that on a regular basis, and he certainly hasn't done that while also playing defense. I write all this knowing that doubting LeBron has generally been a losing proposition over the past 15 years, but it's something I think of during every Lakers game. LeBron might be rope-a-dopeing all of us as a concerted strategy, but there's a chance that he's doing it because he has no alternative. 


There are also questions about Luke Walton and Magic Johnson. At least once during every game, Walton will play a lineup that makes you wonder what exactly he's seeing out there. Usually these lineups involve either far too much Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or inexplicably trying to make Brandon Ingram a shooting guard. But then, in Walton's defense, every game also comes with at least one sequence that will leave you baffled by the Lakers decision-making last summer. Sometimes that's a wayward Lance Stephenson iso, other times it's Michael Beasley getting torched on defense, and when Rondo comes back to take more minutes from Lonzo, that signing will be puzzling all over again.  

In general JaVale McGee is the only offseason addition who's helped thus far, the roster is full of pieces that don't fit, and Walton can only do so much. It leaves Lakers observers in a tricky spot. When there were rumors that Magic Johnson was yelling at Walton after a slow start, obviously, that looked impulsive and unfair. The front office should be accountable for structural issues that would be a problem under any coach. But at the same time, there haven't been many indications that Walton is actually helping. He's juggled lineups and rotations to no avail, effort from his players comes and goes, and young guys have struggled adapting to new roles. It's entirely possible that Walton is not responsible for the biggest Lakers problems, but also isn't the right guy to help find solutions. 

As for the young Lakers—Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, Josh Hart—progress has come slower than anyone hoped. Lonzo has struggled to remain aggressive as a scorer on offense, and for every game where he looks like the perfect complement to LeBron, there are two more where he fails to make an impact altogether. Ingram has been great without LeBron on the floor—28.5 ppg, 4.6 asts, 61.8% true shooting percentage—and painfully average when he moves off the ball to play as a spot-up threat next to James. Ingram has been graded on a much steeper curve this year. For a third-year player learning how to be a star, 15.7 ppg is fine. For a former No. 2 pick who was supposed to be the second-best player on a playoff team, Ingram's numbers are making everyone anxious. Meanwhile, Kuzma pairs well with both Ingram and James, but he's still shaky on defense, and he's streaky from the perimeter. Hart would be a perfect third guard in theory and maybe he'll still get there, but he's been in the midst of a cold streak that has hurt his offense all month. 

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Watching the development of the young players will probably be the most interesting story of the next few months in Los Angeles. If Ingram and Lonzo can't thrive next to LeBron, the front office will eventually have to decide whether to go a different direction. But then, this is another area where questionable coaching and hamfisted roster management make the story more frustrating. Maybe Lonzo would be more comfortable if his minutes distribution were more consistent. Maybe Ingram would be better than he looks if he were playing with a coach who did a better job utilizing him off the ball. These are questions the Lakers will have to ask, and if trade talks get serious, other teams around the league will have to come to their own conclusions along the way. 

There are another few weeks before December 15th, when last summer's free agents become trade-eligible and the Lakers have room to explore other options. That gives us at least another few weeks with this team in its current form. And if the goal is to contend in the middle of the West with this core, the next few weeks will be fun. L.A. hosts the Pacers, Mavericks, Suns, Spurs, and Heat, and travels to Memphis, Houston, Charlotte, and Washington. All of those games are winnable, but almost none of them will be easy wins. It will be a good test of what the Lakers really have. 

Whatever happens, this experimental phase has been great in its own right. The Lakers may not be better than everyone, but they are already weirder and more interesting. They are like a half-finished project. Or to use terms that a newly-minted Hollywood super producer could appreciate, this team is like four hour rough cut of a movie that should be 110 minutes long. There's probably a contender in there somewhere, it's just going to take a lot of work to get there.