The Lakers have a way of proving people wrong. If you expected a slow start to the season following the arrival of LeBron James, as was the case in Miami and again in Cleveland, your worldview may have been shaken when L.A. reeled off a 10-4 November—the percentage equivalent of a 59-win team. Yet if you bought into the Lakers as an elite defense, as they seemed to be in that moment, you were invalidated just the same. Nearly every take on this group has been disproven in time, subverted by a team that has been everything and nothing.
If you were to look at the Lakers’ season in 10-game increments, you would find a high-powered offense that couldn’t stop anyone; a defense-first outfit that won wars of attrition; and a somewhat middling team that split the difference. Which are the real Lakers? I’m sure Luke Walton, among others, would love to know.
After 31 games, the only incontrovertible truth of these Lakers is that they are amorphous. Not flexible or versatile, but almost totally without shape. This is not necessarily a criticism. There are worse things in the league than demonstrating capability only for it to slip from your grasp. Noticing when things go well is as easy as admiring the choreography of a possession, the pulse of a team in rhythm. Replicating it against opponent after opponent is another matter entirely. What works against the Grizzlies might not against the Nuggets, the Nets, or the Rockets. With every new matchup, everything changes. And so, too, do the Lakers.
The best of them looks the part of a conference finalist. The worst makes the Wizards look coherent by comparison. These Lakers are young, injured, and ill-fitting—enough to shake loose even the best of intentions. On Tuesday, those lapses compromised a comeback effort against the Nets. Miscommunication and poor situational awareness turned Jared Dudley into an improbable driving threat. Thoughtless errors made earlier in the night came home to roost when every point came to matter. This was the fifth time this season in which the Lakers lost a game by a margin smaller than their number of missed free throws. Oh, the things this team might accomplish if they could only get out of their own way.
Through flaws and all, there is a kind of synergy to the way the Lakers play defense. Switching unlocks the value in their idiosyncrasies. James could, in theory, guard anyone. Even if Josh Hart can’t quite keep up with quicker guards, he’s proven uncommonly effective in holding his ground against bigs. Kyle Kuzma would be a shaky help defender in any traditional scheme, so the Lakers instead narrow his focus and charge him to chase wings. When in the lineup, JaVale McGee has been shockingly competent in the kinds of mismatches that used to destroy him. And when teams try to engineer any other switch scenario to exploit, Lonzo Ball flies through to pick off passes or turn a plan into a mad scramble.
There is an underlying premise here that could work. It simply teeters whenever LeBron decides that it’s not worth his time to contest a shot; when Ball’s gambles go bust; when Lance Stephenson drifts off to some other planet; when Tyson Chandler shows his age; when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gets so possessed with pressuring the ball that he loses sight of everything else; or when the Lakers, collectively, stand around while an opponent grabs an offensive rebound he should have no right to. The Lakers’ statistical profile shows us that if they do not get stops, they do not win—even relative to other NBA teams. Attempting to outshoot opponents, as they did the Nets, so often ends in defeat.
The roster isn’t exactly built for it. Not only do the Lakers lack for shooters, they lack for actual threats. Ball, Stephenson, and Rajon Rondo (who could return from a broken hand as soon as Friday) will manage some decent scoring nights solely because defenses don’t take the responsibility of guarding them all that seriously. Hart and Caldwell-Pope aren’t too concerning once chased off the three-point line. Walton has gotten more good minutes out of McGee than ever thought possible, but even that doesn’t change the fact that McGee can only score within a few feet of the basket. Even Chandler isn’t as capable a finisher as he once was, which in turn makes him far less demanding of a defense.
Those limitations make the Lakers somewhat solvable whenever they’re forced to slow down. Predictable, even. L.A.’s halfcourt offense is dramatically improved from where it was in October, and yet still firmly below average on balance, according to Synergy Sports. To render a LeBron-led offense below average takes a roster of incredible imposition. Last year’s Cavs, a team so incomplete it had to be blown apart at the trade deadline, finished the year with a top-five offense and just a fraction of a point shy of the No. 2 spot. The Lakers, sitting at 16th after a few wild months, would need a minor miracle to get anywhere close. A team—even one of the fastest in the league by possession time—can only run so much.
Maybe this doubt, too, will be proven wrong in time. LeBron can sometimes trump basketball logic single-handedly. Yet as it stands, the Laker offense looks like something of a cap. James is already scoring more than at any point since 2010, an incredible feat in response to a glaring need. Kuzma has been rather incredible; so many stalled-out possessions have found life in his drives that it’s hard to imagine him playing much better in short order. Getting Brandon Ingram back after an eight-game absence could help, though even a fuller active roster can be a complication. It’s not as if Ingram knows exactly what he needs to be for this team. How could he when the Lakers seem to need such different things at different times?
Veering so wildly between extremes in play is a sure way to create organizational whiplash. NBA players are creatures of habit who want to understand what they’re getting into every night. NBA coaches obsess over identity, the kind that can only come through steady habits. NBA front offices work doggedly to understand their roster and what it needs. In the Lakers’ case, each of those three parties—not to mention the individuals within those groups—could come away from the team’s first 31 games with a dramatically different read from the others. This team is good. How good, exactly, even they can’t possibly know for sure.