One of the joys of the NBA’s extended regular season is that it pushes beyond game plans, first options, and best-case scenarios. At some point, most every team will be without its most talented players, yet forced to strive towards the same goals. There isn’t time to throw out the playbook. In many cases, it wouldn’t make sense to completely reorient the offense. A short-handed team has little choice but to persist like some alternate universe version of itself, as uncanny as Eric Stoltz playing Marty McFly.
This curious space is where we find the Lakers, who have gone three consecutive games without LeBron James. Once concern for serious injury faded, the strained groin that sidelined James became something of an opportunity—a chance for so many Lakers to step outside themselves, for better or worse. Every team that LeBron plays for encounters the temptation to let him do everything. His game can become alpha and omega, if allowed, at least until the top teams in the league leverage that dependence. For James to be out of the mix entirely, then, is an instructive exercise. This isn’t a five-minute break at the start of the fourth quarter, but game after game after game in which the young Lakers are left to their own devices.
The first two trials against the Kings and Clippers were competitive, but went the other way in the fourth quarter. It should go without saying that the Lakers’ scoring opportunities didn’t develop quite in the way they’re used to, although the defense was more damning. It’s hard to close out games when a defensive stop is nothing more than a loose theoretical concept; younger players tend to let precious details slip away in the heat of the moment, and on those nights the finer points seemed greased well beyond their grasp. Then, progress. On Sunday, the night of LeBron’s 34th birthday, the Lakers stayed their course in a rematch against the Kings to close out a comeback win on an 18-4 run. "We are not just one player,” Kyle Kuzma said postgame, per Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com. “We just got to eliminate little mistakes and we could have won all three games.”
It’s a credit to the young Lakers that their offense in those three games is down only slightly. Getting fewer stops has curbed some of LA’s transition game, forcing this group into half-court puzzles without the benefit of its top playmaker (or its top two, considering that Rajon Rondo is also out). No one in the lineup can emulate LeBron. Yet by keeping their heads up and working together, the rest of the Lakers can mimic some of the same movements in piecemeal, accomplishing in two or three passes what James might in one. Brandon Ingram can’t throw a perfect cross-court pass to the opposite corner, but he can work the two-man game with Kuzma, who can then swing the ball to Josh Hart.
It’s not quite the same, but it’s also not a catastrophic difference against the below-average defenses the Lakers have faced thus far. Pulling that off against the Thunder on Wednesday will be a new challenge for a new year. The ball has moved well enough for the LeBron-less Lakers, though it could stagnate when Paul George lurks in the passing lanes. No Laker can be counted on to drive all the way to the rim as it is, much less when Steven Adams and Jerami Grant are in the way. Kuzma was right in his assessment that the Lakers’ last three games were all very much winnable. The next might not be.
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Frankly, that’s okay. James will be back, likely in relatively short order, to micromanage stalled possessions and help orchestrate a relentless fast break. All that comes in the meantime are lessons. Ingram can put it all together as he did on Sunday, when he totaled 21 points, seven rebounds, and nine assists. Luke Walton will continue to tweak his rotation, depending on the opponent. Lonzo Ball can work to find his place in structure, but in lineups that allow for him to assume more conventional point guard responsibilities. And, somewhere along the line, the Lakers will account for the 19 shots a game that LeBron takes on average, stretching themselves to fill the void.
Kuzma, who is taking six more shots per game than he averaged previously, and Ball, who is taking five more, are the prime beneficiaries. But then come the wilder twists, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope chucking up 21 shots in a particular game as the Lakers sought out his hot hand. This team, in its current form, isn’t in a position to shrug off a streaky shooter having a good night. Ingram, Kuzma, and Ball could all have strong games by their standards and still miss the handful of willed baskets and bailouts that James so often provides. What this group lacks are the easy points. They don’t get to the free throw line often enough (or make enough of their free throws, frankly) to steady themselves. It’s harder now to get into the paint or out on the break. A heads-up play from Ball or a strong move by Ingram might get the Lakers some of what they so desperately need, just not in the quantity that could keep their offense balanced.
For now, the Lakers can only invest in what they have. They pass, they move, and they hope it’s enough.