Editor’s note: This is the Monday, Dec. 19, edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.
While Anthony Davis’ health hangs over this team like a cloud, worth reflecting that even without their big man, the Lakers pulled in two needed wins this week. They’ll need a lot more in the coming stretch:
WEEK IN REVIEW
- Tuesday, L, Boston Celtics 122, Lakers 118 (OT)
- Friday, W, Lakers 126, Denver Nuggets 108
- Sunday, W, Lakers 119, Washington Wizards 117
As of Monday morning, the Lakers (13-16) are 12th in the Western Conference standings, and they are six games behind the first-place New Orleans Pelicans (18-8). They’re 1.5 games behind the Dallas Mavericks and Minnesota Timberwolves (15-15) for a play-in slot and 3.5 games behind the Portland Trail Blazers (17-13) for a top-6 spot.
HIGH POINT: On Friday night, the Lakers persevered against the No. 3 team in the West without Anthony Davis to help close. LeBron James scored 33 points, Russell Westbrook had a triple-double, and Thomas Bryant stepped up in a big way to fill the void in the middle and slow down Nikola Jokic. It showed the team’s ability to dynamically solve problems mid-game, and was a powerful statement about their resourcefulness without their franchise big man.
LOW POINT: The loss to the Celtics in overtime was a gut-punch, particularly with the pair of missed free throws from Davis. But it wasn’t as dispiriting as the Sunday morning news that Davis’ right foot injury is likely to cost him weeks of the season. The Lakers have gone through long droughts without Davis before, and they’re rarely pleasant. This one hurts more with Davis playing at an MVP-caliber level in the last month.
TRENDING TOPIC: Look as hard as you want at the reported trade candidates: Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, Bojan Bogdanovic, Terry Rozier, even a return for Kyle Kuzma. There isn’t anyone in the field who is going to replace Anthony Davis. There may be players in that mix who can make life easier without him, especially when you look at nine of the next 12 on the road, but there are usually few trades in December unless the Lakers force the action.
What’s worth watching immediately are the stars the Lakers already have: James and Westbrook.
As reported in this space last week, there has been a lull in Westbrook trade buzz. The Lakers are said to be satisfied with Westbrook’s off-the-bench role, allowing them to stagger minutes more with James. Now, the connective tissue of Davis, who can play with either, is out for the foreseeable future. Don’t the Lakers need to find a way to get their two max contract players out on the floor together more?
The results have been mixed. James and Westbrook average 16.9 minutes together (there are 12 two-man combos that are more frequent). They have a 110.2 offensive rating and a 110.3 defensive – an almost net neutral effect on the court (last season they were minus-1.5). Their pace is higher than when James is in without Westbrook, fueling the transition game at its best. If you look on the court, however, those lineups can be disruptive to spacing,since defenses are more inclined to cheat into the paint and take away two driving threats to the rim.
When asked about the on-court strengths, Ham mentioned that they are effective when the Lakers need to switch, especially covering pick-and-rolls. They improve communication on the floor, and they both are dynamic rollers to the rim.
The two have a fascinating relationship. Before they were teammates, they were friends, playing cards in the NBA bubble. The trade was precipitated by the idea that they could play together with Davis. The on-court dynamic, as everyone knows, quickly went south. While it would be overly confident to project how that plays into personal relationships, there is certainly evidence that it did: The two didn’t appear to acknowledge one another while sitting courtside at the same Summer League game back in July. Over the offseason, a person close to last year’s team described their relationship to me as “two ships passing in the night” – which sure paints a picture.
But there’s evidence, too, that they’re closer this season. There have been more plays and sequences when James and Westbrook celebrate one another. They are more forthcoming and complementary of each other in postgame interviews, which is no small thing in a somewhat political game. They didn’t speak as highly of each other last season. Finding more success in the last month can ease the strain on even the most strenuous team dynamics. And as trade talk of Westbrook has eased, perhaps there is more acceptance between the two former MVPs that their best way forward is to play with and for each other – although that could be presumptuous as well.
But there’s always going to be some inherent tension in the way they play. On Friday, the two played a roughly six-minute stint together against Denver that saw the Lakers outscore the Nuggets by 16 points. But on Sunday, Westbrook looked shakier, leading Ham to only play him two minutes in the fourth quarter in a narrow win.
Mixing two players, even ones as gifted as James and Westbrook, is more art than science. It seems clear that it won’t work on every night –even though it has to be a little encouraging that the Lakers got good results against Boston and Denver. But barring a trade, which doesn’t strike as imminent, the Lakers are going to have to find ways to use their two highest-paid players to win games without Davis tying things together.
READ OF THE WEEK: Throwing the mic over to Mirjam Swanson, who wrote (admittedly before Davis’ injury) that the Lakers need to trade the picks to supplement what is already working well on the team.
HEATING UP: Welcome back to the playing rotation, Max Christie. The rookie got big kudos from his head coach this week for checking in, making shots and playing scrappy defense. He was 4 for 8 on threes in two games, and he was a plus-12 in his shifts. It’s unclear how players like Wenyen Gabriel and Patrick Beverley getting healthier might affect his minutes, but Christie has shown encouraging signs when given opportunities this season.
COOLING DOWN: At the risk of kicking Patrick Beverley while he’s down, his prescribed role as a closer took a hit last week when Ham didn’t play him at all in the fourth quarter and overtime. He bounced back with 10 points against Denver, a season high, but his right calf injury stalled out some of that progress. Beverley continues to be one of the Lakers’ biggest trade chips, and they need the 34-year-old to be healthy and functional on the court.
INJURY REPORT: As of Monday midday, the Lakers still haven’t issued an official update on Anthony Davis, as if his injury is some sort of protected state secret. Well: The word is out. Clarity on the situation is welcome whenever the Lakers can be bothered to provide it. James will not play today at Phoenix. Neither will Austin Reaves, who injured his ankle against the Wizards. Beverley missed Sunday night’s game with calf soreness. Wenyen Gabriel should return any day now from a sprained shoulder. Juan Toscano-Anderson is due for reevaluation soon on a sprained ankle.
QUOTABLE: James was asked Sunday night if he was concerned that the front office would be less willing to make a trade with Davis on the shelf. His response was standoffish, saying he had no idea because he’s not in the front office. But walking off the podium, James playfully goaded reporters: “Go ask Rob (Pelinka) those questions.” The ball is clearly in the front office’s court.
AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Playing without Davis and keeping an open eye on the trade market will continue to be a theme for the Lakers. In thatvein, Charlotte will be a semi-intriguing matchup for a team that has been linked to Rozier and Gordon Hayward over the summer (though the interest in either is unclear at the moment). Dallas always offers a referendum on LeBron vs. Luka, arguably the best two players of their respective generations. Most importantly, every game on the schedule seems winnable: Phoenix is 4-6 in the last 10 games; Sacramento is 6-4; Dallas is 5-5 and the Hornets are … not doing well.
COMING UP (All times PT)
- Monday, at Phoenix, 6 p.m. (NBA TV)
- Wednesday, at Sacramento, 7 p.m.
- Friday, Charlotte, 7: 30 p.m.
- Sunday, at Dallas, 11: 30 a.m. (ESPN)
– Kyle Goon
Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.