It's the Offense

When LeBron James strained his groin in the third quarter of L.A.’s Christmas win at Golden State, the Lakers managed to fend off a Warriors rally and follow Rajon Rondo to a 127-101 victory that improved their record to 20-14, good for 4th in the Western Conference.

The day after the game, the team learned Rondo would be out for a period of 4-5 weeks after he needed surgery on a sprained ligament on his shooting hand. Meanwhile, James is set to be re-evaluated on Friday, Jan. 11, to check on any progress from the injury.

L.A. played very well for 43 minutes at Sacramento in their subsequent game, but gave up a 15-point lead in the final five minutes and lost. Their emotional energy looked sapped in the 2nd half of a back-to-back loss against the Clippers after the Lakers had built a 10-point lead in the 3rd quarter, only to concede a 22-0 run.

In the next game, Brandon Ingram was instrumental in a 121-114 win against Sacramento in which he dished out nine assists and scored 21 points on only 13 FGA’s, while Kyle Kuzma added 18 points, nine boards and six assists. Then against Oklahoma City, Kuzma suffered a lower back contusion and had to leave the game in the second quarter, and L.A. couldn’t hold onto a 4-point lead they’d built heading into the fourth quarter of a well-played game.

Without James, Rondo and Kuzma, the Lakers suffered perhaps their worst loss of the season when the 9-29 New York Knicks beat them 119-112 at Staples Center, in which L.A. trailed 22-5 after just six minutes of action. It was much the same early in Minnesota on Sunday, as the Wolves jumped out to a 22-3 lead that was never threatened.

The numbers over the course of L.A.’s 1-5 record since LeBron went out, compared to their 20-14 mark with him, back up the eye test pretty simply: the Lakers are struggling to score.

Since Dec. 25, L.A. is averaging 107.0 points per game, shooting 43.9 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from three, with 24.2 assists to 17.3 turnovers for an offensive rating of 99.4, which ranks 29th in the NBA over that time period.

With LeBron, L.A. put up 113.2 points on 48.0% shooting and 34.7% from three, with 24.4 assists to 15.5 turnovers for an offensive rating of 108.8, ranking 15th in the league. Their pace of 103.81 with LeBron ranked 4th in the NBA, while their pace of 107.58 ranks No. 1 since he’s been out.

Since LeBron is one of the best few offensive players in the history of the game (Michael, Kobe, Kareem, Wilt, Shaq … take your pick), it’s pretty obvious that L.A.’s offense was going to take a hit without his 27.3 points, 7.1 assists and the gravity he attracts to make it easier for everybody else. But as we saw in that tiny sample size at Golden State, Rondo could have helped mask James’ absence with his 12 years of experience running teams … and he hasn’t been an option. More recently, once you removed Kuzma’s aggressive offensive nature and his 18.3 points per game, the Lakers have really struggled.

I asked Luke Walton after the loss in Minnesota about his 21-year-old backcourt of Ingram and Lonzo Ball through this stretch.

“They’re trying, but they’re young,” he said. “At some point we need more passion. We need more fight. That’s not scoring more, that’s more diving for loose balls, communicating loudly. Brandon had some really nice rebounds tonight that we could get out and run – we need that all the time from him. It’s not just them, but until we get healthy again we have to play in this league with some passion and fire. It’s hard to win in this league when you’re healthy. You have to give double that effort when guys are down.”

It’s a lot to ask of young players, but they’ve shown flashes of being able to do it before, as Ingram did last February when he led the Lakers to a 7-4 record behind averages of 18.6 points, 5.6 assists and 5.2 rebounds. Ball averaged 11.9 points and 5.8 assists in December, but is down to 6.7 points and 4.3 dimes in January.

”Well we are down a lot of scorers right now,” said Ball, who was 0 for 4 from the field in his 23 minutes at Minnesota. “So we got to pick up their load, obviously I didn’t do it tonight, but I got to do it tomorrow (at Dallas).”

The defense, on the other hand, has been about the same with and without LeBron. L.A. had a defensive rating of 106.5 in LeBron’s 34 games (10th in the NBA), and had the exact same rating of 106.5 prior to the Minnesota game, after which it actually improved to 105.9 (4th in the NBA since Dec. 25).

Prior to the Minnesota game, which was essentially over before the fourth quarter, L.A.’s biggest offensive problems have come in that final period. Their offensive rating without LeBron was 85.5, compared to 107.7 with him.

We know that Rondo won’t be back for a few weeks yet, and LeBron’s status will be updated on Friday, but L.A. could get Kuzma back in Dallas as the Lakers try and climb out of the midseason injury-induced funk that has them down to the 8th spot in the West at 21-19.