Sorrow of Losing Winnable Games Can Turn Out Sweet
Traditional NBA thinking is that it’s asking way too much for the young Lakers to execute down the stretch of close games and win most of them.
It’s a little like having an exciting puppy bouncing around with his best quality being the zeal with which he runs and jumps.
Suffice it to say he’s going to bite on an awful lot of pump fakes…especially when facing sharp, well-trained, experienced dogs who can play dead one minute and be off-the-charts athletic the next.
The Lakers have been wonderful at running and catching the ball when it is thrown way ahead. That’s how they lead the league in points in the paint despite not having a traditional interior scorer.
And the way they have been playing full out—not getting tired, not giving up—has lifted the spirits of those watching them in a uniquely unadulterated way.
But one of the predominant storylines of this Lakers season has been how many losses came out of winnable games. It makes for fine water-cooler talk the morning after, except the time-tested refrain from inside the NBA goes this way:
Lakers' young core has been sharing valuable minutes together on the court.
Good teams find a way to win. Bad teams find a way to lose.
Those good teams usually have veteran role players to help their veteran star players do winning things down the stretch of games.
And what a veteran star player does is absolutely incomparable, it should be noted.
As the opening minutes of a game unfold, the superstar understands perfectly what that opponent's plan is against him, feels that defense out, and already knows the counter strikes that will work for him later when he's in must-score mode.
He knows how to shake hands, roll over and use a crossover dribble to sidestep a coming double-team before sticking a fadeaway jumper at the game's most pressure-packed moment.
So then, is it simply preordained that this shall be the young Lakers' fate this season? Is there no choice but to accept that they will lose most of their winnable games to proven top dogs?
Whether yes or no, what matters here is the try, and the Lakers have to aspire for something better if they are to become something better.
Let's fight the good fight and take a deeper dive into what the Lakers could be doing with these opportunities that some might say are destined to be squandered.
No yearning for the Ghost of Kobe Past allowed. No planning ahead to the next free-agent superstar who could overturn the entire chessboard and start anew.
How can the Lakers do better in clutch time with what they have?
Asked for his strongest takeaways from losing so many winnable games this season, Lakers coach Luke Walton offered an interesting bit of misdirection in his response.
"Most important, I think, is not getting to those [situations] if we take care of the ball better, if we make free throws," Walton said. "We lose games by three, four, five points and miss nine or 10 free throws, that's a huge lesson right there. Start the game and take care of the things that we can control—executing in transition, making free throws, taking care of the ball—then hopefully we don't get down to a one- or two-point game."
The coach saying that the solution to better late-game execution is avoiding late-game execution is not so much a ringing endorsement.
But Walton was most recently an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, notorious for messing around with loose play all night long before taking over late via superior skill and sheer savvy. Walton also bears in mind his playing days on winning Lakers teams that could cruise but then still kill.
"Throw the ball to Kobe," Walton said with a laugh.
"When you're talking about the elite of the elite at this level, they might miss the shot, but there's not much you can do about it," Walton said. "So where our control comes in is by playing better throughout the game."
Start the game and take care of the things that we can control—executing in transition, making free throws, taking care of the ball—then hopefully we don't get down to a one- or two-point game.Luke Walton
It's a valid lesson. Losing always offers a stronger platform for teaching than winning, and Walton wants these Lakers to understand they can't afford to be sloppy or indulge bad habits early in games—just as they shouldn't be sloppy or indulge bad habits early in their careers.
Walton added that the Lakers' lack of "basic fundamentals" late in games—especially when opposing teams apply more pressure—has been a further teaching point.
Then Walton cited one player by name.
"Brandon Ingram has had multiple chances at the end of games to hit game winners," Walton said, "and the only way you get better at those is by doing them and a lot of times failing—and then having the confidence to do it again."
Therein lies one easy answer for the Lakers being better in close games: having Ingram close those games better.
In his second season, Ingram has made massive progress with his driving game, especially such subtleties as maintaining a straight line to the hoop instead of being moved off course or holding his hands higher upon reaching the paint to protect against getting stripped.
What remains underutilized is Ingram's retooled jumper, which has become legitimately dependable from mid-range. That is the classic crunchtime shot to have—same as that guy with the two retired jerseys we aren't supposed to bring up (but Walton already did).
Yes, Ingram is the preferred No. 1 option to close. But the road where the Lakers' late-game halfcourt offense should go is much more fork than knife.
Lonzo Ball(2) and Kyle Kuzma(27) were the top two Lakers selected in the 2017 NBA Draft
There are two other young players who have earned the most trust from Walton and Lakers management: Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. Their development as weapons in the clutch must be nurtured, too.
The pick and roll is largely the late-game formula in today's guard-driven NBA. One way or another, Ball is going to have to get great at it so the team's most dynamic playmaker can be trusted to control clutch possessions. The thing is, that's not something anyone can rightly expect yet considering UCLA didn't run pick and roll and Ball's teams before that were even more free-flow.
The Lakers this season have actually had Jordan Clarkson running pick and roll more of his possessions (35 percent) than Ball has on his (34 percent). If Ball's three-point shot continues to stabilize as a weapon, however, preventing defenses from always sinking off him, the Lakers running pick and roll with him more often late in games will be a must—and not just for developmental purposes.
Meanwhile, Kuzma already has the most dependable jump shot on the team since his hard work took the release point on it from inconsistent in college to money in the pros.
Kuzma also has displayed a certain fearlessness, perhaps even unconsciousness, when it comes to tough situations. One might even liken it to a certain snake-like attitude.
It's unclear whether Kuzma is going to be ready anytime soon to operate patiently in isolation. Even if he's not, he's already the guy the Lakers know they need to get more clutch catch-and-shoot opportunities via strategic set plays.
Now comes the really thorny part of all this: getting the puppy to defend his turf with tenacity when it counts the most.
Even after one of the Lakers' poorer efforts of the season Wednesday against Memphis, Ingram came away recalling the tied score entering the fourth quarter and lamenting: "It started on the defensive end."
If you look at the NBA's clutch-time statistics (final five minutes of a game with a score differential of no more than five points), the aforementioned three players with the most offensive upside don't look too great as clutch-time players. That's because their defensive ratings during those moments are not too great.
Using NBA.com's offensive and defensive ratings, which project the number of points produced individually per 100 possessions, Kuzma is 16.4 points worse on defense than offense, Ball 10.5 worse on defense, and Ingram 8.7 worse on defense.
Furthering the problem is that the players supposed to be the glue bonding the defense with these guys have similarly failed: Larry Nance (25.9 points worse on defense than offense), Julius Randle (16.2 points worse), Josh Hart (15.3 points worse) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (9.2 points worse). These are all small sample sizes, but Clarkson's clutch defensive rating is particularly alarming at 180.4, basically the worst of any player to have played the clutch minutes he has.
This is where you wonder what Walton can reasonably do. Remember how he already dedicated an inordinate amount of training camp to defense? The issue is exacerbated by the Lakers need for defensive stops to trigger the running game and avoid dependence on that stagnant halfcourt offense.
Bad teams have guys who spring all sorts of leaks and make a mess of clutch-time team defense. Good teams usually have veteran guys to fill roles, with the foremost responsibility being that defensive solidity.
Case in point: The Minnesota Timberwolves had mostly young guys last season trying to find their way, and they went 15-29 in clutch-time games. This season, they not only added a primo scorer in Jimmy Butler, they got his veteran teammate Taj Gibson, renowned for his fourth-quarter contributions in Chicago.
Now Minnesota is 13-8 in clutch-time games after Gibson executed with machine-like efficiency as Minnesota pulled away from the Lakers in the close Christmas game. It was no fluke.
Who do the Lakers have to be their most solid role players—especially on defense when Ingram, Ball and Kuzma have to be so mindful of offensive responsibilities?
Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Brook Lopez, and Kyle Kuzma battle during the fourth quarter of a game in Boston.
Randle has improved on defense tremendously this season and has a valid case for more minutes, but the Lakers actually have their worst record in games Randle has played in the clutch: 4-12. Corey Brewer arguably best fits the mold of defensive-minded, veteran role player—and the Lakers broke Houston's 14-game winning streak with Brewer closing—but you could just as easily argue that Brewer shouldn't be in Walton's playing rotation at all if the Lakers are prioritizing development of their youth.
Logically, the greatest expectations to help should be on Brook Lopez and Caldwell-Pope as well-paid veterans.
Lopez, in fact, is the one clear exception to the Lakers' poor clutch defense rule. His clutch ratings look great—and the Lakers are 7-3 in clutch games he has closed—a result of his heightened involvement early in the season when the Lakers' defense was so much better. Caldwell-Pope was hyped in the offseason as just the sort of defender and shot-maker who could fill the Lakers' need.
Yet Lopez and Caldwell-Pope are both new to the team and on expiring contracts, hardly the most solid ground for them to serve the way you figure veterans should. Even if Walton wanted to commit to Lopez and Caldwell-Pope as the main supporting closers, Lopez is currently out with an ankle sprain and Caldwell-Pope has been missing games because of a preexisting legal matter.
The multiple options Walton has only make it more complicated, because continuity of personnel makes a major difference in team defense at pressure moments. To put it simply, trust comes before execution.
Accordingly, the Lakers might be best served declaring what is their best defensive group with Ingram, Ball and Kuzma in it—and stick with that crew as much as possible late in games. It's not necessarily fair to all individuals who deserve closing opportunities, but this clutch-time defense clearly needs all the help it can get.
It could be much worse, by the way.
Look at the Dallas Mavericks, who started the season losing 17 of their first 18 clutch-time games before finding enough defense to pull out victories over Toronto and Indiana. Low on young talent, the Mavericks also are a long way from the growth stage the Lakers have reached.
These Lakers have played a lively brand of team basketball while bringing legit competitive spirit to play so many close games. Lakers fans have been invested in mostly cliffhangers, including all three matchups against the defending NBA champion Warriors, even if it's unsurprising that Golden State eventually closed every one of those books.
The beauty is in the journey, even if the glory isn't.
For all these jokes about trying not to mention Kobe Bryant's past, it's undeniable that the Lakers are building something in the present.
Understanding just how difficult it is to learn how to win is necessary context.
The young Lakers have accomplished something just through their talent and effort: They have led people to expect that they could've or should've won more this season.
Now for that epic challenge of figuring out how.
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
To catch up on all of Kevin Ding's in-depth Lakers stories, visit The Point home page.