Win or Lose Now, Sharper Teamwork is Coming Later

By Kevin Ding - Senior Writer

Somewhere out there might be the moments that become everyone’s memories, but no dream comes true just by imagining it. You don’t get over that rainbow simply via wish.

It takes work. It takes growth. It takes learning how to play together.

It takes mastering how to play together.

It takes a team identity.

And it takes time, which we understood before the season when patience was so often preached, to make progress toward that identity. These are the Lakers’ days of methodology before mastery, akin to tedious sewing classes before weaving together a glorious championship banner.

It always takes two steps forward and one step back, as much as it might be easier to settle for LeBron James’ step-back jumpers to get the job done these days with as often as he has been hitting them.

The Lakers’ recent 7-1 run has been followed by 0-2 missteps, and that’s just how it should go for a retooled, still youthful team.

Make no mistake, though, about how much the Lakers have learned over the past month regarding what should go into that identity.

They want to play super-fast but not fast all the time, and it might make the most sense to use pace as a regular weapon as opposed to a constant. The direction the team is going is not one that wants to run you to death. It’s more like where some teams have multiple superstars to take turns slicing and dicing the defense, the Lakers can take turns leaning on pace and leaning on James—with some obvious crossover appeal on his trademark hammer dunks.

LeBron rises for a dunk against Miami

LeBron rises for a dunk against Miami

That said, the team has evolved into one that also leans heavily on Lonzo Ball, albeit in more subtle than sensational ways (and not just because Rajon Rondo hasn’t been available for every game). The level of NBA sophistication in Ball’s game remains in its infancy—and his growth there will help him big-time in closing out games—but much of the team’s offensive structure hinges on James or Ball creating something. Often it’s both James and Ball trying something on the same possession, which is why Ball so often is the one setting a screen for James. Ball’s speed and passing are also critical for that aforementioned pace.

Perhaps that’s a surprise to fans who saw how many points Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma scored last season. In any case, the offense has not been the priority for the Lakers anyway. Coach Luke Walton was adamant in training camp about establishing a strong defensive team, and that mandate has carried on. The defense has leapt forward as JaVale McGee emerged and Tyson Chandler arrived—and the switching of defensive assignments thereby became simplified with fewer small-ball lineups.

James, of course, is at the heart of every incarnation of new Lakers identity. But we’ve also seen already the reality that the team can’t ask him to do everything. Even if he’s still the best player in the game, he’s in his 16th season and the Lakers have limited him to 34.8 minutes per game—20th-most in the league—even as it’s fair to wonder how many more games the Lakers could’ve won if James had been asked for just a little more.

If the Lakers are trying to build a template that is strong as steel, however, it must be made from much more than James’ crown. That, more than anything, has been the primary takeaway from the season’s first 20 games:

The Lakers are building something with James’ help, not building something that he must carry on his shoulders.

Walton took an extra moment in front of the bench when it was over Sunday night, well after the final horn, his hands on his hips and staring out toward nothingness in front of him.

The arena was absent the expected streamers that come down upon home victory. The Lakers had lost a winnable game against the Orlando Magic.

Some losses sting more than others, and this was one of them. It’s one thing to lose a game such as the one the Lakers lost in Denver on Tuesday—their weaknesses in long-range shooting and rebounding costing them dearly, their strengths not showing up nearly enough to offset—but it’s another to lose a game because of “killing ourselves,” as Walton put it.

Orlando coach Steve Clifford approached Walton after that game, and the first words Clifford offered were: “We got all the breaks.” It was almost as if Clifford was also acknowledging the Lakers’ full capability of winning that one.

Then again, was that loss a product of the annoying mistakes … or were the annoying mistakes the product of much deeper stuff? Specifically, deeper stuff such as the unfamiliarity between the Lakers’ players, the as-of-yet unclear roles in the team’s rotation, all the stuff we’re talking about when we look for a team to grow but are forced to wait for it come together?

Sometimes the Lakers have been able to win games despite struggles or slippage of that sort, often because the opposing team was having its own struggles or slippage. Certainly there is hope for cleaner play coming up with a four-game homestand, matching the longest of the season. But win or lose at this point, the Lakers are banking on the belief that they will keep getting better.

Luke Walton calls out a play on offense

Luke Walton calls out a play on offense

Ingram’s summation of the problem with the Lakers’ game Sunday was the most accurate one: “Just staying connected ... staying connected at all times on the offensive and defensive end.”

Lance Stephenson’s perspective, however, was the sharpest one: “It’s a learning experience,” Stephenson said. “A lot of these games are close. I feel like we learn from this, and by the end of the season, we’ll be used to stuff like this and making smart plays and getting stops.”

Even the plays that James somewhat forgives as “attack turnovers” are tied to some unfamiliarity with each other in how teammates can predict each other. It’s not necessarily a mistake, but when Kuzma is the only teammate who reflexively cuts to space with the understanding that Ball frequently drives hard to the rim with the intent to pass, it’s still a problem. If it takes the Lakers a few extra seconds for everyone to understand a play call, maybe most times it doesn’t matter but sometimes it does.

A lot of these games are close. I feel like we learn from this, and by the end of the season, we’ll be used to stuff like this and making smart plays and getting stops.

Lance Stephenson

The Lakers are vulnerable to so many compatibility issues—down to the fine details of how guys set screens for one another, which can be better or worse in a myriad of ways depending on how well teammates can read each other. Against Denver in the Lakers’ disastrous third quarter, two more turnovers came from uncertainty in trying simply to pass the ball to the newest Laker player, Chandler.

Mistakes happen, but these sorts of problems will happen less to the Lakers as time goes on. This is simply the terrain this Lakers team is traveling at this early juncture of the season.

Bear in mind what James said back in September: “We’re picking up from scratch. We can’t worry about what Golden State is doing. They’re the champions. They’ve been together for a few years now. We put that to the side. We can only focus on what we can do to get better as the Lakers franchise and hopefully someday we can put ourselves in position where we can compete for a championship.”

Having a winning record so far despite the growing pains is a testament to what the Lakers have figured out about themselves. It certainly helps that James can still shoulder a massive load when he deems necessary.

Individually, though, there’s certainly room for more, too. Kuzma will tell you that he needs to get his scoring mojo back, and perhaps his 21-point outings in the recent losses was a sign of that. Ingram is dissatisfied with his efficiency given all the freedom the coaches are granting him to shoot. Ball has begun to push the envelope in a much-needed way with more aggressiveness, yet opportunities will truly open up everywhere for everyone once Ball consistently stamps that envelope. Meanwhile, Rondo’s broken hand has obviously limited his recent contributions to high-level coaching and cheerleading after Walton leaned on Rondo to choreograph most of the second unit’s offense.

But the greater goal in supporting James this season isn’t making someone else an absolute superstar overnight. The ceiling will be raised higher with a crew doing the construction work together.

And it is coming, one way or another.

It already has since the 2-5 start, to be honest.

“I wouldn’t call it a strength of ours yet, but we’ve gotten a lot better,” Walton said. “Executing, trusting each other, guys learning how to play with each other. All the things new teams go through.”

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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.

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