5-on-5: The Lakers’ real problems, and how to solve them

Do the Los Angeles Lakers (4-6) need to make moves? How can LeBron James, Magic Johnson and Luke Walton right the ship? And how good is this team at its peak?

Our NBA experts answer the big questions about L.A.

1. What’s your biggest takeaway from the Lakers’ first 10 games?

Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN: We can talk about the palace intrigue, or whether a collection of vets on one-year deals could mesh with LeBron and the kids, but the truth is that for all the Lakers’ pomp and star appeal, they win and lose basketball games the same way as everyone else in the league. And the Lakers are losing basketball games right now because they play an indifferent brand of defense and get outworked badly on the glass.

Chris Herring, FiveThirtyEight: That their horrible defense — which was tied for 12th in efficiency last season but sits 23rd in the league now — is putting far too much pressure on their offense, which is still figuring out exactly how to operate with the world’s best player at the helm. That includes James himself, who hasn’t looked active enough on the defensive end of the floor. This feels way too much like last season’s Cleveland Cavaliers, struggling to keep their heads above water because of how bad they were on defense. Tyson Chandler, at this point in his career, won’t fix this.

Tim Bontemps, ESPN: Let’s cheat and go with two: They are the league’s most entertaining team, and they’re exactly what I expected them to be. They have a ton of interesting and quirky personalities, plenty of drama, a quick pace and a terrible defense — making for lots of close, high-scoring games. But they also are a team with a ton of new pieces that need time to jell with one another, so their being under .500 through 10 games isn’t a surprise. And with the way their roster was constructed, a team around 10th in offense and in the bottom 10 in defense feels spot on.

André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: The Lakers have a lot of talent, and they need to figure out how to get that talent to fit together. The way that the team was built this offseason was always interesting. The Lakers surrounded James with pure point guards who don’t shoot well, talented and long forwards who naturally play James’ position, and a role-playing big man who doesn’t stretch the floor. Despite that, when they execute well with their quick pace and knock down shots, this team has formidable — if not scary — upside against most teams in the Western Conference.

Kevin Pelton, ESPN: Not that I’m surprised, but internal expectations were too high for this season’s flawed Lakers roster. Despite James preaching patience, Johnson’s criticism of Walton behind closed doors suggests he was overlooking the flaws of the roster he and general manager Rob Pelinka put together this year, which wouldn’t likely contend in the West no matter who’s coaching.

2. Which is more true?

A. The Lakers need to make a big move.

B. The Lakers should be patient.

Snellings: B. They could have tried to build a more traditional team around James with shooters at every position, retained talented big Julius Randle and made a harder push to win now. Instead, they kept their youngsters, opened salary-cap space for next offseason and brought in veterans on one-year deals. Now, they need to develop their young players, earn a playoff spot and be primed to add an offseason star so they can contend next season.

Arnovitz: B. Making a franchise-altering move after Game 10 out of the 328 games for which LeBron James is under contract with the Lakers would be an act of impulsive desperation. The front office decided to hold onto the young core, presumably because execs believe that, in time, they can jell with James — or move them if they don’t. Unless there’s an opportunity out there for the Lakers that would give them a fighting chance in a seven-game series with the Golden State Warriors and solidify them for the future, what exactly would be the point?

Bontemps: This seems like a cop-out, but the question could be answered both ways depending on expectations. If you think the Lakers should be capable of making a deep playoff run — say, reaching the West finals — then they’d better make a big move to add talent because, as currently constituted, they’re the same borderline playoff team from the start of the season. If you think the Lakers need to see what they have in their young core, they should be patient and see how good they are, and which guys fit with James. I’ll side with the latter, since my expectations for them were lower than most.

Pelton: B. None of the Lakers’ struggles thus far are surprising. Between their young talent and their 2019 cap space, the best version of the Lakers is still to come. So they should make a move only if it helps both their long- and short-term future rather than overreacting to try to salvage 2018-19.

Herring: B. First off, I think a lot of us expected them to struggle some out of the gate. Sunday night’s dismal opening aside, they’ve been competitive against pretty good teams. Johnson himself noted that James’ teams generally start slowly to begin with, so this never figured to be any different — particularly with such young teammates. If they were going to really shake things up this early, why not just swing for the fences in the summer and truly go for it? Impatience would’ve made more sense then than it does now, in my opinion.

3. Fact or fiction: The Lakers need James to make more of an impact.

Bontemps: The same theory from the previous answer applies to this one. Is LeBron James playing as hard as he can? No. But he’s also approaching 34 and has put approximately a billion miles on his body. He isn’t going to be going all out in November. At the same time, James can’t turn this roster of non-shooters into shooters, non-defenders into defenders and can’t add the extra competent 7-footer or two the Lakers for some reason didn’t sign this summer. One thing he could, and arguably should, do is play some center — but he never was going to do that, and the Lakers knew that, too.

Arnovitz: Fact? The guy is averaging 27 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, yet James ranks only 13th in usage rate; he hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since his rookie season. It’s interesting, because this isn’t exactly the 2010-11 Heat, when he played with a bunch of ball-dominant teammates. So unless someone else on that roster can morph into a high-volume, high-efficiency, playmaking force, the Lakers will need a little more. But where they could really use more impact from James is on the defensive end. The Lakers’ new facility in El Segundo is tricked out with all kinds of cool stuff, but there’s no time machine.

Herring: Fact. The early, somewhat noisy net-rating stats — which show the Lakers have been 11.5 points better per 100 possessions when James is off the court — spell that out to a certain extent. The offense will improve, but he has to do more on the defensive side of the ball, where he tends to coast, especially in transition-defense situations. I’ve written some about his reputation for hanging back and occasionally cherry-picking, which is understandable given everything he does on O. But the Lakers play at a blistering pace, and figure to pay a bigger price than just about anyone when one or two of their players don’t get back defensively.

Pelton: They could certainly expect more from him this season. James’ assist rate is down dramatically, and while that might be by design given the Lakers’ intent to use him more as a finisher than as the creator he was in Cleveland, that hasn’t yet translated into improved efficiency. Add in his inconsistent defensive effort and James has thus far been less effective than at any point in the past decade. Naturally, better production from James would make the Lakers more formidable.

Snellings: The Lakers would likely be better in the long run if James doesn’t just take over and try to carry them as far as he can. They don’t have the talent this season to compete with the best teams in the NBA, and that was clear coming in. If James puts on his Superman cape and takes over, the team could win a few more games, but the young players would not develop as needed. For this team to ultimately compete, the young talent has to learn to carry more of the load itself.

4. Who is L.A.’s second-best player?

Pelton: JaVale McGee has been their second-best player thus far, providing badly needed rim protection and activity while finishing everything around the basket. In the long term, I still think Lonzo Ball is their second-best player, particularly given the improvement he has shown as a 3-point shooter.

Snellings: At the moment, likely McGee or Rajon Rondo. Both veterans have shown the ability to be effective in their given roles. However, the Lakers need this answer to come from their pool of young guys. Rondo’s success seems to come at the expense of Ball, who’s a different player when Rondo is not available. Kyle Kuzma has been the most effective of the youngsters offensively, able to shoot and score effectively playing off James. Brandon Ingram’s early progress was stunted by the suspension. Some part of that trio needs to pop moving forward.

Arnovitz: Ingram. He’s still developing his creativity, and many of his drives are straight-line dribble attacks. But there’s a whole lot of game there and a long, athletic frame to propel it — and the Lakers could also use it to fortify their wing defense. They also need Ingram to drill the 3-point shot at the 39 percent clip he turned in last season, and to hit them in greater volume.

Herring: In terms of performance? Can’t believe I’m saying this, but it probably has been McGee. He has been a bright spot, playing the most minutes he has in years, on both ends of the court. (That the Lakers moved to sign Chandler wasn’t an indictment of McGee as much as it was a realization that they need someone who can approximate what he does in the 20 minutes McGee takes a breather.) As the season wears on, though, I think either Ingram or Ball will become the second-best player on the team. That development would be a good one for the team long term.

Bontemps: Most answers to this question would probably include Ingram, Ball or Kuzma. Mine, though, is Josh Hart. He’s the team’s best defender (just watch him guard bigs in the post — they can’t move him), a good 3-point shooter and a perfect fit alongside James because he doesn’t need the ball in his hands. I’ll take him on my team any day.

5. How good is the best version of this team?

Herring: I imagine the Lakers will have a stretch when they reel off six or seven victories in a row, if not more. But unless the defense picks up, or the offense really starts humming even more than it already is, it’s hard to picture the Lakers winning 50 games or more this season. That would presumably leave them as a fringe playoff team, fighting for one of the final two or three seeds. The reality is: This is what this team should look like. Somewhat shooting-deficient. Defensively challenged when it loafs. Stuff will improve over time. But based on who they went out and signed, we should have expected these results to this point.

Arnovitz: 52-30. The baby Lakers managed to assemble a 12th-ranked defense last season, so it’s not outside the realm of possibility they can find a scheme that can improve their standing. If the perimeter guys can hover around 39-40 percent from the arc, the multiple playmakers on the roster run defenders in circles on a nightly basis, and James can muster an otherworldly performance that can push a game into the win column 10 or 12 times between now and April, it’s doable. But a regular dose of what we saw against Toronto on Sunday, and they’re nowhere close.

Bontemps: A first-round exit as the lower-seeded team. The Lakers aren’t as good as the Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets or Utah Jazz, at a minimum. That leaves their ceiling as the fifth seed or worse — and, in turn, has them going out in the first round. Whether they can survive the morass of teams out West fighting for one of those final spots in the playoffs is another story. One thing to note on this front: McGee has been easily better than anyone ever could’ve reasonably expected so far. And yet even with that factored in, the Lakers are under .500 and quite bad defensively. Whenever his play regresses — as many scouts eventually expect it to — watch out.

Snellings: This current team still has 55-win potential if everything meshes. The Lakers have the athletes to play fast effectively, and with Chandler joining the fold they should have a solid rim protector and rebounder on the court as much as they like to help start the break. The young guys will get better at fitting their talents around James, and he clearly still has another gear when the team needs him to lift it up. They aren’t the Warriors or the best version of the Rockets, but the Lakers could compete with everyone else out West.

Pelton: There have been moments when the Lakers looked to me like a 50-win team capable of winning a first-round series in the Western Conference. Despite their limited shooting, they put so much pressure on the rim that they can create good shot attempts in the half-court offense. The question is whether the Lakers can sustain the necessary defensive effort to reach that level, which we’ve seen only in short stretches — and exclusively with McGee on the court. We’ll see whether Chandler helps on the latter count. I’m skeptical.

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