The Baby Lakers spread their… puddles?
With a target on his back, Lonzo Ball is quietly leading the Lakers to respectability. After the entire team stunk up the court against the Clippers, the young Lakers are starting to play the same exciting basketball they did at the start of last season, making mistakes and falling behind, but then fighting the entire game to come back and take the lead.
Win at Phoenix 132–130
The Suns are terrible, so it’s easy to discount Lonzo’s 29–11–9 stat line. But if you look at his decision making, that’s what counts. He passes to the right guy and takes the right shot on almost every play. If he ever becomes a consistent shooter, he’ll be an all-star level player.
Loss vs New Orleans 119–112
Lonzo took a lot of heat in this game because of horrendous +/- rating. But basketball is a team game and that stat can be really misleading. If you play with weaker players against the opponent’s stars, you get a horrible line, regardless of how well you play. In this game, Ball shot miserably, but had a line of 8–8–13. The problem was he was on the court most of the time Davis and Cousins were on the court together, and they destroyed the Laker bigs for almost all of the game.
What was awesome about this game was the K-RICH (Kuzma, Randle, Ingram, Clarkson, Hart) small ball line up. With Kuzma and Clarkson on fire, and tenacious defense by Randle, Ingram and Hart, this group which averages 22.2 years, outscored the Pelicans 27–4. They turned a 21-point deficit into a 2-point lead. What was especially impressive was that a good chunk of this run came when Davis and Cousins were both on the floor. Randle showed that he can stop anyone from Kentucky (more about that later), frustrating Cousins into a number of costly turnovers, while Kuzma was able to hold up against Davis.
The Lakers lost the game at the end because of a number of defensive lapses by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who kept going for steals instead of staying in front of his man, a couple of dumb rookie mistakes by Ball (missed defensive assignment allowing easy layup with the Lakers up 110–106, and an ill-advised drive blocked by Davis with the Lakers up 110–108), and the fact that New Orleans was 2 for 3 from beyond the arc, while the Lakers went 0 for 4 over the last five minutes.
The Lakers are trying to figure out who can be their go-to guy at the end of games, so this will be an ongoing process. Ingram is trying to be that guy, at the request of Magic, and sometimes he forces the play. He was over trying in the first quarter and was horrible (1 for 6, no defense), but he played within his game during the big run with the K-RICH unit, he stopped trying to be an alpha-dog and played good team ball by feeding the guys who were hot and playing great defense.
Game Highlight: During the second half, Ball got a rebound and threw a quick outlet pass to Ingram on the right side of the court just past half court. Without hestitation, Ingram threw a no-look bullet to Kuzma in the corner who hit a 3-pointer. For one play, the baby Lakers looked like the next Golden State Warriors.
Win vs Washington 119–112 (OT)
Billed as the game where John Wall would torture Ball for 48 minutes, this was a fantastic win for the Lakers. They played the Wizards close for most of the game, got down by ten and then fought back to tie the game at the end. I’m not saying the Lakers are the better team — Wall and Beal are all-stars and have too much of an edge against the Lakers, regardless of the weakness of the Wizards bench (Lakers bench outscored Washington by 15 points). It also helped for the Wizards to miss a few free throws that might have clinched the game and for Gortat to miss a dunk in the fourth quarter. On the other hand, the Lakers lost two baskets on layups due to sloppy offensive interference by the young guys.
Lonzo set the tone of the game on defense. Yes, you read that correctly. He stopped Wall in transition, stripping the ball for a turnover, blocked a layup by Oubre, grabbed three defensive rebounds and got one assist to help the Lakers take a 6–0 lead in the first four minutes of the game. After picking up two fouls in the first seven minutes, he went to the bench for the next 8:10, with the Lakers trailing 32–29.
Overall, Wall shot only 2 for 7 when he was guarded by Ball, who spent most of his time guarding the less dangerous Oubre and Porter who stood in the corners to shoot threes. When the Lakers play against better coaches, they can fully expect teams to run whoever Ball is guarding to set a high screen and force Lonzo to guard an elite point guard.
What was awesome about this game was the BRICK (Ball, Randle, Ingram, Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma) unit that is even younger (21.4 years) than the K-RICH group. They shot quite a bit like their acronym, but they did three things that you normally expect of a veteran team:
- They played excellent team defense, led by Julius Randle’s transformation into Draymond Green. Randle apparently loves to play guys from his old college. Isolated against Wall, Randle defended brilliantly, blocking his shot three times, including the game saving turnover with 15 seconds to go in overtime. In addition, Randle had 8 defensive rebounds, 1 assist, and hit a huge 3-pointer that pulled the Lakers within 1 at 91–90 with 20 seconds left in regulation. (I think this might be the greatest game of Randle’s career. He’s had far better stat lines, but they are usually weighted heavily on the offensive side of the ball. For Randle to make the jump to All-Star level, he needs to play this kind of defense all the time.)
- The may have found a go-to guy on offense. Brandon Ingram played within himself while playing with the BRICK unit. When he recognized a situation where there was no help defense, he effectively took his defender to the free throw line or to the basket. During the fourth quarter, he hit two key jumpers, a pull up floater, a layup and a tip-in off his missed drive to score 11 points on 5 for 7 shooting, with only one shot further than 18 feet. He also played good defense with a block on Gortat, a steal, and six rebounds. This kind of decision making will be crucial to Ingram taking the next step.
- They kept moving the ball, and hitting the open man. In the overtime, they had six wide open looks from beyond the arc, making two, and three shots in the paint (two baskets, one offensive goaltending). Just look at this beautiful shot chart. It looks like Houston or Golden State:
Game Highlight: Ingram has really worked on developing the Euro Step. He finished at the rim two or three times this way during the game, including a nice And-1 driving around and over Gortat. But the play of the game was his Euro Step missed shot-offensive tip-in that tied the game with one second left in regulation. It looked almost like he missed the ball against the backboard on purpose so he could be in position for the tip. We’ve seen Kobe and Lebron use this move when the situation requires it. I hope Ingram made a similar decision, instead of it being an out of control prayer that ended up working out.
The upgrades in this year’s team are notable.
Ball in place of Russell: While D’Angelo Russell is a talented offensive player, his value to the team basically disappeared if his shot was off. He was a horrible, often lazy defender who tried to go for steals to offset his liabilities. As a passer, he tried to make flashy passes, and he piled up turnovers. Last season, as a Laker, he improved to 4.8 assists with 2.8 turnovers for a career high 1.71 AST/TO ratio.
Compare that to Lonzo Ball, who makes such simple passes a lot of fans think he has no ability. While boring casual fans, he is tied for 4th in the NBA with Lebron, averaging 9 assists per game. After last night’s insane 10 AST-1 TO game, his AST/TO ratio is 3.0 (better than Westbrook, Wall, Harden, James, Curry, Durant, and Antetokounmpo). What I like about him is that he makes the right decision almost every time on offense, with his steals and blocks coming within the context of playing good team defense.
Lopez over Mozgov: While Lopez is not a good defender, his 3-point shooting may be helpful to a team trying to emulate the Warriors. Also, his contract expires this year, so it was a huge gain to get rid of the Mozgov contract. Even if Lopez is not with the team next year, this was a fantastic trade because of
Kyle Kuzma!!! A lot of NBA cognoscenti are already sold on this young guy. Even without his amazing 3-point shooting in Summer League and Preseason, this guy is basically the 21-st century Karl Malone to Lonzo’s John Stockton. Not only can he defend 1–4, he can create his own shot, finish at the basket, AND make great interior passes. Lonzo could become the Wayne Gretzky of the NBA, given how many hockey assists he gets because Kuzma is willing to make the extra pass.
KCP over Lou Williams: As much as I loved Lou Will’s offense, if he missed shots, his defensive liabilities killed the Lakers. KCP can get hot, but he can help the team when he’s not.
Josh Hart over Marcelo Huertas and Jose Calderon: This rookie can play defense, and is an excellent rebounder. Putting him in the game can actually help the team, unlike last year, when these reserve guards proved that no lead couldn’t be turned into a deficit and no deficit couldn’t be turned into a black hole.
The new and improved Ingram, Randle and Nance: All three guys are playing better than last year. Nance has shown that he can hang with elite starting big men. When he was in the game, he either kept up or outplayed Blake Griffin, hung in there against Davis, and completely dominated Porter and Oubre on the offensive glass in the Washington game.
Ingram and Randle have shown signs of making the next big step forward, as I described above.
I love the idea of playing line-ups like the K-RUSH, BRICK, and the yet unseen combinations of B-NICK (Ball, Nance, Ingram, Clarkson, Kuzma) and B-HINK (Ball, Hart, Ingram, Nance, Kuzma), basically the rookies who played so unselfishly together during summer league anchored by a combination of the more experienced Randle/Nance and Clarkson/KCP.
The baby Lakers are now 2–2, with a game Friday at home against Toronto, a team primarily known for strong iso play by their guards, and Demar Derozan’s high volume low efficiency scoring. Kyle Lowry killed the Lakers last year, so it will be interesting to see if the new guards (KCP, Ball, Hart) can slow him down.
Regardless of their record this year, watching this young team has been exciting. Their hustle and fight are remniscent of last year’s first twenty games, when they went 10–10 and had a number of wins over playoff level teams.
Let’s hope they can maintain this early momentum until the All-Star break.