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Sports Strength

Don’t Panic, Lakers Twitter: the Lakers Are the NBA’s Most Interesting Puzzle

No matter what agenda you want to push, the Los Angeles Lakers are here to help.  Through the first seven games of the season, the Lakers have unsurprisingly offered fertile soil for the NBA Twitter Hot Take Industrial Complex to harvest—depending on who you ask, Russell Westbrook is an elite point guard or the dreaded Westbrick; Carmelo Anthony is either barbecuing chicken or is barbecue chicken himself; the narratives around Lebron James form such an unparseably dense palimpsest that it’s not even worth engaging with them. But amidst all the daily frenzy, the Lakers remain one of the best teams in the league—this is the NBA’s most interesting puzzle, a mish-mash of players that turn line-up construction into an exercise of faith.

More than just about any other team, the Lakers have a rupture between who they are and what they can be. Although the team boasts a winning record at 4-3, they’ve largely been lurching and wooden, unable to muster the focus or synergy to play cogently and cohesively for more than a few minutes at a time; their 107.7 points per 100 possessions is barely a smidge above league-average. And this is totally fine—it’s barely November. But within the scrum of wayward pull-up jumpers and too-long isolations, flashes of future goodness are visible in moments—kick-out passes that land in shooting pockets, cuts that unravel defensive shells. 

When the Lakers’ offense is humming, it presents a path forward for what a post-postmodern NBA offense can look like. Whereas most current NBA offenses focus on spreading the floor, the Lakers primary concern is compacting the opposing defense. At times, they’re a study in how to create spacing without the benefit of great shooters, occupying weak-side defenders with clever cuts and the threat that’s posed by genius passing.

Built around Lebron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ attack can be sketched in stark, brutal vectors. Every possession is informed by a sense of momentum, informed by the Big Three’s combined defense-warping gravitational force. Even if the awesomely frightening parade of dunks and layups hasn’t quite come to fruition, the Lakers are able to parlay their potential rim pressure to create open three-pointers; according to NBA.com’s tracking data, only 8.2 percent of the Lakers’ three-pointers are taken with a defender within four feet of the shooter. 

The problem, though, is finding lineups that can supply that point-scoring goodness while maintaining enough defensive integrity. Carmelo Anthony has become a load-bearing presence in their offense as he’s eased into a regular season version of the mythical Olympic Melo, but he’s possibly the leakiest defender in their rotation and requires stauncher teammates to cover for him; Malik Monk offers a much-needed jolt athleticism and shooting in theory, but not much of either of them in practice. Anthony Davis is possibly the best center in the NBA, yet insists on playing as a power forward alongside Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan—which, in turn, makes it difficult to find a natural spot for Russell Westbrook. 

As such, the challenge for Frank Vogel is to assemble lineups that accentuate his players’ strengths while masking their obvious weaknesses; the roster is stocked with gifted players, albeit ones who largely require the right context for their gifts to fully come into focus. The Lakers have an array of shooters who can’t defend, defenders who can’t shoot, big men who can’t play together, and a Rajon Rondo who straight-up can’t play. For Vogel, building a workable five-man unit is a task somewhere between playtime with Mr. Potato Head and an LSAT logic game—here’s an adaptable, customizable set-up with a raft of distinct and productive parts, but one that’s also riddled with prerequisites and limitations. 

Certainly, there’s no rush (yet) for Vogel to solve the Gordian Knot that is his roster. The Lakers have such iridescent, undeniable talent that they could probably secure home-court advantage in the playoffs if they were coached by a semi-trained seal; the Lakers have a winning record even while James, Davis and Westbrook have gotten off to uncharacteristically slow and irritable starts to the season. Still, for the Lakers to achieve the kind of postseason success that this roster is capable of achieving, they need to solidify an identity and scheme.

It’s a mystery whether the Lakers will unleash inverted pick-and-rolls with Westbrook screening for James or if Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker will be the remedy for the Lakers’ shallow wing depth once they get healthy or if Davis can rediscover his bubble sharp-shooting. But, in a regular season that sometimes feels like a lifeless prelude to the postseason, the Lakers’ fledgling attempts at self-discover will, at the very least, be a joy to watch. 

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Sports Strength

NBA Highlights From October 26th-31st

Are you not entertained? After witnessing a great opening week to the 2021-’22 NBA regular season, the league’s second week in action managed to raise the stakes even more. At one point, we had three undefeated teams. The defending champs dropped below .500. New York City, by way of midtown Manhattan, is witnessing high-level basketball again. And Jimmy Butler is getting early hype as league MVP! So down below are my four biggest takeaways from it!

How about those Knicks?

Listen, we know most teams, including the NY Knicks, are only six or so games into their new season but can we acknowledge how great they looked? After having a surprising home loss against the Orlando Magic to conclude their opening week, the current No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference went 3-0 between last Tuesday-Sunday, with every win being a statement win.

Although Julius Randle has struggled to maintain his All-NBA form from last year, the Knicks have been buoyed by contributions from their lesser stars. Despite murmurs that the Knicks overpaid for him in free agency, Evan Fournier has emerged as a fearless wing scorer with his combination of on-ball chutzpah and off-ball craftiness. Even more promising, RJ Barrett has solidified the gains he made as a shooter last year while also emerging as an elite defender.

Lastly, Kemba Walker and Derrick Rose are providing the Knicks with the most stability, they have had in their backcourt in two decades.

Carmelo is making a run for Sixth Man of the Year

While NBA fans have debated whether the Los Angeles Lakers can overcome their roster’s oldness and awkward construction, one undeniable truth has emerged: Carmelo Anthony still is a bucket. In his first season as a Laker, the future Hall of Famer is averaging 16 PPG and has made himself an early, viable candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. Moreover, Anthony has scored with remarkable efficiency, shooting 50 percent from the field and 52% from long range.

Whether it’s as a shooter, scorer, or simply another body on the floor, Anthony’s presence has created the spacing and dynamism the Lakers’ offense often lacked last season.

Jimmy Butler for MVP?

If any player was looking to bounce back from a lackluster season, it was Jimmy Butler. After leading the Heat to the NBA Finals one year ago, Butler and Co. came back to Earth with an inconsistent regular season performance (Their 40-32 record landed them the sixth seed) before getting swept in the first round. But now? It’s Butler’s time for payback.

As his Heat stands at 5-1 after winning four consecutive games, including a pair of impressive wins over the Nets and Hornets, Butler is arguably playing the best basketball of his career. The Marquette product is currently averaging career-highs in points (25), rebounds (7.0), and steals per game (2.8), and field-goal percentage (52.9%) while also having the league’s third-highest player efficiency rating (30.69).

And who are the two players in front of Butler? The last-two MVP winners, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The Wizards may have figured something out!

Amid the action during the NBA’s first two weeks, the Washington Wizards and their 5-1 record have flown under the radar. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that the Wizards will be able to sustain this pace, they deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished so far.

Bradley Beal has upped the ante as a complete player, bouncing back from a slow start to average 31 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game over his last two games. In addition, the Wizards’ trio of summer additions in Spencer Dinwiddle, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell have played the kind of basketball that provides a second wind in most players’ careers.

If you’re wondering who the Wizards have beaten this season, say hello to the Celtics (twice), Hawks, and Raptors, with two of those wins being on the road.