NBA

It's not time to panic over the Los Angeles Lakers' 0-3 start, but there is reason for concern

Jay Asser 17:34 23/10/2018
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Three games into the LeBron James era in Los Angeles, the Lakers already feel exhausting.

The moment James announced his decision to don the purple and gold, it was inevitable a circus would follow, but the first three games have already packed a month’s worth of storylines.

First it was the season opener. Then came LeBron’s home debut, which turned into a footnote by the end as the melee between Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo and Brandon Ingram took centre stage.

The spotlight remained in game three thanks to a roller-coaster last-second loss to the San Antonio Spurs that saw LeBron hit a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation before missing two critical free throws in the final seconds of overtime.

This is the best player in the world on one of the most popular franchises in team sports. Of course everything that happens – good or bad – will be under the microscope. Perhaps no team’s stock is going to rise and fall with every result this season like the Lakers’ will.

And at 0-3, that stock is the lowest it’s been yet.

It’s still incredibly early, but the all-important question is already arising: will the Lakers even make the playoffs? That seems like a ridiculous question to ask of a LeBron-led team, but the query had some validity coming into the season, in part due to how loaded the Western Conference is.

But really, it was worth floating for the simple reason that this Lakers team isn’t very good. Outside of James, the roster is flawed in a number of ways, and those deficiencies have reared their ugly head very quickly this season.

Three games is hardly much of a sample size and the previous two occasions when LeBron switched teams, his squads struggled in the early going as well – the 2010-11 Miami Heat started 9-8, while the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers began 19-20.

However, those teams had better supporting pieces around James and in the NBA, talent almost always wins out in the end.

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These Lakers don’t have that luxury. You wouldn’t say they’ve been built to be greater than the sum of their parts because LeBron is the greatest singular part you can ask for, but there was a sense of getting the combination right when this team was oddly constructed.

It’s not as if there haven’t been positives for the Lakers to hang their hat on. Their transition attack has been absolutely deadly – their 32.3 fast-break points per game lead the league by a whopping margin, with the New Orleans Pelicans second at 23.5. Lonzo Ball is shooting 42.1 per cent from 3 on 6.3 attempts per game. Josh Hart looks like a perfect role player next to James. Kyle Kuzma deserves more minutes at power forward after exploding against the Spurs.

But none of that has mitigated the Lakers’ weaknesses, namely their lack of depth at centre and their train-wreck defence.

This team is heavily relying on JaVale McGee, which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. There’s a reason why he didn’t average more than 11.5 minutes the past four seasons.

Yet McGee hasn’t even been the issue so far – it’s the fact that the Lakers have little behind him to soak up valuable minutes. Rookie Johnathan Williams was a pleasant surprise against San Antonio, but expecting the undrafted big man to be a reliable rotation player after one game is foolish.

As far as the defence, there’s been little of it so far. Opposing teams are getting whatever shot they want, whenever they want. And not only are they getting it, but it’s often been a clean look, with the Lakers allowing the fourth-most open shots (closest defender within four to six feet) in the league at 27.0 and the second-most wide open shots (closest defender beyond six feet) at 26.3.

The Lakers will improve, but their margin for error is slim. It would be a different story if they were in the East, where reaching the playoffs is hardly much of an accomplishment. The West is unforgiving – three games separated the third seed and the ninth-placed team last season.

This is LeBron though and even at 33, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. No one in the league is more aware of the marathon nature of the season, and taking the long view is what he’s always going to do.

“I didn’t come here thinking we were going to be blazing storms right out of the gate,” James said after the loss to the Spurs. “It’s a process and I understand that.”

He added: “We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in. Obviously, it’s not resulting in the wins right now but it’s such a long process.”

This specific process with this specific team, however, may be one even James is unfamiliar with.

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