Russell Westbrook is getting most of the heat, but the Lakers’ problem is its roster.
As Lakers guard Russell Westbrook went up for a 3-pointer against the Clippers, his home crowd groaned before the ball even left his hand. The shot clanked off the rim, justifying the fans’ apprehension.
Westbrook missed all six of his 3-pointers in the game on Thursday. It was a microcosm of the two biggest issues facing the Lakers this season: Westbrook and shooting. Again and again on Thursday night, the Lakers faithful remained subdued as the team kept shooting. And missing. And shooting. And missing some more. There were enough bricks that the Lakers could offer themselves up as an infrastructure project.
Through the first two games of the season, the Lakers have shot an almost unfathomable 19 for 85 from 3-point range (22.4 percent). That was the biggest factor in a blowout loss to Golden State in the season opener on Tuesday and in a 103-97 loss to the Clippers on Thursday night.
In a league where deep shots have evolved from being quirky additions to being the driving force of contemporary scoring, the Lakers constructed their roster without enough players equipped to maximize that style of play. This summer, the Lakers let more formidable shooters like Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk walk, and instead opted to bring in the athletic guard Lonnie Walker IV and Dennis Schröder, neither of whom is known for perimeter prowess.
“We’re getting great looks, but it could also be teams giving us great looks,” James said. “To be completely honest, we’re not a team that’s constructed of great shooting. That’s just the truth of the matter. It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.”
And yet the Lakers have launched a bevy of 3s. The penetration skills of Anthony Davis and James have generated open looks outside for other Lakers, but both Golden State and the Clippers also continuously dared the Lakers to shoot.
“They want to give us those shots?” Lakers Coach Darvin Ham said Thursday. “We will accept it wholeheartedly. That’s the way we want to play. We want to play fast, physical and free.”
He added: “We see these guys making shots in practice and shootaround. They’ve got to do it on game floor. It’s as simple as that.”
The Lakers climbed back from multiple deficits on Thursday to keep the game close down the stretch. But they weren’t able to sustain their periods of strong play. After the game, James was asked about his “laser” comments.
“I love the way we’re playing basketball right now,” James said. “We’re really sharing the ball offensively. We’re moving bodies. And I think we will begin to knock down shots.”
James does have good reason for optimism, but it has to do with the other side of the ball. In the loss to Golden State, the Lakers had a defensive rating of 107.0, which would have been good for fourth in the N.B.A. last season, a fact that guard Patrick Beverley pointed out after the Thursday morning shootaround. The Lakers were even better on Thursday with a rating of 100.0 . When the Lakers fell into deficits against the Clippers, they turned up the defensive intensity and forced several turnovers to get out in transition to get back in the game.
“I’m definitely not going to sit here and harp on what we can’t do every single game,” James said. “That’s not leadership. What I know we can do: We can defend our ass off.”
The Clippers turned the ball over 22 times Thursday, contributing to some of the Lakers’ 15 fast-break points. This is where Westbrook’s skills can be useful to the Lakers. He had five steals Thursday, and as he is known to do, immediately focused on pushing the ball down the floor off those forced turnovers.
But Westbrook remains a lightning rod for criticism, at times unfairly. He missed all 11 of his shots against the Clippers, much to the chagrin of the crowd. But through another lens, Westbrook played the exact type of game that the Lakers need from him.
“We’ve all had bad shooting nights,” James said. “I’ve had bad shooting nights. Everybody in this league has had bad shooting nights. Who cares? I thought he played a great game. Defensively, he was in tune. He was locked in. He pushed the tempo. He just didn’t make any shots. That’s OK.”
A key criticism of Westbrook last season was his penchant for turnovers and for playing out of control. He had only one turnover on Thursday while quarterbacking the offense. Westbrook has also been bashed for his shot selection. He has, so far, focused on taking fewer shots of higher quality. Almost all of his 11 shots on Thursday were strong looks.
Westbrook is not the issue for the Lakers; that would be roster construction. But if the 33-year-old Westbrook cannot be at least a passable shooter, defenders won’t have to pay him much attention, leaving James and Davis with less room to operate. And if the Lakers want someone other than Westbrook to be their starting point guard, there aren’t many better options on the bench. (And Westbrook has grumbled about coming off the bench.)
The Lakers and Westbrook are, for now, stuck with each other. However, Westbrook’s frenetic energy could be a boost for a team suddenly reliant on fast-break points to counter its bad shooting
The Lakers are a work in progress, and while the team lacks shooters, the 3-point shooting percentage will almost surely increase from the low 20s. That improvement, combined with their defensive effort, left Ham upbeat despite the difficult start to the season.
“The way we stepped out there and scrapped, even when we did get down, to be able to get back in the game, make it a game, that’s the definition of identity building,” Ham said.
He added: “I’ll sleep well. I won’t be angry or depressed. And we still have 80 games left, but we’re trending in the right direction.”