NBA

State of the Lakers after 20 games: Anthony Davis’ re-emergence, LeBron’s evolution, trade talk

State of the Lakers after 20 games: Anthony Davis’ re-emergence, LeBron’s evolution, trade talk

Following a 128-109 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday, the Los Angeles Lakers are 8-12 through 20 games — a 33-win pace over an 82-game season.

The Lakers have won six of their past eight games against a much easier schedule than their less successful stretch to start the season. Now, they embark on a daunting six-game East Coast road trip that will have considerable implications for the team’s strategy on the trade market.

Now that we’ve reached the 20-game mark — roughly the quarter-point of the NBA season – let’s check in on 10 important recent storylines, including Anthony Davis’ career-best stretch, trade talk updates, Austin Reaves’ emergence, how different lineup combinations are and aren’t working, crunchtime woes and more.

Passing the torch?

Davis has played some of the best basketball of his career over the past three weeks. Davis’ per-game numbers during a five-game span that LeBron James missed with a groin injury were jaw-dropping: 33.2 points (on 59.6 percent shooting and 88.5 percent free-throw shooting), 17.4 rebounds, 2.2 steals and 2.6 blocks. He posted four consecutive 30-point, 15-rebound games. He should easily be an All-Star, make an All-NBA team and be in strong consideration for Defensive Player of the Year.

The one blemish on Davis’ recent resume is his dwindling fourth-quarter offensive involvement, which has been a talking point for much of the season. Head coach Darvin Ham and the team’s primary ballhandlers agree that they collectively need to get Davis the ball more in these situations. Davis only attempted two shots in the fourth quarter of Monday’s loss to Indiana and only touched the ball four times in the final three minutes. The Lakers cannot win that way.

They corrected course in Wednesday’s win over Portland, with Davis leading the team in fourth-quarter points (14) and shot attempts (seven).

“AD will be AD,” James said. “And we’ll figure it out around him. I’ll figure it out. I’m OK with that. And I can do that. But we got to get the ball, keep the ball in AD’s hands.”

James, at his peak, is still probably the Lakers’ best player. But Davis has been better than him all season, arguably the first time that’s been the case for an extended period of time during their three-plus year partnership. This version of Davis is good enough to lead a playoff run, something the Lakers will certainly factor in as they evaluate their roster and the trade market.

“AD’s that guy,” Reaves said. “He’s one of our best players, if not our best player, so therefore us as guards have got to figure out how to get him in better situations and better spots to get those looks.”

The King’s evolution

James hasn’t looked like himself for much of the season. That’s largely due to injuries; he’s battled left foot soreness and a left groin strain. He’s also nearly 38 and in his 20th season. Some drop-off, however minuscule, was to be expected.

James has played nearly all of his minutes at power forward or center this season, per Basketball-Reference. That’s mainly due to the Lakers’ roster makeup, but it’s also emblematic of a shift in his game as he approaches 40. James is functioning more as a finisher than a creator, if only slightly. His assists per 100 possessions (8.3) and assist percentage (30.9 percent) remain in line with last season’s marks (8.0 and 30.6 percent, respectively). He’s sharing the playmaking load more with Russell Westbrook, Reaves and now Dennis Schröder. He’s adopted more of a score-first mentality.

When asked about how his game has changed, James offered an insightful answer.

“My game has evolved in I don’t have to rely on super-duper athleticism to be able to be effective,” James said after the win over Portland. “Probably my first 12 years of my career – maybe 11, first 11-12 years, I was just super-duper athletic and I could not be as efficient and not be as dialed in on the actual game, the basketball game. I could go out and just figure things out once I jumped in the air. …

“But I’m also smart enough to know that in order for me to be the best player I needed to be, I needed to continue to grow my game. And a lot of teams and a lot of coaches helped me. Coach Pop helped me by going under pick-and-rolls constantly. Dwane Casey and his defense that he had on me when we went against Dallas in the finals in Miami helped me. Rick Carlisle, part of that as well. So a lot of those coaches helped me get better because I knew that in order for me to be the best player I can be and one of the greatest of all time, I could not have no weakness.”

Austin Reaves’ sophomore breakout

The undrafted free-agent signing has broken out this season as the Lakers’ third-best all-around player.

Reaves’ numbers don’t jump off the page — 10.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists — but he does all of the things that lead to winning. He leads the team in plus-minus (plus-35) for a second straight season. He’s efficient — until recently, Reaves was one of two NBA players shooting 50-plus percent on field goals, 40-plus percent on 3s and 90-plus percent on free throws. (He’s at 39.7 percent on 3s now).

Reaves’ confidence has been the biggest change. He can be selfless to a fault sometimes, but he’s been calling his own number more recently. That benefits Los Angeles’ offense by providing another dynamic scoring threat.

“He’s just been aggressive,” Davis said. “He’s taken another step in his progression in this game, and he’s coming out making the right plays, taking a challenge on defense. Also he’s a second-year player, he’s playing unbelievable for us. … He’s constantly asking questions to all the older guys, and he definitely wants to get better. He’s watching film, owning up to his mistakes. He’s playing really well.”

In his past nine games, Reaves is averaging 15.7 points while shooting 61.6 percent from the floor, 46.4 percent on 3s and 92.7 percent at the free-throw line. Though he’s currently playing off the bench, he should be a starting lock alongside James, Davis and Lonnie Walker IV.

Crunchtime woes

The Lakers rank 30th in crunchtime net rating, which NBA.com defines as when the score margin is within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining in the fourth quarter or overtime. They are 28th in offensive rating over that time and 29th in defensive rating.

While their offense technically ranks higher than their defense, it’s that end of the floor that has undoubtedly been a bigger concern. The Lakers’ offense malfunctions in close games. Their pace slows to a crawl. They stall and wait too long to initiate their actions. They too often devolve into a jumper-happy, isolation-centric unit that takes low-percentage shots. They rank 29th in assist percentage and 22nd in assist-to-turnover ratio. That shouldn’t be the case when closing games with two Hall of Fame ballhandlers in James and Westbrook.

Los Angeles has lost several games this season — the losses to the Clippers (the first time), Trail Blazers, Kings and Pacers, for example — due to their inability to execute late. Last season, the Lakers were 20th in crunchtime net rating, so struggles in the clutch have been a trend with the core of James, Davis and Westbrook.

The easiest to solve the issue is benching Westbrook during crunchtime, as the Lakers did down the stretch of Wednesday’s win over the Blazers. Replacing Westbrook in the lineup juices the team’s floor spacing and delineates a clearer pecking order offensively. Westbrook’s skill set isn’t conducive to a half-court setting anymore. Defenses are able to ignore him off the ball, and giving him the ball leads to some of the questionable decision-making he displayed in the Pacers loss.

If the Lakers want to keep Westbrook in the closing group, they need to focus on running an organized offense that exploits the way teams defend him.

Through 20 games, Walker has lived up to expectations — if not exceeded them — as the team’s taxpayer midlevel exception signing. He’s averaging a career-best 16.6 points per game and shooting 36.3 percent on 3s, his highest figure since 2019-20.

The biggest area of growth has been his 2-point percentage, which has risen to a career-high 55.7 percent. That’s seven percentage points better than Walker’s previous best (48.7 percent).

He’s getting to the rim this year more than all but one of his four San Antonio seasons, and he’s shooting a career-best 50 percent between 16 feet and 3-point line, becoming a legitimate midrange weapon. That number will likely stabilize in the low-to-mid 40s, but the fact that it’s this high now demonstrates the growth in Walker’s game in his fifth season.

Walker IV has functioned in a similar offensive role to the one Malik Monk occupied last season, only with much better on-ball defense.

The newcomers were worth the wait

The Lakers often referenced the absence of Schröder and Thomas Bryant during their early-season struggles. Frankly, it sounded like lip service, as neither projected to be much of a difference-maker. Schröder was essentially out of the league until the Lakers signed him late in the offseason, and while his performance for Germany in EuroBasket earned him some buzz, it’s unclear if he would’ve found an NBA home had the Lakers not signed him. Bryant looked pedestrian during the preseason, so much so that he lost his starting job to Damian Jones (who then lost it to a three-guard look with Davis at center). Bryant hasn’t regained his shot since his knee injury in Washington and is a glaring minus defensively.

But Schröder and Bryant have been pleasant surprises since they each returned from injury. Schröder has added a similar defensive presence to Beverley while providing more scoring and playmaking punch. He’s essentially replaced Nunn, with the upside for a larger role.

Bryant, meanwhile, has replaced Jones in the rotation as the third big and de facto starter when Davis is out. His energy is infectious and fits well with the second unit. If he can return to form as a shooter, he could nudge past Wenyen Gabriel in the rotation.

The top nine

The Lakers are nearing full health for the first time this season. Nearly 14 players have logged rotation minutes at some point. Six players deserve locked-in roles: James, Davis, Reaves, Walker, Troy Brown Jr. and Westbrook. Three players should be on the outside of the rotation based on their performance so far: Juan Toscano-Anderson, Nunn and Jones.

That leaves five players — Beverley, Schröder, Gabriel, Bryant and Max Christie — competing for three to four spots. Recently, Ham has been sticking with about nine players.

Beverley and Schröder have been competing for the starting point guard spot, so it’s safe to assume both will remain in the rotation. Gabriel has outplayed Bryant and should be the primary backup big. That leaves Bryant vs. Christie for the 10th spot, which will fluctuate depending on the context of a game and an opponent.

There’s a chance Ham continues to use Nunn in the 10th spot, but it’s difficult to justify playing him when the Lakers already have several small guards in their rotation who have performed better.

Which lineups are working and which aren’t?

Twenty games is usually a large enough stretch to start drawing conclusions with lineup data. The Lakers haven’t had their ideal rotation whole for most of that time, but here is some interesting lineup analysis from the first 20 games.

  • The Lakers’ best two-man combination (minimum 100 minutes) has been Reaves and Walker. Los Angeles is plus-59 in their 331 minutes. Davis-Reaves is a close second; L.A. is plus-58 in their 377 minutes.
  • The Lakers’ worst two-man combination (minimum 100 minutes) has been James and Beverley. Los Angeles is minus-33 in their 232 minutes.
  • The Lakers’ best three-man combination (minimum 100 minutes) has been Davis, Reaves and Walker. Los Angeles is plus-53 in their 223 minutes.
  • The Lakers’ worst three-man combination (minimum 100 minutes) has been James, Beverley and Walker. Los Angeles is minus-31 in their 123 minutes.
  • The Lakers have a -6.4 net rating with James, Davis and Westbrook on the floor (315 possessions), per Cleaning the Glass. They have a +1.8 net rating with James and Davis but no Westbrook (341 possessions). They have a -0.1 net rating with Davis and Westbrook but no James (452 possessions). Finally, they have a -4.3 net rating with James and Westbrook but no Davis (149 possessions).

On the road again – and for a while

Fifteen of the Lakers’ next 22 games are on the road, taking them to Jan. 9. That includes tough matchups against the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors, 76ers, Suns, Kings (twice), Mavericks, Heat, Hawks and Nuggets.

The upcoming six-game road trip, where they face the Bucks, Wizards, Cavaliers, Raptors, 76ers and Pistons, will be especially telling. How the Lakers fare will likely determine how aggressive the front office is on the trade market. A poor showing could sink their season.

That’s why losses like Monday’s against the Pacers, in which the Lakers blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead, are so costly. The Lakers don’t have many games in which they’ll be favored over the next month-plus. They needed to bank as many wins as possible during this stretch. That defeat was a missed opportunity.

Trade talks

As we reported on Thursday, the Lakers’ updated timeline on beginning to explore trade options is Dec. 15 — the first day free agents who were signed in the offseason can be traded — and they are weighing three different paths, multiple team sources told The Athletic. Those paths include potential moves involving Westbrook, Beverley and Nunn, in addition to draft picks.

(Photo of Anthony Davis: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)





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