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The Lakers are capable of beating or losing to any team in the NBA

Source: Jeff Haynes / NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers won the inaugural in-season tournament (IST, NBA Cup). Their efforts were spearheaded by Lebron James, the tournament MVP, who put up averages of 26.4 points, 8.0 rebounds and 7.6 assists while shooting 56.8% from the field. He along with Anthony Davis were named to the all tournament team. (Tyrese Haliburton, Giannis Antetokounmpo & Kevin Durant as the others). Davis had a dominant championship performance putting up 41 points, 20 rebounds, 5 assists and 4 blocks while holding the NBA’s best offense to 109 points on 106 possessions (At the time, Indiana’s 3rd least efficient performance this season). 

While the Lakers dominant run throughout the in-season tournament highlighted the strengths that make the team capable of competing with anyone, their play throughout the regular season (17-25 in non in season tournament games) highlight the areas of development that could result in the team missing the playoffs (currently 9th in the Western Conference) or exiting the postseason early. (The Lakers made it to the Western Conference Finals last season.) 

The in-season tournament reminded the basketball world that a healthy Lebron James can still be the best player on a championship team and that Anthony Davis spearheading the Lakers defense makes them capable of competing with any team.

Lebron’s improved health has directly correlated with his on court production, specifically his ability to get to the rim late in games.

(Video: Lebron 4th quarter heroics against Phoenix, Source: NBA)

(Video: James against Denver in 2023 playoffs. The eye test illustrates James' limited mobility. Source: NBA)

The eye test of James against Phoenix and Denver is supported by the data of James' frequency attacking the rim.

James’ improved health has also allowed him to be dominant in 4th quarters this season. (Table as of January 1).

Against Portland earlier this season, James James scored or assisted on 23 of the Lakers 25 4th quarter points. 

Source: LBJHistory

Health and James’ ability to play heavy minutes across an entire postseason will be something to continue to monitor. As James has now turned 39, it is more than reasonable to inquire about his body’s sustainability as the season proceeds.

Source: Andrew D. Bernstein / NBAE via Getty Images

This season, Anthony Davis has built upon the dominant defensive performances that he put up against Memphis and Golden State in last year’s playoffs. DraftKings sportsbook (as of January 3) has Anthony Davis with the third best odds (+950) to win defensive player of the year behind Chet Holgrem (+800) and Rudy Gobert (-150). 

(Video: Anthony Davis defending Paul George on January 7, Source: Twitter).  

This clip is a brief insight to the versatility Anthony Davis offers as a defender.

From November 10 to December 7, the period that encompasses the in-season tournament, the Lakers were second in defensive rating (108.4) behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder. When healthy and engaged, the Lakers, spearheaded by Anthony Davis, have shown the ability to have a championship level defense. 

While Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and the Lakers’ defensive upside are reasons for optimism, the Lakers inability to score and their mismanagement of team personnel make the teams susceptible to missing the playoffs or an early postseason exit if not addressed by April.

(2024 Lakers relative to the last 5 NBA champions)

With the 2020 Lakers as an exception, 4 of the last 5 NBA champions have demonstrated an ability to make 3 pointers at an elite level relative to the NBA. As currently constructed, the Lakers have lagged behind in that capability. More than just 3 point shooting, the Lakers are a below average team in: pull up shooting, spot up shooting, catch and shoot 3PT, and wide open 3s. A lack of consistent over the top shot making plagued the Lakers in last year’s playoffs. At this point in the season, it appears that that issue remains which certainly puts a ceiling on what the Lakers can realistically expect to accomplish. 

The Lakers made it to the 2023 Western Conference Finals deploying a lineup of Russell - Reaves - Vanderbilt - James - Davis. As of January 30, that lineup has the highest net rating of any 5 man group for the Lakers (+27), yet the group has only played 32 minutes. Despite last season’s postseason success and data to further support the success of that lineup this season, Darvin Ham has refused to play the group together.

(Video: Jarred Vanderbilt impact against the Golden State Warriors on January 27. Source: Basketball Highlights YouTube page)

If not that starting 5, the Lakers could also explore a lineup swapping Rui Hachimura for Jarred Vanderbilt. Hachimura had a phenomenal 2023 playoff run where he shot a league record 48% from the 3 point line and averaged 15.3 points per game against the Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.

(Video: Rui Hachimura dominance against Denver in 2023 playoffs. Source: NBA)

As the 5th player to complement Russell - Reaves - James - Davis, Hachimura has the best per game net rating amongst any other Laker on the roster at +6.0. 

In addition, Hachimura has developed great on court chemistry with Lebron as evidenced by his +73 rating playing with James. Despite that, Ham has been reluctant to play Hachimura significant minutes. Hachimura averages 22.8 minutes per game while Tauren Prince logs a career high 30.4 minutes per game and has a -97 net rating playing alongside Lebron. This season Hachimura has scored 382 points in 775 minutes versus Tauren Prince who has scored 431 points in 1,368 minutes.

While Reaves, Russell, Vanderbilt, and Hachimura have all been benched at different points during the season, Prince has started every single game. (The Lakers are also 7-0 this season when Tauren Prince logs less than 25 minutes.) Against GSW on January 27, he was a -22 in 24 minutes and scored 0 points (LAL scored 145 points that game). The very next game against Houston, Darvin Ham drew up the first play for Prince which resulted in a missed wide open three. That type of investment is typically reserved for star players, yet Prince has been the recipient of at the detriment of the rest of the team. 

The same can be said for Cam Reddish to an extent. While Reddish put together a nice 4 game stretch in November where he averaged ~15 points per game & played strong defense, he has been a handicap to LA’s offense shooting 40.5% from the floor and 33.7% from three. Those numbers would not warrant starting on 25+ teams, yet for the Lakers, Coach Ham has been sure to give Reddish 26 starts this year. (Vanderbilt has started 5 games, Hachimura 7). Neither Tauren Prince or Cam Reddish are the only reason why LAL has struggled. The Lakers have issues that extend beyond those players, most notably, their inability to consistently generate offense. Having said that, one has to look at the coach and the way in which he empowers these journeymen players while tearing down the confidence of key players in LAL’s 2023 WCF playoff run who have already proven themselves as effective postseason performers. 

Darvin Ham’s questionable rotation decisions are not unique to just this season. Ham chose to start a small 3 guard lineup of Reaves - Russell - Schroder to start the Denver series as opposed to Vanderbilt or Hachimura. Throughout his tenure with the Lakers, Ham has shown an unwillingness to adjust and look past his personal favorites on the roster. 

It is for that reason that regardless of if the Lakers trades for Dejounte Murray or acquires a formidable backup center to compete down low with Nikola Jokic, the Lakers will be destined for failure with Ham’s inability to empower his personnel and put the right players in positions to succeed.

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