A team with five future Hall of Famers hasn’t dominated on the court, leaving the basketball world confused.
Math is an easy subject when you understand equations. Most problems have one answer, with the exception of quadratic equations. That foundation spills into physics and chemistry– the most complicated questions are easily solved by understanding an equation.
The same can be said for a basketball team. In the NBA, teams are composed of 15 men, all bringing different aspects of the game to the team. Each player is a variable needed to solve the equation of how to win as many games as possible. The coaching staff, specifically the head coach, is tasked with solving the equation.
In the case of the Lakers, head coach Frank Vogel is stuck trying to figure out the equation of a lifetime. He has five variables who are very likely going into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Lebron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis. He also has smaller variables with distinct characteristics like Rajon Rondo, Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore.
This Laker team, old as they may be, is read as an offensive juggernaut set to win it all. The only problem is they haven’t won a game yet.
Granted, they have only played one regular-season game against the Golden State Warriors on NBA Opening Night. Stephen Curry can single-handedly beat the superest of all super teams on any given night.
But they also didn’t win a game in the preseason, going 0-6. And while some feel that preseason doesn’t matter and it is too early to ring the alarm, there have been missing intangibles in each game this Lakers team has played that are very alarming and are not dependent on practice.
In each of the preseason games, the Lakers struggled to maintain the game when the tempo sped up. The Lakers are the oldest team in the league, with their average age being 31, including a record five players 35 years of age or older.
When the game speeds up and gets deeper into the second half, young legs typically prevail. In their preseason matchup against the Phoenix Suns and Warriors, the Lakers were always a step behind as the game progressed both defensively and offensively. In their regular-season opener, they couldn’t pull away from the Warriors– who had an abysmal shooting night in the first half. The Warriors sped the game up and whipped the ball across the court to force the Lakers to continually rotate on defense– clearly wearing their legs down.
It is important to note that not everyone on the team was having a bad day. James and Davis had fabulous games, both having 30-point double-doubles. Their role players weren’t too bad either; both Bazemoore and Malik Monk found their shot early. The defensive end proved to be one of the nails in the Lakers’ coffin.
The other, more worrisome, possible downfall is the play of Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook has been on four teams in four years, each team having an early demise despite having multiple All-Stars. The common denominator in each team’s shocking failure has been Westbrook. His play is a true conundrum, as he brings intensity, hustle and triple-doubles to the court nightly.
He also brings turnovers, lack of shooting and occasional tantrums. The lack of shooting is the biggest flaw and will hamper this Lakers team more than anything. Westbrook shot 31% from three and 65% from the free-throw line last season with the Wizards. For reference, the average point guard three-point shoots 38% from three and 80% from the free-throw line.
To be successful, Westbrook needs the ball in his hands, an open lane to drive to the basket and the tempo sped up. That’s not going to work with this team. As a unit, they are too old to try to outrun other NBA teams. More importantly, James needs and will have the ball in his hands.
That has been the case in each Laker loss James has played in since the assembly of this team, and it has caused Westbrook to look out of sorts with the team.
There is a formula for a Lebron James team to work. James needs to dominate the ball and there have to be three to four knockdown shooters surrounding him — the fourth typically being a stretch four.
Adding a big star like Westbrook throws off the formula. The worst part is that Westbrook is likely not going to start shooting 40% from three overnight. He has been in the league for 13 years, and in all of those 13 years, he never could shoot from outside. He is who he is, and that person does not work into the formula for this team’s success.
Vogel has the equation of a lifetime on his hands. While the variables to complete the formula seem to be missing, the greatest mathematicians are always able to find the hidden numbers. For the Lakers’ sake, Vogel must channel his inner Katherine Johnson and figure it out sooner rather than later.