BY: COLIN KRAUSS
On January 19th, the Lakers were dealt yet another heartbreaking loss to the Houston Rockets. To add injury to insult, the Lakers lost Lonzo Ball to a Grade 3 ankle sprain that will see him off the court for 4-6 weeks, and most likely closer to the 6 weeks side of the timeline given how conservative the Lakers have been with injuries. For a team already missing two lead ball handlers, LeBron James and Rajon Rondo, this is devastating.
Lonzo was the last remaining natural point guard for the Lakers. Now, the offense will be delegated to Point Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma for the most part. Knowing Luke Walton, he will play a lot of minutes with Lance Stephenson as the engine of the offense as well since he is one of few veterans left. The team has looked ugly at many points this year when such offenses have played without a normal point guard.
The Lakers are out of the playoffs for the moment. Although they are just a half game behind the Clippers in eighth, each team in the playoffs has the tools to outpace the Lakers anyway. LeBron might also still be two weeks away from a return. The Lakers may only be able to manage 2 or 3 wins out of the next 9 heading into the All-Star break. The Suns and Timberwolves are the weakest teams of their upcoming stretch. The other teams are the Sixers, Clippers, Warriors, Pacers, Celtics, Hawks, and Philly again. The playoff teams in the Lakers vicinity can easily remain over .500 until the All-Star break. Expecting that from this LA roster would be too much to ask.
When LeBron comes back, assuming that’s at least a week away and they’ll wait until he’s 100% healthy, he’s going to need to play at his maximum effort to ensure they make the playoffs. Even when LeBron is back, this is still a below-average roster at best without Lonzo.
Without Lonzo or LeBron, the Lakers are pretty safely a non-playoff caliber team. We noticed two major things from the loss to the Houston Rockets. One was that Lonzo running things means the Lakers will have a quality offense. In the first half and for three minutes in the second half, before Lonzo went down, the Lakers were good, really good. Ball contributed 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 11 assists in just 22 minutes and obviously is the reason the Lakers produce. They were dissecting the Rockets defense and not allowing the Houston offense to function normally. They stayed heavily on Harden’s left hand, forcing him to drive right and pass to shooters. The Lakers were up 15 at the time Lonzo went down. Lonzo has an underrated combination of skills. He’s an exceptional athlete when he turns on the jets. He’s obviously a gifted passer, and he’s also an okay shooter although the world wants you to think it’s not a threat. But without him, things went downhill.
The other pretty obvious trend was that Ingram, unlike Lonzo, can not single handedly run an offense successfully alone. He was trying really hard to penetrate and kick or score throughout regulation, but nothing he tried was working. He ended the first 48 minutes with 10 points, 6 turnovers, 5 fouls, and just 3 assists. Ingram was supposed to be a good choice as an offensive hub, which he cemented during last season when he morphed into Point Ingram. That was far from the case against the Rockets. If it wasn’t for a spectacular overtime, this game would have been a complete no-show from Ingram. And even though he did show up in the clutch, it was on really tough looks that probably can’t always be relied on. His jumper also looks unserviceable right now from three.
Some other players will need to step up for the next few weeks. Among the most important players that need to accept some of the burden is Ivica Zubac, Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Michael Beasley.
Zubac has been a nice surprise for Los Angeles. He has played well in the past 15 games, where he saw an uptick in minutes. He’s averaging about 11, 6, and 1 in 19 minutes per game in that stretch. He’s got great touch inside, he can overpower non-centers very well, and he is inexplicably the Lakers best free throw threat (87%). Zubac is a good option to mix it up against teams. He is solid at going straight up and extending for blocks. He can rebound and score effectively, as well.
Hart has been struggling since a hot start to the year. Since December 1st, Hart is only getting 9 points a game on 37.5% shooting from the field. Hart was looking like a good 3 and D prospect, but this long struggle is really hard to overlook. He still brings immense effort to both sides of the ball, and his aggressiveness attacking the rim is something every team needs. With the roster in a crisis, Hart needs to bring it these next couple weeks before the All-Star break. His shot is something the Lakers desperately need, and his defensive energy makes the Lakers a tough team to out-energy.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is in the same boat as Hart. As a young shooting guard with a nice shot and defensive intensity, KCP is exactly what the Lakers need most as well. His shot selection isn’t perfect, exhibited by the ridiculous airballed three with 20 seconds left on the shot clock at the end of overtime against the Rockets. KCP needs to take smart shots and make them while giving LA everything he can on defense.
Michael Beasley has not gotten to play as much as Luke Walton and Magic Johnson had hoped he would so far this season. The theory behind his signing was a low-minute self-starter on offense. He does have the skill set to get buckets on a bench unit. He has been playing with Lance, Tyson Chandler, and other bench guys like Svi and Zubac. In these cases, Beasley is a great choice for some timely points. However, he wasn’t signed to play big minutes. The Lakes could get some tight victories if Beasley can give 20 efficient minutes during the offensive drought sure to come. The Lakers might have a better chance of making it out of the regular season still alive.
Lonzo’s injury puts the Lakers in a difficult spot, and only adds to what were the Lakers’ biggest weaknesses. The next two weeks will most likely decide the season. If they go 0-9, 1-8, 2-7, or 3-6 heading to the All-Star break, the playoffs will be incredibly hard to make. Even if LeBron is going to return during those 10 games, no wins are guaranteed, and the playoffs will be an uphill battle.