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The Lakers Are Not Yet a Juggernaut

Tuesday’s season-opening loss to the Clippers showed that the Purple and Gold have a lot of fixes to make if they want to contend for a title

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In the early going, LeBron James bullied the smaller Patrick Beverley in the post and lofted a picture-perfect turnaround fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arm of Kawhi Leonard. Anthony Davis cooked Patrick Patterson along the baseline and freight-trained his way to the free throw line. Before the Clippers’ ears had even stopped ringing from the boos they’d received during their pregame introductions—remember: This was a Clippers home game—the Lakers had already rolled up their first double-digit lead of the 2019-20 NBA season.

That opening salvo would be about as good as things got for the Lakers on Tuesday, though. The Clippers chopped down the lead late in the first quarter, delivered a 40-point haymaker in the second to seize control of the proceedings, weathered a Danny Green 3-point firestorm in the third, and put the hammer down on both ends in the final stanza to seal a 112-102 win in the new year’s first Battle of Los Angeles. And remember, this was all done in the absence of Paul George, the other MVP-caliber two-way game-breaker the Clips imported over the summer, who’s still on the mend after offseason shoulder surgery.

Even without George, the Clippers looked fearsome: nine deep and versatile, replete with defenders, shooters, and playmakers, all led by Leonard, who seized James’s abdicated throne last postseason and showed no interest in giving it back during his 30-point, six-rebound, five-assist Los Angeles debut. On the contrary, even with both of their top guns, the Lakers looked like a work in progress—a team with title-contending potential, but also with some problems to solve.

There were stretches on Tuesday when Davis looked unguardable. He moved so quickly and decisively into advantageous positions that fouling seemed the only reasonable option for single-coverage defenders like Patterson and JaMychal Green; AD shot 12 free throws in his first regular-season half as a Laker, the same number of pre-intermission attempts as all the Clippers combined. He’d finish with 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two blocks, and a steal in 37 minutes of work—numbers that seem downright pedestrian for him, which only serves to highlight just how gifted and destructive a talent he is.

James, too, got off on the right foot. Acting as the Lakers’ point guard in the absence of the injured Rajon Rondo, he spent the night slicing his way through the Clippers defense to the front of the rim, trying to fuel a drive-and-kick game. And after much derision about his level of defensive engagement over the past few seasons, LeBron cranked it up midway through the third quarter, making a pair of effort plays—a chase-down block of a Landry Shamet layup, followed by stepping in to take a charge on a barreling Montrezl Harrell—to help energize his teammates and prime the pump for a 19-5 run that put the Lakers ahead in the final minute of the third. That’s the recipe for these Lakers: James and Davis carry the scoring and playmaking load, inspire defensive effort, and make the game easier for everyone else.

When James and Davis weren’t bossing the game, though, things got hairy. After combining for 32 points on 22 shots, eight rebounds, and six assists through two quarters, the Lakers’ All-Stars mustered just 11 points on 5-for-18 shooting in the game’s back half. Some of those struggles could be chalked up to a rough night, two superstar players missing a few shots that they’d typically make. Some of it, though, came down to context and approach.

The Clippers chose to switch the Davis-James pick-and-roll, then take advantage of the fact Lakers coach Frank Vogel was playing a traditional center (JaVale McGee to start, Dwight Howard off the bench) to clog James’s driving lanes and make him try to either finish over length and in traffic or spray the ball back out to the perimeter through a thicket of limbs. With that would-be bread-and-butter play not generating many clean looks, and with James’s jumper not falling—he went just 3-for-11 from farther than 4 feet out, according to—the Lakers instead opted to pound the ball in to Davis on the block. Davis logged 17 post-up possessions on Tuesday, nearly four times more than what he averaged last season, according to game-charting from Synergy Sports Technology cited by Justin Russo of the Settle Down Podcast.

The more the Lakers leaned on that look, the more predictable their plan of attack became. The Clippers bumped the cutters coming across the lane to set cross-screens that might spring Davis free. They ramped up ball pressure on the handler trying to make the entry pass, or had the on-ball defender sag back to try to deflect the lob pass over the top—whatever worked to disrupt the timing of both the pass and the catch. When Davis did get the ball, they showed double-teams, whether from the top side with guards like Lou Williams threatening to dig down into the post, or from the back side, sliding a helping big across the baseline as AD made his move to try to force him into traffic under the basket. (Mo Harkless, in particular, was great as a disruptive force on Davis’s catches, coming up with five deflections and four steals in a strong first game in Clippers blue.)

The Clips were able to sell out on snuffing out AD’s post-ups because, with James largely neutralized, there wasn’t much else to worry about. Kyle Kuzma, L.A.’s third-best scoring threat, remains sidelined by a stress reaction in his left foot. Rondo, who for all his warts is still a capable facilitator and initiator of offensive sets, wasn’t available, either, and Vogel opted for shooters Quinn Cook and Troy Daniels over Alex Caruso for minutes in the backcourt rotation. If not for an out-of-body experience for Green, who drilled seven 3-pointers and scored 25 of his team-high 28 points in the second half, the Lakers would’ve had no other reliable source of offense at all; a 10-point final margin might have undersold the gap between the two teams at game’s end.

Unless LeBron finds a time machine, the only Laker who can credibly defend big wings like Leonard is Davis; this is a problem, because Davis is also the only Laker who can reliably defend bigs, with Howard lacking lateral quickness and burst, and McGee always something of a trick-or-treat proposition as a back-line captain. It’s just one game, but LeBron going 4-for-8 at the rim, getting his shot blocked twice, committing some uncharacteristic turnovers, and having his jumper offline wasn’t the strongest season-opening refutation of those whispers about the potential onset of his decline.

The defensive concerns, the absence of another quality ball handler/creator, a second unit shaky enough to get outscored by the Clippers bench 60-19 … none of this is news, necessarily. The Lakers’ opening-night loss didn’t really reveal new worries so much as it brought existing ones to center stage.

The returns of Rondo and Kuzma might address some of those concerns; playing a team less capable of exploiting the Lakers’ specific weaknesses than the Kawhi-led Clippers will also probably ease the burden. By the time the playoffs roll around, none of this might matter; we could be talking about a juggernaut featuring Davis at center and LeBron at power forward with better spacing, more speed, and a stingier defense. Tuesday’s stumbles might amount to little more than a distant memory. It’s up to the Lakers to get there, though, and opening night suggests they’ve got some work to do.