Los Angeles Lakers: Are the Lakers in trouble in the bubble?

(Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images) - Los Angeles Lakers
(Photo by Kim Klement - Pool/Getty Images) - Los Angeles Lakers /
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(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) – Los Angeles Lakers
(Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images) – Los Angeles Lakers /

Frank Vogel is using this time to figure out playoff rotations

I know this may seem like an excuse to some readers, but think about it for a second.

Which two teams have nothing to play for until the playoffs? The first-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who could both lose out and still be guaranteed top seeding in their respective conferences.

The latter’s playoff rotation is locked and loaded, so their poor bubble record (2-3) can be attributed to a combination of resting guys and coasting. However, the Lakers are in a unique position where their rotation is far from set, even on the verge of the playoffs.

With the losses of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, plus the additions of Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith, Frank Vogel has been experimenting with his lineups and their minutes, to figure out his favorite combinations for the postseason.

In the last two games, the following four players received extended minutes, relative to their usual allotment:

  • Quinn Cook
  • Markieff Morris
  • Talen Horton-Tucker
  • Jared Dudley

Let’s not get it twisted, the only reason Dudley is getting minutes is to give rotation players a rest before games start to matter. However, with the other three, Vogel is almost certainly giving them extra court-time to figure out whether they can be trusted in big games.

Despite the lack of wins, there have been some encouraging early returns.

Talen Horton-Tucker is only 19 years of age, yet was close to our best player against the Rockets and was solid against the Pacers. The oft-maligned Quinn Cook hit 5 threes and scored 21 points in our last game. To counteract the small ball of the Rockets, Vogel even experimented with Markieff Morris at the 5.

Between injuries and rotations changing every game, the Lakers have lacked stability in the bubble. However, that is a luxury they can currently afford and is not something that’ll necessarily be the case come playoff time.

The more combinations that Vogel can experiment with in dead-rubber matches, the better his chances are of finding a rotation he’s comfortable with.

Small sample size

Here’s an analogy: if your favorite restaurant messed up your order for the first time after years of impeccable service and nothing had changed about the place (same chef, same owners, and same waiters), would you think the restaurant was terrible? Or would you chalk it up to a bad day? You’d almost certainly treat it as an anomaly and continue to hold the restaurant in high esteem.

Sports fans, myself included, have incredibly short memories. When it comes to our favorite teams, we’re always asking “what have you done for me lately?”.

Let’s not forget, for 63 games, this team was head and shoulders above every other team in the NBA barring the Milwaukee Bucks. They were #2 in net rating at +7.1,  #1 in FG% at 48.5%, and #3 in defensive rating.

While it would be disingenuous to dismiss the bubble as “not mattering”, we have to remember that we’re comparing a 6 game sample after a 4-month layoff vs. a 63 game sample. The very nature of the bubble is prone to statistical noise. We all know that T.J. Warren is not the league MVP, or that the Phoenix Suns aren’t the best team in the NBA. So, why is everyone so quick to crucify the Lakers for a mediocre 6-game stretch?

In case we forget, the Los Angeles Lakers have been a top 2-3 team in the 2019-20 season. Unless the aliens from Space Jam emerge to steal the talent from LeBron James and Anthony Davis, this likely hasn’t changed since the layoff.

The Los Angeles Lakers’ defense is still fantastic

Believe it or not, the Los Angeles Lakers have not dropped off at all on the defensive end. Their defensive rating (105.0) is third in the bubble behind the Toronto Raptors and Oklahoma City Thunder and is slightly better than their full-season mark (105.5).

The team is second in the bubble in steals, second in opponent second-chance points, second in defensive rebound %, third in opponent points in the paint and fourth in blocks.

No matter how you look at it, the Lakers have been impressive at that end of the floor.

Despite his struggles shooting the ball, Alex Caruso has been a demon on the defensive end, often picking up opposing guards full-court and averaging 1.6 steals per game in the bubble.

Kyle Kuzma has also been surprisingly impressive on the defensive end despite the lack of counting stats. Since the restart, when I’ve watched Laker games, Kyle Kuzma has frequently made defensive plays that made me question whether it was actually him that I was watching.

Danny Green has continued to be a menace on the defensive end as he’s done throughout his career, racking up 1.4 steals per game.

Despite his limitations at the defensive end throughout his career, even Dion Waiters has shown effort and hustle when he’s been on the court.

Seeing role players buy into playing tough defense bodes well for the Lakers moving forward. The shots will eventually fall, at which point, the team will be rewarded for their commitment to the defensive side of the ball with wins.

On the whole, while there are certainly some concerning signs, I’d describe myself as wary or nervous about the Lakers rather than outright worried.

On the eve of the postseason, one of the last things you want to see as a basketball fan is your favorite team shooting very poorly against six playoff teams. However, shooting percentages are a stat that normalizes with reps and games.

The fact that despite those struggles, the defensive numbers are so strong, is more encouraging to me than anything else. I trust LeBron, AD, and co to return to their shooting mean eventually. The fact that the high standard of defense that we’ve come to expect is still present, even whilst Frank Vogel is experimenting with Franken-lineups, is a positive sign.

Next. 3 reasons why Alex Caruso is more than a meme. dark

Are you worried about the Los Angeles Lakers after their poor showing in the bubble thus far? Or are you not fazed due to the small sample size? I’d love to hear what you think, so leave your thoughts or comments below.