Lakers: Frank Vogel admits closing five remains a work in progress

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: Frank Vogel head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers welcomes Montrezl Harrell #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers to the bench while playing the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 25, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 25: Frank Vogel head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers welcomes Montrezl Harrell #15 of the Los Angeles Lakers to the bench while playing the Dallas Mavericks at Staples Center on December 25, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

Following Monday night’s loss to Portland, it is clear that the Los Angeles Lakers are still trying to figure things out.

Fortunately for the Los Angeles Lakers, the season is still a rather young one. After losing to the Portland Trail Blazers on Monday night, the Lakers now possess a 2-2 record so far this season.

While four games are not representative of a large sample size, it does not mean the Lakers are sitting pretty at this point. It is clear the team has not quite found their rhythm yet, and, who knows, maybe certain guys still have their heads in the clouds due to the team being the defending champions.

Even though the Lakers are indeed the champs, the group has not always shown that same level of intensity that helped them secure the 2019-20 title. The Lakers have particularly been exposed on the defensive side of the hardwood at times, and Monday night’s game was indicative of that.

For example, the Lakers struggled to contain Portland’s stacked backcourt. It is easier said than done because Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are an absolute handful. They are the kind of players that can singlehandedly change the outcome of a game.

Irrespective of Portland’s dynamic duo, though, the purple and gold failed to keep another one of Portland’s guards in check. Gary Trent Jr. dropped 28 points on Los Angeles and converted seven attempts from long range. It is bad enough that the Lakers could not slow down Portland’s stars, but on Monday night they also made Trent Jr. look like a star due to inadequate closeouts.

Certainly, if Alex Caruso was available versus the Trail Blazers, it is reasonable to argue the Lakers’ perimeter defense would have been better. Caruso has proven himself as a feisty, active defensive guard for this squad. Alas, Caruso had no choice but to sit out on account of the league’s safety regulations.

Irrespective of that, though, there is no reason for the opposition to have three different players score 20 or more points. That is simply inexcusable, and the Lakers need to do a better job of guarding the perimeter to prevent such unsightly outbursts from occurring.

Unfortunately, the Lakers did not do a much better job with respect to handling Portland’s big men. Corey Hansford of Lakers Nation noted that Jusuf Nurkic and Enes Kanter combined for 26 boards.

Conversely, the Lakers’ trio of Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, and Montrezl Harrell managed to accumulate 23 rebounds on the night. Sure, it might have the appearance of a minor difference on paper, but being outrebounded means being outworked. A team hungry to win back-to-back titles should never be outworked.

At the same time, it is fair to put some of the onus on head coach Frank Vogel for the Lakers’ second loss of the season. Despite the scoring punch and ferocity Harrell brings to the table, Harrell is on the smaller side for a big man.

Therefore, he is not an ideal candidate in late games situations when the Lakers are outmatched size-wise. Last night was a perfect example of this coming to fruition, and Harrell was essentially eaten alive in the closing minutes. The former Clipper was especially ineffective in slowing down the Blazers’ pick-and-roll game, and the latter took full advantage of what the defense gave them.

Following the defeat, Vogel revealed that the Lakers are going to continue to explore different combinations as far as who plays in the final stanza. Hansford provided a transcription of what Vogel had to offer on the matter.

"“We’re a deep team and we’re going to continue to look at things,” Vogel said, echoing the comments he has previously made about how he views these early season games. “We can play with Marc or Trezz finishing, we have the ability to slide A.D. over to the 5.“I didn’t have ‘Kieff in the game because we wanted to have a ballhandler in there with ‘Bron in that stretch where ‘Kieff normally plays. He would’ve been cold to put him in late. I liked the lineup that we had out there. We just weren’t able to get the job done.”"

Vogel is spot on in terms of one of the points he made. The Lakers definitely possess a lot of depth and certainly have the ability to either play big or so small. Akin to last season, it is one of the team’s biggest strengths.

However, one could make the case the Lakers may have been better off having Marc in toward the end of the game. The Spaniard has more experience in those situations than Harrell, not to mention him being the lone true center L.A. has at their disposal. He likely would have given Kanter and Nurkic a little more trouble.

Additionally, it is worth noting one of the other players Vogel mentioned in his postgame comments: Markieff Morris. Morris would be an interesting piece to use in late game scenarios simply because of his ability to guard several positions. While he is lacking in size in comparison to traditional bigs, Morris can be enough of a mismatch to where its disruptive for the opposition.

It would also be foolish to not mention another bench piece: Talen Horton-Tucker. Yes, Horton-Tucker is on the younger side of the spectrum as our very own Jason Reed discerns. Consequently, that factor alone will cause many to think he is not ready to shine in a higher-pressure atmosphere.

However, every time the youngster steps onto the floor it seems, he is instantly impactful on both ends of the floor. Horton-Tucker has a significant wingspan for a guard, thus giving him an advantage in terms of affecting passing lanes.

He is averaging one steal a game despite limited playing time, so Horton-Tucker deserves some consideration when it comes to playing in crunch time (or just more in general).

Vogel may also toy with the idea of using Caruso to finish games once he is cleared to play. The fan favorite’s defense played a crucial role in helping the Lakers reclaim the NBA throne, so that is another possibility for the skipper to brood over. The lone downside, however, is that Caruso would provide a bit of a downgrade offensively.

Granted the Lakers have options to tinker with, the most conventional choice for now would be inserting Gasol in the final quarter. Thus, the Lakers’ closing five would match their starting five with LeBron, AD, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Dennis Schröder also being in the picture.

Some may think Gasol has seen better days (not to say that is not somewhat valid) but incorporating him gives the Lakers the kind of look that established a championship pedigree last season. The Lakers were at their best last season when they utilized their size, so there is no reason to step away from that strategy.

It is a bit of a cliché, but defense is what ultimately wins championships. If the Lakers plan to repeat this year, Vogel needs to have the best defensive unit on the court when it really counts.

Without a doubt, the basketball season is a rather young one as things currently stand. There is no need to panic and it is important to remember that the Lakers not only have some new pieces but are coming off a short offseason. As a result, expecting them to play nearly perfect basketball right off the bat is not the fairest expectation.

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Despite that, how the Lakers respond to their failures will play a grander role in determining their success. One can only hope the team makes adjustments in the future to increase their chances of winning ballgames. This team truly has a ton of talent—it all boils down to how to properly make use of said talent.