The Los Angeles Lakers sport a disappointing 20-21 record at the halfway point of the 2023-24 season. This is only one game better than where the Lakers were a year ago during the Russell Westbrook nightmare.
Their uneven performance so far leads fans to wonder if they can turn things back around as they did in the second half last year, when they won 19 of their final 27 games to qualify for the playoffs.
If that is going to happen, the team needs to lean into what it is good at and buck any concerning trends from the first half. Let's take a look at the six primary trends the team has defined the team so far this season.
Trends that have defined the Los Angeles Lakers thus far:
1. No reduced minutes for LeBron James
At the onset of the season, Coach Darvin Ham said he planned to limit LeBron James to no more than 30 minutes per game. He hoped the reduced wear and tear of a long season would help preserve LeBron and keep him as fresh as possible for the postseason.
It sure sounded like a good idea at the time. But to date, Ham seems more concerned with safeguarding 25-year-old Austin Reaves, who has played year-round including a summer stint with Team USA, than with 39-year-old James.
The team's sluggish performance when Bron sits along with his natural competitiveness have forced Ham to essentially abandon his plan. So far James is averaging nearly 35 minutes, which is still a career-low mark even though it's second on the team to Anthony Davis.
The number would be even higher if James hadn't sat out all or most of the fourth quarter in a few blowout games. He's played 40 minutes or more three times, 39 in another three games, and has only played fewer than 30 minutes in just 8 of the 35 games in which he's appeared.
LeBron's performance on the hardwood hasn't suffered at all as he continues to defy Father Time. He is averaging 25 points, a team-leading 7.5 assists and 7.2 rebounds while shooting 53% nearly 40% from on his three-point attempts, a big improvement from his 32% mark last season.
We'll have to wait to see what impact the extra court time has on Bron's postseason effectiveness. Last season he was clearly limited by foot and knee injuries in the playoffs, when he lacked his blow-by acceleration and the ability to finish at the rim that we were accustomed to seeing. Lakers fans can only hope he isn't as banged up this year.
2. AD: Top-10 NBA performer
Anthony Davis has been nothing short of spectacular this season. His stats tell part of the story: 26 points. 12.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 55% from the field, 36% behind the arc and 81% from the free throw line.
As good as his offense is (and it's been VERY good) his defense is even better. In addition to his shot-blocking, AD is among the very best in the league at shots altered or discouraged. This could even be the season he is named Defensive Player of the Year.
Davis has also answered his critics in two important areas. He has played in 36 of the team's 38 games, a 95% rate that would rate at or near his career high. The "Streetclothes Davis" moniker is no longer applicable, at least not so far this season.
Additionally, many Lakers fans continue to complain that he should be moved back to his "natural" power forward position. That attitude fails to understand that the NBA has changed. The center position no longer belongs primarily to 7-foot, 280-pound behemoths.
The dominance of big men Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, who are unguardable by players of any size, is unique. Game after game AD controls the paint against virtually all other opponents. He is one of the very best centers in the league and a top-10 NBA player.
3. Fluctuating lineups
Ham has been roundly criticized by fans for his unsettled rotations. But there are sound reasons behind many of his decisions.
To begin with, the Lakers have 12 quality players on the roster. The longer-term injury to Gabe Vincent has reduced to number to 11, but that's still too many to fit comfortably into any regular rotation.
Every armchair coach has his own idea about who should be starting. Their focus is usually on the offensive side of the ball. But a team doesn't necessarily start its five best scorers. Good balance is needed to win in the NBA.
Ideally, the two kinds of players the Lakers need most alongside James and Davis in the starting lineup are an off-the-ball shooter who can consistently hit the open three and a defender who can guard the opponent's best perimeter scorer.
Taurean Prince has been the guy to fill the first need. Prince is averaging 10 points per game while nearly making good on his vow to shoot 40% behind the arc. And he's done even better recently, hitting about 44% on his last 100 long-distance attempts. It's the kind of shooting that Kentavious Caldwell-Pope provided in the 2020 championship year.
The Lakers' two best perimeter defenders are Jarred Vanderbilt and Cam Reddish. When healthy, at least one of them should and will fill that other starter's role and take some defensive pressure off of James.
The question then becomes who should Ham use as the fifth starter? Should the Lakers focus on defense and start both Vanderbilt and Reddish? Or should he bring one off the bench and start a better scorer?
Ham has vacillated in his approach and his apparent indecisiveness has opened him up to criticism. But his varying lineups are in part due to injuries and in part due to player inconsistency.
4. Injuries and inconsistency
Regardless of who Ham starts or how he rotates his players, it's up to them to produce once they're in the game. While Prince and Reaves, who is the only Laker to appear in every game this season, have both played well, others haven't.
Let's also not forget that Reaves got off to a slow start this season. When he was then moved to a sixth-man role, he excelled. He provided an offensive spark for the Lakers similar to what John Havlicek did for the Celtics or Manu Ginobili for the Spurs in other eras, and was also nearly always in the closing lineup.
But recent injuries forced Ham to reverse course and reinsert Reaves back into the starting lineup. Results have been mixed. Still, the endless chatter that he will be included in a potential trade is ludicrous. Ownership loves him and fans adore him. He's not going anywhere.
Meanwhile, the performances of several other key Lakers have not lived up to expectations. This includes D'Angelo Russell, Rui Hachimura and Christian Wood.
Russell started off the season playing excellent ball. He doesn't have the quickness or athleticism of the prototypical NBA point guard but he was shooting, driving, passing and even defending at a high level through November.
But D'Lo, who's been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career, inexplicably endured a horrid December. At month's end, just as he showed signs of recovering his form, Ham moved him out of the starting lineup. Then he suffered a tailbone injury that kept him out of action for a few games.
Russell is now eligible to be traded and many fans are eager to shove him out the door. And it's certainly possible that will happen. But any potential trade has to make sense for the Lakers. In return, they need to bring back someone worthwhile, preferably a starting quality point guard. We shall all have to wait to see what happens.
Hachimura has been another inconsistent performer. He was rewarded for his outstanding play in last season's playoffs with a lucrative new contract. Rui came to camp full of optimism that he would pick up where he left off. But that hasn't happened.
At least part of the reason is a series of relatively minor injuries including a broken nose. Perhaps the mask he had to wear once he returned has affected his shooting. Then, just as Ham moved him into the starting lineup, he strained a calf muscle. It is uncertain how long it will keep him sidelined.
The most notable part of Christian Wood's season so far is the 6 DNPs he racked up in December. Exactly what caused Ham to leave him on the bench has not been made public. Perhaps his defense wasn't up to par on a team that had been playing excellent team defense.
Injuries also cost their best two perimeter defenders, Vanderbilt and Reddish, to miss 21 and 7 games respectively. Vando provides almost no offense while Reddish is woefully inconsistent on that side of the court.
The Lakers' injuries contrast sharply with the teams in first place in each conference, Boston and Minnesota, whose top players have missed few games so far.
5. What happened to the defense?
The Lakers defense has been, to borrow a famous quote by Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma".
During a 12-game span from mid-November to mid-December, culminating in the In-Season Tournament championship game, the team's defense was outstanding, allowing an average of just 108 points per game.
But as the Lakers lost 8 of the following 11 games they surrendered 120 points a game. Only once did their opponents score fewer than 110 points, and they still lost that game to Minnesota.
Defense is largely about effort. When the Lakers as a team are focused, as they were when they won the IST, their defense can be one of the league's best. But at other times their approach is more lackadaisical and they allow too many easy buckets and wide-open shots behind the arc.
In the midst of a long season after their tournament victory, the team letdown in most games was painfully obvious to watch.
6. Road-weary team
The Lakers played 11 out of 14 games outside the Pacific time zone, including three back-to-back contests. The negative impact on the players has been obvious.
But even when they returned to LA, they faded badly in the fourth quarter in losses to Miami and Memphis. Perhaps their following narrow victories at home will help them get back on track.
The slate of home games provides a golden opportunity for the team to turn things around. Maybe sleeping in their own beds and enjoying some home cooking will provide the springboard the team desperately needs as they head into the season's backstretch.
What can we take away from the Lakers season so far?
First is that if at least one or two of the role players can step up, or if they trade for someone who can, matching up with the Lakers will be tough for other teams.
Second is that the Lakers defense is capable is being one of the league's best. If they can flip the defensive switch back on in time for the playoffs, they may be the team that no other wants to play.
Third and most important is that the two Lakers stars, AD and LeBron, are both healthy and playing at extremely high levels. That's a trend that bodes well for the postseason.