No matter what agenda you want to push, the Los Angeles Lakers are here to help. Through the first seven games of the season, the Lakers have unsurprisingly offered fertile soil for the NBA Twitter Hot Take Industrial Complex to harvest—depending on who you ask, Russell Westbrook is an elite point guard or the dreaded Westbrick; Carmelo Anthony is either barbecuing chicken or is barbecue chicken himself; the narratives around Lebron James form such an unparseably dense palimpsest that it’s not even worth engaging with them. But amidst all the daily frenzy, the Lakers remain one of the best teams in the league—this is the NBA’s most interesting puzzle, a mish-mash of players that turn line-up construction into an exercise of faith.
More than just about any other team, the Lakers have a rupture between who they are and what they can be. Although the team boasts a winning record at 4-3, they’ve largely been lurching and wooden, unable to muster the focus or synergy to play cogently and cohesively for more than a few minutes at a time; their 107.7 points per 100 possessions is barely a smidge above league-average. And this is totally fine—it’s barely November. But within the scrum of wayward pull-up jumpers and too-long isolations, flashes of future goodness are visible in moments—kick-out passes that land in shooting pockets, cuts that unravel defensive shells.
When the Lakers’ offense is humming, it presents a path forward for what a post-postmodern NBA offense can look like. Whereas most current NBA offenses focus on spreading the floor, the Lakers primary concern is compacting the opposing defense. At times, they’re a study in how to create spacing without the benefit of great shooters, occupying weak-side defenders with clever cuts and the threat that’s posed by genius passing.
Built around Lebron James, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ attack can be sketched in stark, brutal vectors. Every possession is informed by a sense of momentum, informed by the Big Three’s combined defense-warping gravitational force. Even if the awesomely frightening parade of dunks and layups hasn’t quite come to fruition, the Lakers are able to parlay their potential rim pressure to create open three-pointers; according to NBA.com’s tracking data, only 8.2 percent of the Lakers’ three-pointers are taken with a defender within four feet of the shooter.
The problem, though, is finding lineups that can supply that point-scoring goodness while maintaining enough defensive integrity. Carmelo Anthony has become a load-bearing presence in their offense as he’s eased into a regular season version of the mythical Olympic Melo, but he’s possibly the leakiest defender in their rotation and requires stauncher teammates to cover for him; Malik Monk offers a much-needed jolt athleticism and shooting in theory, but not much of either of them in practice. Anthony Davis is possibly the best center in the NBA, yet insists on playing as a power forward alongside Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan—which, in turn, makes it difficult to find a natural spot for Russell Westbrook.
As such, the challenge for Frank Vogel is to assemble lineups that accentuate his players’ strengths while masking their obvious weaknesses; the roster is stocked with gifted players, albeit ones who largely require the right context for their gifts to fully come into focus. The Lakers have an array of shooters who can’t defend, defenders who can’t shoot, big men who can’t play together, and a Rajon Rondo who straight-up can’t play. For Vogel, building a workable five-man unit is a task somewhere between playtime with Mr. Potato Head and an LSAT logic game—here’s an adaptable, customizable set-up with a raft of distinct and productive parts, but one that’s also riddled with prerequisites and limitations.
Certainly, there’s no rush (yet) for Vogel to solve the Gordian Knot that is his roster. The Lakers have such iridescent, undeniable talent that they could probably secure home-court advantage in the playoffs if they were coached by a semi-trained seal; the Lakers have a winning record even while James, Davis and Westbrook have gotten off to uncharacteristically slow and irritable starts to the season. Still, for the Lakers to achieve the kind of postseason success that this roster is capable of achieving, they need to solidify an identity and scheme.
It’s a mystery whether the Lakers will unleash inverted pick-and-rolls with Westbrook screening for James or if Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker will be the remedy for the Lakers’ shallow wing depth once they get healthy or if Davis can rediscover his bubble sharp-shooting. But, in a regular season that sometimes feels like a lifeless prelude to the postseason, the Lakers’ fledgling attempts at self-discover will, at the very least, be a joy to watch.