With the Sixers back on the west coast and tonight facing the LeBron James-less LA Lakers, I chatted with Alex Regla to get a better understanding of what has been a bizarre team to follow.
Question #1: The first question here has to be about LeBron James. He’s been sidelined for over a month now, and the Lakers have struggled. But when he’s in the lineup, what is the realistic ceiling of the Lakers this season?
One of the most deflating, and frustrating, aspects of this Lakers’ season thus far has been the seemingly endless deluge of injuries. Prior to LeBron’s groin strain, the Lakers were six games over .500 and seemingly had turned a corner as they pounced on the Warriors on their home court. Unfortunately, that momentum was instantly stonewalled once James’ body hit the floor, and naturally, almost every Laker since has spent some time nursing an injury of some sort.
It is difficult to concisely predict how far this team as currently constructed (cough, Anthony Davis, cough) with a healthy James could realistically go. For one, there are clear issues in terms of roster personnel, namely their woeful spacing on the perimeter that could limit their offensive ceiling. Second, the inability to have their full roster healthy at once has cloaked what the team actually is.
Prior to James’ absence, the Lakers were a +4.3 per 100 possessions with him on the floor, had one of the better point differentials in the league and have since even improved what was an already impressive defensive rating (now seventh in the NBA). Yet, the true ceiling may ultimately be dependent on their young players — who despite showing promise, have floundered and fluctuated all season.
With all that said, like the basketball world has learned countless times before, a motivated and vengeful James is an absolutely frightening force of nature for the opposition to handle -- especially in a seven-game series.
Question #2: The Lakers have many polarizing young players who cast a wide net of opinions. The ones who get discussed the most were second overall picks in back-to-back years, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball. While both have shown many flashes of great potential, they’ve also had quite a few shaky showings. As it stands now, which one of these two do you believe in more to have a bright and successful future?
This is a question that would probably garner many different answers depending on who you ask in the Lakers’ sphere. And like any evaluations on young prospects, both responses would have some levels of validity.
Personally, I believe in Lonzo Ball’s ceiling more than Brandon Ingram’s from what I have seen of both players since they have entered the league. There are simply so many avenues, and outcomes, in which Ball could amplify any team he is on and be a net positive. One of the most unique prospects in recent memory, Ball is the ultimate team player (sometimes to his own detriment), whose selflessness has trickled down the veins of every squad he has been on.
He has fantastic positional size, has graded out well defensively, dictates tempo in impressive fashion and simply has an incredible feel for the game.
Ball has clear and defined flaws, but has flashed improvements. The three-point stroke has quietly inched closer to league average this season, and he has seen encouraging jumps in his finishing numbers as a sophomore.
Ingram very well may end up being the better player, which would not surprise me at all. Yet, Ingram’s top shelf outcome feels very dependent on situation and role.
We have seen this season that there are limitations to Ingram’s overall effectiveness when utilized in a manner that does not correlate to his analytical strengths. Used primarily as the ball-handler in pick and roll possessions, which continues to yield poor results, Ingram has deviated from what many expected to see with him playing beside James.
His three-point frequency continues to be minuscule, he rarely receives the ball in any form of off-ball action, and simply has yet to figure out how to consistently, and functionally, use his length that should be his greatest asset on the floor.
The upside is still there for Ingram though, and in no way should be counted out from figuring things out, especially if utilized and developed more appropriately — which he simply has not been during his time with the Lakers.
Question #3: As of Sunday morning, the Lakers are two games out of a playoff spot. While they will almost certainly surge in the standings whenever LeBron returns, is it even crazy anymore to imagine that they might just miss the playoffs altogether?
It is somewhat of a miracle the Lakers are still in the chase for a playoff spot in the West after the aforementioned amount of injuries they have experienced this season, James’ obviously the most significant. Yet, I would be lying if I said I was not even the slightest bit worried about the possibility of the team missing the playoffs altogether.
The timing of the injuries in concert with a difficult schedule has put the team in a tough spot where they simply are going to need to win a lot of these games down the stretch. James’ inching closer to a return obviously will generate a surge, but they also need at least one or two teams ahead of them to get cold.
Ultimately only capable of handling their own business, the Lakers have put themselves in an suboptimal situation where there is little room for error. Losses like they had to Cleveland or New York can not happen again, and in return, need to find ways to win the games against difficult competition -- starting Tuesday with Philadelphia -- if they are serious about getting to the postseason.
Big thank you to Alex for taking the time to answer our questions!