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Purple & Bold: Lakers mailbag on load management, mid-range shots and more

Editor’s note: This is the Monday, Nov. 11 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

In the way that winning glosses over problems, it also glosses over uncertainty.

The Lakers lost Sunday night to the Toronto Raptors, a team, on paper, that seemed poorly equipped to beat the top team in the Western Conference. But speed kills – and it killed the Lakers’ slow-footed defense to end a seven-game win streak.

This seems as appropriate time as any to introduce a new feature to our newsletter: a mailbag every two weeks where I answer your Lakers questions to the best of my ability as someone who is at every practice and every game. What are you concerned about? What do you want to know about the Lakers?

Drop me a line, and every other Monday, I’ll be dishing out responses to the most interesting and pressing questions.

It will go like this:

Twitter user @lundinbridge asks: “What happens when the *whispers* load management inevitably comes?”

This is the million-dollar question. Even though LeBron told ESPN this weekend that he wouldn’t be submitting to load management as long as he’s healthy, and even though Anthony Davis said he hopes to play every game this year, there should be stretches of the year when resting stars makes sense.

LeBron is turning 35 next month, and frankly, precedent isn’t on the side of 35-year-olds playing at sustained MVP levels. With Davis, there’s a more immediately pressing question with his shoulder – which he admitted on Sunday night is giving him some discomfort: “It’s really never a play I don’t feel it, but I’m gonna go out there and play.”

We’re about to learn a lot about the Lakers’ strategy for resting their stars: The team’s first back-to-back is this week with a game Tuesday in Phoenix then back at Staples on Wednesday night. The distinction between the Lakers’ stars and what the Clippers are doing with Kawhi Leonard is that Leonard has an injury. The NBA has reviewed his medical records and determined that the Clippers’ management of Leonard’s knee is a reasonable precaution. It’d be interesting to see if the Lakers could make the same case with Davis’ shoulder – if they even wanted to.

The problem the Lakers will run into is banking wins. They need to win games right now, during the easiest portion of their schedule, to assure that they’ll be comfortable come March and April. Even though a 7-2 start is great, it’s also, in a sense, necessary protection from the ups and downs of how the roster is equipped to deal with its stars taking time off. Upcoming games include the Warriors, Kings, Hawks and Thunder – all winnable games that the Lakers, in the grander scheme of things, really need to win.

The most significant player on the team statistically is LeBron: The Lakers outscore opponents by 12.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (his net rating). That flips to minus-8.7 when James subs out – a 21.5 net rating flip, which is a monstrous impact. That tells us that without James, the Lakers are essentially a losing team. Davis also has a wide gap (9.5 net rating to 1.5 when he’soff the floor), but not as wide as James. There’s also some meshing there, because James is extremely effective when he has Davis to play with (the Lakers have a 16.6 net rating when both of them play together), but when you consider that Davis has put up MVP-level numbers on mediocre New Orleans teams for years, it’s pretty clear that James’ performances have a stronger correlation with winning basketball games.

You use the word “inevitably,” and I think that’s pretty fair here. I doubt that James and Davis will each play 82 games. James has proven he can win without Davis, but vice versa is not true. On nights when James is sitting out, which seems reasonable the closer we get to playoff time, Davis will have to prove he can carry the load. It would also help if Kyle Kuzma, who has come back pretty rusty from a lengthy injury, could step up to the third star level, because it’s going to be very tough to win games without LeBron or A.D. if Kuzma doesn’t resume his role as a go-to scoring threat.

Twitter user @15_simba asks: “Is there any particular reason the Lakers have been taking so many midrange shots?”

At this point, everyone knows that 3-pointers and layups are the preferred shots of number crunchers everywhere. So why does a team take any midrange shots at all?

Part of this is because modern NBA defenses are also geared toward stopping those shots. Teams prefer to keep big men protecting the rim, and then to chase shooters off the 3-point line. The Lakers have a host of 3-point shooters who aren’t doing all that well right now: The only regular rotation player shooting above 34 percent is Danny Green (40 percent). That’s because, in part, opponents are geared to taking away 3-point shots for those guys, and the team hasn’t quite gelled enough to have the rhythm to find and hit these open shots with consistency.

For role players, a lot of midrange shots are counters to being chased off the 3-point line. You’ll see a handful of possessions where Green or Avery Bradley get their 3-point look contested, so they take an inside dribble where they have an open, if inefficient, shot. Open looks are still open looks. LeBron and A.D. are more empowered to take midrange shots because they can often be an advantage: Davis has a killer post-up game, while James has a reasonably reliable stepback jumper. Neither is really a first option, but both are good enough to go to when other half-court options break down.

There’s also the matter that perception doesn’t match reality: According to Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers take the 14th-most midrange shots of all NBA teams, about 31.7 percent. Middle of the pack isn’t an unreasonable place for a team with two midrange-capable superstars. The more concerning fact, however, is that the Lakers haven’t been hitting those shots too well: They’re the No. 1 shooting team at the rim (71.4 percent) but the third-worst team in midrange (34.1 percent). Their shooting numbers need to improve across the board, but that’s definitely one area where they could get a lot better.

Twitter user @czarkingdom asks: “Any update on THT?”

Talen Horton-Tucker, the 46th overall draft pick of the Lakers, is back to playing – you might have missed it, because he made his season debut with the South Bay Lakers. That long-healing stress reaction in his foot is finally OK, and in his G League debut, THT had 16 points, seven rebounds and five assists on 6-for-13 shooting in a 120-114 loss.

It’s not a bad start after what amounts to pretty much a lost summer for the youngest Laker on the roster. But it should be noted that it’s hard to see THT doing much in the NBA this year with so much veteran talent already vying for rotation spots.

Twitter user @hmfaigen asks: “what is your favorite cinematic incarnation of the Joker?”

Hmm, what an offbeat question that seems like a total non sequitur from the Lakers. I haven’t seen the latest Joaquin Phoenix version, so I don’t have the most complete picture of the cinematic universe. But with respect to all the flesh-and-blood actors who have portrayed the Joker on the big screen, my Joker will always be Mark Hamill, who can’t be outdone in the creepy laughter department.

— Kyle Goon

Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

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