The Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers reside on opposite ends of basketball competency this season.
The Jazz aren't on top of the West like they usually are this time of year, but they still have a solid 29-14 record, good for third and just 4.5 games behind the Phoenix Suns for the top spot. The Los Angeles Lakers, on the other hand, have been inconsistent at best, fumbling through chemistry issues and injuries, as they hold on to seventh place with a 21-22 record.
Tomorrow, they meet live at 11:30 AM on NBA TV Philippines (available on Smart GigaPlay app). While there’s a great chance that the Jazz would simply run the Lakers out of Los Angeles, there’s still a possibility that the Lakers can give us an exciting game.
The Lakers, who are in the midst of a three-game slide, need to start putting up stronger performances. According to ESPN’s strength of schedule index, they have the toughest remaining schedule in the entire league. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the Lakers to avoid the play-in tournament or even make the postseason altogether.
To his credit, LeBron James has done everything he could to keep the Lakers afloat. The 37-year-old star is averaging MVP numbers of 28.9 points on 51.9 percent shooting with 7.5 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 1.6 steals. The King has noticeably made adjustments to his approach to the game, especially on offense, but has maintained a high level of efficiency.
The rest of the Lakers have been the problem. Sans James, no other Laker has been able to score consistently. On defense, they’ve been horrendous. From being the top defensive team last season, the Lakers are down to 20th this year.
One player that illustrates both these problems is Russell Westbrook. Brodie has been a rough watch this year (look for the four-minute long compilation of his missed jumpers on Twitter). Over the last two weeks, Westbrook has been averaging 13.5 points on 32.2 percent from the field with 7.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
For every good stat Westbrook puts up, he either bricks a pull-up midrange shot or gets lost defending off-ball. The Lakers have barely been healthy this season with Anthony Davis still on the sidelines, but it’s safe to say now that Westbrook is a questionable fit for the Lakers.
For the Jazz, there has been no such thing as misfits or chemistry issues over the last couple of years. They don’t have as many name-brand superstars as the Lakers, but their top guys fit seamlessly with their complementary pieces.
Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, who just returned from health and safety protocols, fulfill their roles as alphas of their end of the court. Mitchell has continued to shine as the catalyst of the Jazz’s equal-opportunity offense, while Gobert's rim protection propels Utah’s defense. The Jazz are the top team in offensive rating by four points, the same margin between the second-best offensive team (Atlanta) and the 24th (Lakers).
Teams can keep up with the Jazz for a quarter or two, but because of the Jazz’s depth with guys like Jordan Clarkson, Joe Ingles, and Hassan Whiteside coming off the bench, opponents usually get overwhelmed at some stretches.
The Lakers will need a full 48-minute effort to counter the Jazz. As good as Royce O’Neale has been this season, he still shouldn’t be enough to deter LeBron from getting where he wants to go on the floor. Shooters have to be ready to make some open shots to make life easier for James and Westbrook.
Defense is a whole different issue. It's going to be interesting to see if the Lakers will be in the mood to get some stops and not just try to match the Jazz bucket-for-bucket.
LeBron already tweeted his promise to Lakers fans that they will get better. He should be held accountable to that by at least putting up massive numbers tomorrow.