Both the Jazz and Lakers underwent massive rebuilds this summer, and both are facing intense scrutiny about what they’ve accomplished thus far in the 2019-20 campaign.
For very different reasons, though.
Utah just wrapped a five-game road trip with a 1-4 performance that saw the team frequently listless on offense and lax on defense, sending impatient fans careening into a DEFCON 2-level panic about how the front office blew up an elite defensive unit to acquire a struggling point guard and an inconsistent bench, while the outside shooting is no better than it was before.
Los Angeles, meanwhile, is now on the receiving end of some serious eyeballing of an altogether different nature. While the Lakers come to Salt Lake City with one of the NBA’s best records, critics have charged — perhaps rightly — that it is fool’s gold, a sham, a glossy but hollow mark built upon an early-season schedule overstuffed with league bottom-feeders.
L.A.’s December slate, however — including Wednesday night’s matchup with the Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena — figures to show whether these Lakers are legitimate championship contenders, or merely a solid team that’s fattened up against the dregs of professional basketball.
“It’s definitely going to get more challenging, for sure,” coach Frank Vogel told reporters after the team wrapped up November with a 10th straight victory.
After going star-chasing for the past several years, and then finally landing LeBron James in free agency a year ago and Anthony Davis in a trade this past offseason, L.A. also famously chased native son Kawhi Leonard, before striking out and using the remainder of its cap space to build a solid supporting cast.
Davis has, of course, been absolutely brilliant: 26.1 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 2.8 blocks, 1.5 steals, 47.9% FGs, 34.4% 3Ps, 87.2% FTs.
Just as importantly, they addressed their 3-point deficiencies by adding noted shooters such as Danny Green (39.8% this season), Quinn Cook (36.4%), Troy Daniels (just 30.9% so far) and Jared Dudley (57.1%). Meanwhile, with improved efficiency from returnees Rajon Rondo (44.8%) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (40.4%), L.A. finds itself much-improved in that area this season — ranking 13th in the league by hitting 35.8% of its attempts beyond the arc. The Lakers are even better inside — ranking second in points scored in the paint (53.4). As a result, the team is second in the league field-goal percentage (48.2), fifth in effective field-goal percentage (54.3) and ninth in true shooting percentage (57.2).
The offense is further bolstered as a result of superior ball movement — James leads the league in assists per game (10.9), while L.A. is third in both assists (26.6) and assist ratio (18.8), eighth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.75), and 10th in assist percentage (62.2) — and via transition scoring (16.2 points; fourth) and second-chance points (15.8; second).
Perhaps the more marked area of improvement for the Lakers, though, has been on the defensive end. While the team became decent there under Luke Walton last year, Vogel — long known for his defensive expertise — has turned them into one of the league’s elite units.
The Lakers are fourth in the league in points allowed (104.2), and it’s not merely a product of pace, as they are fifth in defensive rating, yielding 103.3 points per 100 possessions. They’re solid on the boards, ranking ninth in rebounding percentage. And opposing teams have not shot well against them — they rank sixth in opposing EFG% (49.9), seventh in FG% (43.5), and fifth in 3P% (33.6).
They also rank second in both opponents’ turnover percentage (16.9) and turnovers per game (18.5), and — thanks to the likes of Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee — the Lakers are first in blocks per game (7.3).
That’s a lot of impressive numbers. But were they racked up as a result of facing less-than-impressive opponents?
There may be something to it, considering Los Angeles is 14-0 against teams with losing records, and 4-3 against teams that are at .500 or better (including a 95-86 win over the Bojan Bogdanovic-less Jazz in each team’s second game of the season back on Oct. 25).
Yes, the Lakers came into December with a 17-2 mark overall and 10 straight wins, but the 14-1 mark they accumulated in November saw them defeat only two teams (the Mavericks and Heat) that finished the month with a winning record. The best team they played was the Raptors — and they lost.
For what it’s worth, the Lakers know the criticism they face for the level of competition. They maintain that, on account of being the Lakers, they’re getting good efforts from every opponent, no matter what their record is.
“I think we were tested every night,” Anthony Davis told The Athletic. “We’re going to get every team’s best shot, no matter what, because of who we are.”
Nevertheless, a much more challenging December slate will show what this team truly is made of.
For starters, they began with a rematch against the Mavs — a game they lost. They followed with a 105-96 win in Denver on Tuesday night, and will have a back-to-back with Wednesday’s Jazz game. Their three-game road trip wraps Friday in Portland.
After a home one-off against much-improved Minnesota, they’re back on the road for a five straight games against Eastern Conference opponents — including the Heat, Pacers and Bucks. They conclude the month by hosting the formidable Nuggets, taking on the Clippers on Christmas, and heading back up to Portland one more time.
That schedule is legit. As a result, the coming month should go a long way toward settling just how good the Lakers really are.
But then, the same is probably true of the Jazz.
JAZZ VS. LAKERS
At Vivint Smart Home Arena
Tipoff • Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV • ATTSN
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 12-9; Lakers 18-3
Last meeting • Lakers, 95-86 (Oct. 25)
About the Jazz • Utah is coming off a rough, season-long five-game road trip, in which the team went 1-4 and surrendered an average of 114 points per game. … Point guard Mike Conley will miss the game due to hamstring tightness. … Utah ranks fifth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (37.3), but just 17th in 3s made (11.6) and 21st in 3s attempted (31.1) per game.
About the Lakers • Los Angeles ranks second in the NBA in field-goal percentage, second in second-chance points, and fourth in fast-break points. … Anthony Davis (26.1) and LeBron James (25.7) rank seventh and 10th, respectively, in the NBA in scoring. … The Lakers are 9-1 in road games following Tuesday night’s victory at Denver, with the lone defeat a Clippers “home” game at Staples Center.