Malik Monk’s eyes locked on the right side of the news conference room as he tried to unravel the biggest riddle the Lakers are still facing.
Can this roster find five players who keep the Lakers scoring and defending all at once? It’s the simplest route to victory and maybe the most difficult challenge in roster construction. Good teams have an answer and can play lineups that excel on both sides of the ball.
But why not the Lakers?
“It’s a good question,” Monk said. “I really don’t know man. We still figuring each other out.”
Here and there the Lakers have found lineups that have gotten the job done on both sides of the court, but none of the successful groupings are viable as starting lineups or closing groups. That’s because those lineups will have Anthony Davis, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook in them. And because of injuries and a mostly wasted preseason, the Lakers are still left searching for the right players to play around them.
As they’ve searched, the Lakers have looked as if they’re on a boat with multiple leaks — to plug one to boost their offense, they create two more on the defensive side. And when they’ve needed to get stops, they’ve had to severely impact their ability to score.
“That’s part of it. But every team has that. It’s not unique to our club,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “And what we have to do is we have to utilize — if we have a defensive lineup in there, there’s ways to space guys offensively to be effective. And if we have offensive lineups, there’s ways to cover for that defensively.
“And we’re working on those things. They’re getting better, and that is part of the challenge.”
The latest round of tweaks had Dwight Howard in for DeAndre Jordan and Talen Horton-Tucker starting in place of Avery Bradley. The Lakers, when looking for offensive punch late in games, have had Malik Monk on the court with their stars.
Until Trevor Ariza returns (he underwent some on-court shooting drills prior to Friday’s game with the Clippers), the team could look more to Monk to answer some of their questions.
He’s been improving defensively, especially in fourth quarters, with the Lakers allowing only 102 points per 100 possessions with Monk on the floor.
“Just to be solid and don't give straight-line drives,” Monk said of his defensive assignments.
Some of this might be easier than a bunch of advanced statistics. Injuries, a suspension and a false positive COVID-19 test have all cost James games this season, the team’s star somehow failing to play more than three games in a row all season.
Probably not coincidentally, the Lakers haven’t won more than three games in a row.
“Not being able to keep my rhythm, it's just ... it's been a very challenging year to start a fourth of the season for myself,” James said after losing to the Clippers. “But only good things ahead.”
Getting James on the floor playing consistently would solve a lot of the Lakers’ ills.
“Not all of them, you know? There are still things we need to do better and we’re working on those,” Vogel said. “But certainly that will help a lot.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.