Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers have had a difficult time guarding big wings who can score this season.
Case in point, Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics, who scored 41 points against the Lakers on Sunday. The Lakers survived Tatum’s outburst, barely, with a 114-112 win, despite Boston’s young star outscoring both Anthony Davis (32 points) and LeBron James (29).
James posted a photo on Instagram after the victory, praising Tatum: “That boi … is an ABSOLUTE PROBLEM!!”
And while Tatum is extremely talented, he’s just one of many forwards who have torched L.A. this season—a list that includes Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers, Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers (even if the 6’10” All-Star is listed as a point guard) and Pascal Siakam of the Toronto Raptors. The Lakers (43-12) are now a combined 1-5 against those four teams (including the Celtics) this season. The Clippers may be the most notable obstacle, with the Lakers aspiring to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
Perhaps the Lakers’ latest acquisition will be of help. Initially at the trade deadline, the team pursued Marcus Morris, a strong forward who was putting up career numbers for the New York Knicks. Instead, he ended up on the Clippers via trade. In an odd turn of events, the Detroit Pistons bought out the contract of Markieff Morris, Marcus’ twin brother. On Sunday afternoon, Markieff cleared waivers to sign with the Lakers.
Markieff is an interesting pickup for L.A. He’ll back up Anthony Davis at power forward, potentially share the court with Davis as a small-ball center and likely slide Kyle Kuzma to the wing.
But can Morris check the likes of Leonard, Siakam, Simmons and Tatum?
“I don’t think he’s ever guarded wings like that, maybe if the Lakers want someone physical?” one Western Conference executive asked. “It’s worth a shot, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Danny Green haven’t done an amazing job on big wings.”
Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope had some successful stretches Sunday, with the Lakers willing to send additional help. Tatum only scored four points in the fourth quarter, but only after the Lakers tilted their entire defense to stop him.
Surprisingly, the answer hasn’t been Davis, who will likely be under consideration for Defensive Player of the Year. He hasn’t matched up well against Tatum (who also scored 27 in January in Boston’s 139-107 win at home over the Lakers). Per NBA.com, Davis has guarded Tatum for a total of five minutes, 29 seconds (18.6 partial possessions) over two games, allowing 15 points on 80 percent shooting (4-of-5). The Celtics scored 35 points with Davis as the primary defender on Tatum.
Other Lakers against Tatum:
Caldwell-Pope: 5:03, 19.2 partial possessions—Tatum 11 points, 66.7 percent shooting, Celtics 24 points as a team
Kuzma: 2:53, 11.2 partial possessions—Tatum four points, 50 percent shooting, Celtics 17 points
Green: 2:25, 11.7 partial possessions—Tatum seven points, 50 percent shooting, Celtics 13 points
James: 1:59, 7.2 partial possessions—Tatum two points, 50 percent shooting, Celtics seven points
Kuzma may actually be one of the stronger individual options on Tatum, but Boston scored at a high rate despite any success Kuzma might have had individually.
The bigger takeaway: James may be the Lakers’ best answer against Tatum. And in a more general sense, he may be the team’s best defender against the powerful forwards who have troubled Los Angeles for much of the year.
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The Lakers would love to face Tatum again this season, in June. But they’ll need to get past everyone else in the West to get the best in the East.
But in their quest to win it all, can and should James be tasked with taking on the Lakers’ most difficult matchups defensively while also providing the lion’s share of the Lakers’ playmaking and scoring duties? Perhaps on NBA 2K, but in real life, over the course of a seven-game series, that’s probably too much to ask.
Morris may or may not provide much help. He’s an unproven unknown, guarding Tatum for just 21 seconds this season with the Pistons (giving up two points in 1.6 partial possessions).
While Morris didn’t get any time against Leonard and the Clippers, he did guard Simmons for 6:44 (26.5 partial possessions), giving up just two individual points and 29 in total to the Sixers. In three games, Morris spent 7:23 on Siakam, giving up 13 points individually and 53 team points.
Those numbers are encouraging, as the Lakers are a much better defensive team collectively, fifth in the league with a 106.2 defensive rating. The Pistons are 21st at 111.7.
Offensively, Morris is shooting a career-high 39.7 percent from three-point range on 4.3 attempts per game. He hasn’t had much of an opportunity to prove himself defensively against Leonard or Tatum, but he’s held his own against Simmons and Siakam.
He may not be the true solution, but the Lakers may not have a single answer to stopping a player like Leonard. For the record, no one really did last season. He won NBA Finals Most Valuable Player and the Toronto Raptors their first title.
Instead, the Lakers have several options to work with, some more proven than others. Throughout the rest of the season and playoffs, Caldwell-Pope, Green, Kuzma and others will be exploited from time to time against bigger forwards. The team will rely on Davis and James when needed, provided it doesn’t overtax the Lakers’ primary scorers. Morris is a new wrinkle to be integrated over the coming months.
Even with their deficiencies, the Lakers still have the best record in the West with a five-game advantage over the second-place Denver Nuggets. Playoff matchups will determine how exposed the Lakers are by their wing deficiency defensively.
Their opponents still need to deal with James, Davis and the supporting cast.