L.A. Is In Search of Toughness

Former Laker Caron Butler had a nickname given to him during his time at a Milwaukee juvenile institution.  Tough Juice. It encapsulated the Butler career and made him a fan favorite at all his NBA stops. Fans naturally align themselves to the hardest worker and the grittiest player, the one who doesn’t care about stats but is just about doing his job.

I thought about Butler after watching the Lakers first pre-season game on Sunday and their sieve of a defense. They needed some tough juice pretty badly. Most fans were groaning about the three point defense but that is fixable with capable athletes on the perimeter like LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kentavious Caldwell Pope. But what is going to happen to them on the interior will sink them in games.

No one on the roster is Julius Randle. Without Randle’s motor and physicality, he was their energy savant last season, even with LeBron James, the Lakers are just not tough.

They don’t have a junkyard dog. They don’t have a wants to do the dirty things player. JaVale McGee is a seven footer but he is finesse. As is all of the Lakers. They don’t have anyone who can come in and muck the game up and take the 6 fouls and get into someone’s head and just push them around. Everyone is finesse, on one level or another, and that’s not a bad thing if you have elite shooters. The Lakers don’t. And so this is what is going to happen.

They are going to get dominated inside. Everyone in the west has size. Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns are elite big men. But LaMarcus Aldridge, Jusuf Nurkic and Marc Gasol can punish the Lakers with their physicality. There is no one down low who is going to impede anyone and just bully the hell out of them. The Lakers are going to miss Julius Randle.

Randle had to be helped to the locker room last night in a preseason game for his new team, the New Orleans Pelicans. But Randle is the hardest player on the court. He never took plays off last year for the Lakers. He doesn’t give in nor does he give up. He won’t back down. He liked the role of offensive bully.

From a strategic long range point of view, it made sense to not re-sign Randle so the Lakers could make themselves available for the 2019 free agent class. But in the interim, the loss of Randle has reshaped the Lakers with LeBron, shot makers and praying for the best.

After their first preseason game, the one player who clicked with LBJ was Brandon Ingram. Ingram moves without the ball, is long, athletic and has bulked up a bit. But you can’t put Ingram on a P.J. Tucker. Tucker is too big and strong. So the Lakers are forced to switch everything on defense. Outside of JaVale McGee who is average defensively and Ivica Zubac who is a disaster defensively, the Lakers don’t have a version of Tristan Thompson who you can instruct to go out there and stop someone from getting a rebound.

What the Lakers are, for better or worse, is LeBron and the shooters. They are an offensive team. Some nights the offensive will dominate. Some nights they will struggle. Ingram is the best defender on the team because he innately knows how to use his length to create turnovers. LeBron is LeBron. Josh Hart, Michael Beasley, Kyle Kuzma can get in there and block a shot or stop a possession in an isolated case but at the end of the day they are shotmakers.

The Lakers were a top-10 defense last year and a lot of that was Julius Randle in the paint pushing people around and getting the ball so he could ruin the rim. He loved the junkyard dog label.

Without him, it is toughness by committee. There’s a lot of junk. But no dog.