Even without Westbrook, Lakers have no choice but to ’live in the paint’

DENVER — Just before the Los Angeles Lakers’ 110-99 loss against the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, first-year head coach Darvin Ham said he expects his team to “live in the paint.”

They don’t have a choice otherwise.

Through four games the Lakers have the lowest 3-point shooting percentage in the NBA (21.2). They have made an average of 8.3 3-pointers per game despite attempting 39.3 per game, which is good for No. 6 in the league.

They also just happened to shoot 8-of-30 from beyond the key and scored 56 of their 99 points in the paint on Wednesday.

The Lakers are in danger of being the first team since the 2014-15 Philadelphia 76ers to shoot under 41% for a full season. Living in the paint for a basketball team is equivalent to an old-school football coach saying he wants his team to run the ball and stop the run.

As if Ham doesn’t have enough in his plate when it comes to building the culture in LA, the challenge of dealing with the potential lack of offensive trust and confidence among his players seems imminent.

“It’s just human nature,” Ham said. “No matter what we tell them, how much we encourage them, you’re gonna have that little doubt in your mind. You have to erase that doubt with just faith and aggression. When things get wrong, I was always taught when things get a little shaky, whether it’s your life of your job, you have to go back and embrace your principals.”

The Lakers has the fourth best defensive rating in the league, which is almost rendered moot when in the face of poor shooting numbers.

“I think it’s just energy and effort at this point,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves said. “There’s no one set way to do something. There’re multiple different schemes around the league that you can say work at a good efficiency level. But I think it’s just the energy and effort, really focusing on that side, get offense from our defense.”

Reaves started in Russell Westbrook’s place and scored eight points on 3-of-5 shooting in 26.29 minutes. He made 2-of-3 from 3-point range and in comparison of the rest of the starting five, he looks like their best shooter.

“He plays hard, he scraps, he can shoot it, he can drive it, make good passes to his teammates,” said Ham, who referred to Reaves as a Swiss Army knife. “He gets in there and fights for rebounds, not afraid to hit the floor, hit other bodies.”

Reaves was slotted in the starting lineup for the first time this season because Westbrook was listed out with hamstring soreness. Ham called it a precautionary procedure and is taking it “day-to-day.”

”We all came to a conclusion that it’s early in the season, there’s no reason to stretch it out or put him in a vulnerable position,” Ham said.

Westbrook, who opted into the final year of his contract this season, is the highest-paid Laker over both LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He’s shoot 28.9 percent in his first three games and said his hamstring injury occurred on Opening Night against the Golden State Warriors because he was coming off the bench in the preseason finale and wasn’t used to that preparation after 14 years of being on the starting lineup.

Given the season opening struggles and outside desire for a trade out of Los Angeles, the timing of Russell Westbrook’s hamstring injury was convenient. In a league that invented the term “load management” injury recovery is in the eye of the beholder. He was held out on Wednesday, his status on Friday at Minnesota is in the air, there is no definite timetable for a return and that’s almost the point.

He can stand on the court and walk to and from the locker room and that seemingly isn’t enough to accuse a team for making up an injury with an indefinite timeline. His first game back from injury could be for another team. The San Antonio Spurs, with plenty of cap space and without a roster built to contend this year, are given the third best chance to make the trade with the Lakers, according to Las Vegas oddsmaker, Bet Online.

Other team rumored are the Charlotte Hornets and Indiana Pacers for the same reasons. If a team is trying to get the first pick in the NBA Draft and there is a prized prospect waiting to be selected, there will be a market for Westbrook’s expiring contract.

Hating on Westbrook has been a pastime since Skip Bayless first called him “Westbrick” over a decade ago. It’s a sad story that he returns home to play for the Lakers and it has been a disaster from the start.

But even if or when Westbrook is traded and fans celebrate the end of his tenure, the Lakers will still be a team with aging stars, a glaring offensive weakness, and little hope of making the playoffs.

Playoffs? Let’s just hope they can win a game.

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