Entering the season, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that
the Los Angeles Lakers would advance to the NBA Finals.
The defending champions brought back their core and then “won”
the offseason, adding Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, Marc Gasol
and Wes Matthews. After the trade deadline, they also signed former
All-Star center Andre Drummond off the buyout market.
Another deep playoff run felt inevitable. Then, LeBron James and
Anthony Davis were sidelined due to injuries, sending the squad
into a tailspin. The Lakers went from jockeying for the No. 1 seed
in the Western Conference to desperately trying to avoid the
James and Davis returned to the lineup recently, but it was a
bit too late: Los Angeles is the seventh seed and must face the
Golden State Warriors in the play-in tournament on Wednesday.
Given everything they've been through this season, are the
seventh-seeded Lakers still the favorite to come out of the Western
LACK OF CONTINUITY
If the Lakers fail to make it out of the West, their lack of
chemistry and continuity could be the biggest culprit. Despite the
talent of Davis and James, the fact of the matter is that both
stars -- in addition to key role players -- have been in and out of
the lineup. Dennis Schroder was out for 14 days due to the NBA's
health-and-safety protocols, and while he’s back, he is still
limited from a conditioning standpoint.
Even for someone as durable as James, it still takes some time
to get re-acclimated and back into a rhythm. James was out for 40
days due to his ankle injury, which was the longest he's ever been sidelined
during his NBA career. He returned for two games at the start of
this month, then reaggravated the injury, which caused him to miss
another two weeks.
While James was able to play 27 minutes against the New Orleans
Pelicans on Sunday and 28 minutes against the Indiana Pacers on
Saturday, it's unlikely that he'll be at 100% for Wednesday's
play-in game against the Warriors.
"I don't think I will ever get back to 100% in my career," James
said earlier this month, adding
that returning to 100% will be "impossible."
In the four games that James has played since March 21, the
Lakers are 2-2 (with losses to the Sacramento Kings and Toronto
Raptors). And while L.A. got a much-needed win over the Pacers this
weekend, it’s not like they ran away with the game. The Pacers kept
getting back into the game and with three minutes left, the Lakers
saw their 14-point lead shrink to only three. This was due to
breakdowns on defense, which are a byproduct of players being in
and out of the lineup.
The Lakers have used 25 different starting lineups this season,
and their preferred lineup of Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope,
James, Davis and Drummond has started just three games
James and Davis have played just 26 games together this season.
And neither superstar has gotten a chance to develop great
chemistry with Drummond; James has played just four games with his
starting center, compared to Davis’ 13 games with Drummond.
One positive of James, Davis and Schroder missing time is that
it gave key role players an opportunity to step up and get valuable
reps. Players such as Talen Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso started a
handful of games and played significantly more minutes than usual,
which could benefit them.
Competing in the play-in tournament isn’t ideal, but the Lakers
must make the most of it by using the additional game(s) to further
improve their chemistry before their playoff run begins.
TALENT TRUMPS ALL
Despite their lack of continuity, the Lakers are still insanely
talented. James and Davis may be the best one-two punch in the NBA,
and Los Angeles has a strong supporting cast too.
And even with so many key players missing games, they still
finished the season with the NBA's top-ranked defense (allowing
just 104.9 points per 100 possessions).
The Lakers are still the favorites to win the Western Conference
(+230), and they have the second-best odds of winning the title
(+475) behind only the Brooklyn Nets (+100).
The Nets and Lakers find themselves in a similar position. Like
the Lakers, Brooklyn is stacked on paper and many people expect
them to advance to the NBA Finals. However, Kevin Durant, James
Harden and Kyrie Irving have played just eight games together, and
the Nets have used 37 different starting lineups this season.
Sometimes, the game just comes down to which team is more
talented, which is why the Nets and Lakers will be an
interesting case study this postseason.
Right now, the Lakers are as healthy as they are going
to get. While they've had a rough couple of months, it could've
been worse. At least they got everyone back in time for the
Securing the sixth seed and getting a few days of rest would’ve
been ideal, but instead the Lakers must take care of business in
the play-in tournament. They will face the Warriors on Wednesday at
10 p.m. ET.
If the Lakers win on Wednesday, they'll be the seventh seed and
face the second-seeded Phoenix Suns in the first round. If they
lose, they'd need to defeat the winner of the Spurs-Grizzlies game
to earn the eighth seed and a first-round matchup with the
top-seeded Utah Jazz.