Catchy headline, right? SEO that! #blogboys unite.
Today, Tim Bontemps of the Washington Post wrote that he does not think the Lakers will make the playoffs. He laid out a bunch of reasons why. They are points well made and argued with reason. I like Tim — I read his work, listen to him on podcasts, and generally believe him to be an astute follower of the league.
I also think he’s spoken on this specific topic prematurely, using a reasoning which is overly pessimistic. In other words, I disagree. Note, I’m not saying the Lakers will make the playoffs. It’s October 4th. I can’t tell you anything that I think will be true in April of 2019. And, to be fair, I have my own questions about this team — some of them mirror points Tim made. When I write my season preview, these things will be fleshed out in detail.
In saying that, Tim made his case in the affirmative that the Lakers will be out. He went topic by topic. So, let’s examine those and see where it gets us…
1. The unforgiving Western Conference
From Bontemps’ piece: This is the No. 1 reason this could happen. Of last year’s playoff teams, five — the Warriors, Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — seem like locks to return, assuming health (which we have to in this scenario). That leaves the Lakers as one of six teams — along with the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers — fighting for one of the final three playoff spots in the West. (emphasis mine)
Lets look at the Lakers roster and what changed from last year to this year:
- Julius Randle out, LeBron James in
- Brook Lopez out, JaVale McGee in
- Isaiah Thomas out, Rajon Rondo in
- Corey Brewer out, Lance Stephenson in
- Luol Deng out, Michael Beasley in
- Thomas Bryant out, Mo Wagner, Svi Mykhailiuk, and Isaac Bonga in
The Lakers roster has its flaws (we’ll get to that more later), but they’re undoubtedly better — especially if we’re assuming good health for this new group.
Remember, last year Lonzo missed 30 games and Isaiah Thomas was shut down before the end of the season (and was not fully healthy when he did play). Brandon Ingram missed 23 games. Also remember that Brewer was released so he could join a playoff bound Thunder and Deng did not play at all.
That left the Lakers playing Tyler Ennis rotation minutes for stretches and the 2-way contract duo of Alex Caruso and Travis Wear playing key roles to close the season. Ivica Zubac also started to get more burn as Brook Lopez sat for longer and longer stretches to close the year. Ennis, Caruso, Wear, and Zubac are fringe NBA players.
That team, with this context, won 35 games last year.
The Lakers have replaced fringe NBA players/guys who did not play at all last year with actual NBA level rotation players. Do Lance, Beasley, JaVale, and Rondo have flaws? Of course. Even with those flaws are they better than nearly every player they replaced? Of course (JaVale/Lopez is the lone exception). Also, you know, I loved Julius Randle but the Lakers exchanged him for LeBron James. I’m thinking they upgraded. Now factor in improvement for Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, and Lonzo.
This was a long way of saying the Lakers are, on paper, a much better and deeper team than last year. And the other teams in the West have to play them too. Yes, there was only 3 games separating the 3rd from the 9th seed last year and, this year I do believe these teams will cannibalize each other again. I just think the Lakers are going to be eating more too. And they’ll probably have 2nd helpings. Just saying.
2. Lack of good big men
From Bontemps’ piece: There are only three traditional big men on the roster: JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and rookie Moritz Wagner, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Some have posited that the Lakers can simply play small, and that this doesn’t matter.
But what happens if they are playing, say, the Warriors with a healthy DeMarcus Cousins? Or the Rockets (Clint Capela), Jazz (Rudy Gobert), Nuggets (Nikola Jokic), Timberwolves (Karl-Anthony Towns), Pelicans (Anthony Davis), Thunder (Steven Adams), Grizzlies (Marc Gasol) or Spurs (LaMarcus Aldridge)? That’s nine teams with a quality big which the Lakers don’t have anyone capable of guarding. And it seems awfully hard to believe that Kyle Kuzma will be able to develop into any kind of reasonable option as a small-ball center against any lineup.
I too believe the Lakers are light on big men. I worry about the Center rotation behind McGee and believe small-ball lineups which feature Kuzma, Beasley, or LeBron at that spot for significant minutes will have problems or come with enough questions to be skeptical of how successful they’ll be. So, yeah, I think this needs to be monitored.
That said, the Lakers have an open roster spot and could, in theory, add a player at any point during the season to help in this regard. Maybe around December 15th the team decides their roster is imbalanced and they make a trade. Or maybe there’s a street free agent who can be picked up between now and January. Or maybe the Lakers become a destination for a guy on the buyout market.
Even if none of these things happen, though, I wonder what other teams think about playing their big man centric lineups against a Lakers group of Lonzo, Hart, Ingram, Kuzma, and LeBron. With that configuration, who does Jokic guard? Or DeMarcus Cousins? Or Steven Adams? Or even Rudy Gobert? Do you put them on LeBron? On Kuzma? I’d imagine they defend Hart or Lonzo, but even those matchups are rife with challenges when those guys get spaced out to the corner or cross-matched in transition or simply put back into P&R situations where there are small on small screens that turn into pick and pops or plays where they are then forced to switch onto LeBron or Ingram or Kuzma in isolation situations.
Remember, defensive mismatches can go both ways. I too worry about who from a Lakers small lineup will defend the burly big men opponents offer (LeBron is the best option, but buy-in will need to be there). But just as I said about those West teams having to play the Lakers too, these big men are going to have to defend someone on the Lakers and I wonder how smoothly that’s going to go over the course of a 5-8 minute stretch of important game minutes.
3. Defensive issues
From Bontemps’ piece: Look up and down the Lakers roster, and pick out every above-average defender. The list, even when considering James, arguably stops at one — Lonzo Ball, who may not even start. If we’re being charitable, we’ll expand that list to four, and include Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart.
After that? Good luck. Rajon Rondo and James are once-great defenders who no longer put forth the necessary energy consistently. McGee is a minus, and Zubac and Wagner likely will be, too. Lance Stephenson is unreliable. Michael Beasley has never been known as a defensive player. Kuzma won’t be much of one, either.
I don’t know how good the Lakers defense will be. Last year they finished in the top half of the league in Defensive Rating, but that was with a totally different roster. I do think this team will miss Larry Nance Jr. and that they’ll miss Brook Lopez and his space eating body that also offered capable rim protection. I also believe Julius Randle’s unique combination of strength and quickness helped in the team’s switch heavy scheme.
In an ideal world the Lakers will switch a lot, pressure passing lanes, and rotate hard to shooters and back to the interior behind that aggressive approach out high. They have the length and overall athleticism to play this way. But, will their veterans be able to do this consistently? I’m not so sure, honestly. I’m also unsure about their rebounding overall. I think their guards and wings are very good on the glass, but if their big men are not boxing out, that may all be for naught.
What I will say, though, is that the Lakers have the ability to play 10 NBA level players nightly. They can keep players’ minutes down and ask — no expect — them to play hard on defense by sending subs at opponents in waves. I think the Lakers will play fast regardless, that they’ll be able to get opponents on their heels, and dictate (at least some of) the terms of engagement. If the game turns into a trackmeet, I like the Lakers chances most nights to be better in those situations than their opponents.
That said, the defense is probably my biggest concern. I think, in the end, the Lakers will strive to be a top 15-18 defense while being in the top 6-8 in offense. How doable is that? We’ll see, but I can understand the skepticism.
4. What happens if LeBron misses time?
From Bontemps’ piece: Last season was the first time in James’s incredible career that he’s played 82 games. It’s hard to see him doing so again.
Scroll back to point number one, check out the part I emphasized in the quoted part of the article, and then scroll back to read my next sentence.
Why are we asking “what happens if LeBron misses time?” if we’re (like we have to in this scenario) assuming good health for all the teams? LeBron has played under 72 games in a non-lockout shortened season a whopping 1 time in his career. That was the 2014-15 season (his first season when he returned to Cleveland) when he played 69 games.
We can’t have this one both ways. Either everyone is playing and healthy or the best player on any of the other teams theoretically above the Lakers in this race for the playoffs are suddenly missing a dozen games this year. Tell me which one we’re doing so I can figure out the criteria.
5. The potential for internal drama
From Bontemps’ piece: Now that they’ve acquired James, the only thing the Lakers have more of than glitz and glamour is the potential for team-altering drama. And boy, is there lots of it hanging out there on the horizon.
Look, I get the Lakers signed a bunch of guys with either strong personalities or enough quirkiness to earn a certain reputation in this league. And I get that no one really knows how LeBron is going to respond should things go sideways. Veterans on 1-year deals, young guys looking to make their name in the league, the battle for minutes…I can certainly see why people think the seeds of drama are ready to sprout.
I also think this perspective is skewed totally in the direction of seeing the worst in people and their personalities.
The Lakers, from ownership through management to the head coach, are as aligned in their vision and goals as I can recall — at least since Dr. Buss was the chief decision maker. Magic Johnson, in partnership with Jeanie Buss, has set a tone of work and accountability that will be driven by guys competing daily while fostering as fun an environment as possible (considering this is the NBA and the stakes are incredibly high).
And speaking of Magic Johnson, his gravitas and history as one of the best players to ever play matters more in this way than any other: there is no situation he has not seen and no player he cannot relate to and have an impact on when staring them in the face. I truly believe that. If there’s one person I trust to be able to have a sitdown with LeBron James to calm a nerve or offer perspective to help smooth something out, it’s him. The same is true for Rondo. Or Lance. And triply true for any of the team’s young players.
Beyond that, though, can you tell me the last time LeBron actually sabotaged a season because he was upset — to the point that his team wasn’t even in the playoffs? Even last year, when he was arguably the most joyless he’d been since his last year in Cleveland before departing for Miami in free agency, he rallied in the 2nd half of the year and pushed the Cavs to 50 wins while re-staking his claim as the league’s best player and an MVP candidate.
Besides LeBron, is there a real reason to think Rondo, on a one year deal and playing next to LeBron James, is going to blow up a locker room? Or Lance Stephenson? Or Michael Beasley or JaVale McGee? Those last two are on minimum deals and could simply be cut if they’re that big a headache. Lance makes 4 million and could easily be jettisoned too. Do people really believe that these young guys who, by every account both on and off the record that I’ve heard, are high character guys who work hard to improve, are going to become the drama-filled distraction to sink this team?
It’s not like I’m blind to the fact that issues can develop with this mix of guys. I’ve already written the importance of a strong partnership between LeBron and Luke to ensure a harmonious locker room. I also think this is a bit of a chicken and the egg situation. I mean, do I believe there is inherent drama brewing with this group or do I think some believe there should be drama so there’s going to be some probing and prodding which helps inspire it?
Similar to asking LeBron about how he plans to earn the respect of fans…I mean, I’ve actually not seen a Lakers fan unhappy or unappreciative of LeBron coming to this team. Are there crazies who might feel otherwise? Sure. Do they deserve to have their opinions presented as legitimate? Probably not. But the questions get asked anyway.
Getting back to the drama, then, I’m as interested in how this team is covered and presented by the voices we listen to as authorities as I am what those inside the organization say. And I’m interested in seeing whether there’s a legitimate disconnect from either side. I mean, players are just as eager to offer a canned answer implying harmony as someone reporting on the team might be to say things aren’t going well. Both can not be fully rooted in what’s actually happening behind the scenes.
In the end, then, I guess I’m going to give these guys the benefit of the doubt rather than project them to be versions of themselves that gravitate towards drama. Maybe I’ll be wrong about that.
I said this at the top, but it bears repeating: I don’t know if the Lakers are going to make the playoffs. This is by no means a perfect team and any number of things can go wrong which push them to the outside looking in.
But, I also think it’s an overly pessimistic view to take this roster as it stands + not see it as improved over last year’s version, and then on top of that use inconsistent application of criteria to come to a conclusion that they won’t be one of the West’s best 8 teams. There are other ways to try to count them out. I just don’t think this is it.