There is a certain type of team that is “built for the playoffs”. That team normally not only full of veterans, but ones who have a lot of postseason experience. It’s normally a team that has at least one, and usually two (or more), superstar players. It’s normally a team that can adjust its style of play to match different opponents, one that can play high level defense, and one that is both well coached and has smart players who adapt to the evolving and shifting game-plans of the playoffs where deploying new tactics from one series to the next (or even within the same series) is a necessity of winning.
Normally, LeBron James teams epitomize this distinction. And, like clockwork, the Lakers — a team that flanks LeBron with fellow superstar Anthony Davis and veteran role players, plus have a good coach who has them near the top of the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency — have carried this moniker since they were assembled. In fact, the thought was that even if the Lakers did not come out to a fast start or experienced the typical ups and downs of a team that went through as much turnover as this one did over the off-season, that their built for the playoffs-ness would supersede most forms of traditional analysis.
A common refrain, then was something along the lines of “Sure the Lakers might be struggling now, but they’re built for the playoffs. We can’t really judge them until May.” The Lakers, though, haven’t struggled. They came together faster than expected, have the West’s best record, and look to be one of the two or three best teams in the league halfway through the season.
What’s also happened, though, is the Lakers have struggled in some of their more high profile matchups this year. They’re 0-2 vs. the Clippers, have lost their lone game vs. the Bucks, and just got blown out in Boston on Monday. If there is a through-line from these games, it’s that each opponent brought a specific list of qualities that have proven to give the Lakers problems. Big wings who are very good athletes. Ball pressure guards. Size and/or a high activity level from the big men that support those wings with rim protection defensively and strong rebounding on both backboards.
That each of these teams were able to beat the Lakers in very similar ways, then, poses the question: are the Lakers really built for the playoffs?
In a conversation I had with Pete Zayas on twitter, he said that the in the playoffs “Each team is trying to force another toward their weaknesses. So how severe those weaknesses are arguably as important as how good your strengths are.”
What’s been clear since this Lakers team was formed is that they do have some pretty clear weaknesses. And with some of the results they’ve seen this season — not only in the games I noted above, but in the losses vs. the Raptors, Mavericks, and even the Magic too — one has to wonder if the hyper-focused game-plans of the playoffs will shade games towards those weaknesses to the point where they’re not just exposed, but become fatal flaws.
To be clear, I’m not arguing this will definitely be the case. The Lakers are by no means a perfect team, but they have the markers of many true championship contenders. And, as Pete noted above, the push towards weaknesses is something that both teams are trying to do to each other. A team that’s anchored by LeBron and AD, has strong defenders flanking them at the guard and big men spots, some good shooting, and what’s proving to be high level coaching that has them as prepared as (if not more than) their opponents each night, I believe the Lakers have an ability to win that tug-o-war with most teams they face.
In other words, opponents have to crack the Lakers’ code too and there’s not a lot of opponents that have all the necessary ingredients to do that 4 times in 7 games. It’s simple, but bears repeating, the Lakers not only have top end talent, but they bring so much to the table across so many areas of the game that figuring out a way to neutralize them will prove difficult — particularly if you’re not on their tier.
That said, when it comes to the playoffs, it’s hard to think of a recent champion that had the type of clear holes the Lakers currently do. The lack of a secondary shot creator besides LeBron, the lack of secondary defenders behind LeBron or AD who you feel comfortable putting on some of the best big wings in the league for more than short stretches, that LeBron is the only real elite athlete on the wing…these truly are glaring holes that, against the right opponent, could very well be damning.
Again, we’ll not know what this team is actually capable of doing in the postseason until they’re there. I think they’re well positioned to make a deep run, if not actually win it all. They really are a fantastic team with so many of the right tools that a parade down Figueroa in June is very realistic. There’s a reason they’ve been a betting favorite to win the title for most of the season.
That said, I’d be lying if I didn’t wonder whether some of the flaws they’ve shown this season won’t end up being too big to overcome when the playoffs come and teams’ entire focus is to work on capitalizing on them.