The defending champion Los Angeles Lakers begin their season on Tuesday against the Clippers. They’ll get their rings and raise another banner before tip off and then start their long quest towards trying to do it all over again. And, as it stands today, they’re the overwhelming favorites to do just that. What a time it is to be a fan of this team.
I, for one, am as optimistic as I’ve been in a decade about a Lakers team. They have two of the top 5 players in the world, have updgraded their depth and supporting players, and come back to this new season with both an appetite to win and that confidence that only comes from winning it all. I don’t know if they’ll repeat this year, you can never really know such things. But, they’re as well positioned as any defending champ could be.
Of course, with as much turnover as this team had during the offseason, there will be some growing pains. The ethos of how they want to play may not change much at all, but the shifts on the margins and how they go about things on the edges will almost certainly be different.
They’re a bit smaller than they were last year. Marc Gasol is not the same caliber athlete as JaVale and Dwight and Montrezl Harrell is much more of a small-ball 5 than anyone the team used as a primary big man last season. They lost some inches at shooting guard too with Danny Green leaving and ultimately being replaced by KCP and Wes Matthews. These changes fundamentally shift some of the things you can do on both sides of the ball and it will take some adjusting in adapting to some of the ways these players’ weaknesses show up on a game to game or even possession to possession basis.
Gone will be the crazy lob attempts to and rim runs from the non-AD big men. The shot-blocking will not be the same. Those weakside rotations from a player of Green’s size won’t quite be there. Nor will the sandwhich rebounds and transition defense + rim protection prowess he brought as a backcourt player. It’d be silly to think the Lakers won’t miss some or all of these things — they are skills that have value and were part of the larger identity the team formed and deployed on their way to the title.
It would be just as silly, however, to not understand all the ways the new skills this team has at its disposal can also be deployed to allow this team to rampage opponents.
Gasol’s passing and expert level positional and rotational defense will be huge on the back line. Schröder’s speed will amplify the team’s transition attack and will offer diversity in the halfcourt. As will his pick and roll prowess and ability to shoot off the dribble in the midrange, while also being good enough as a spot up guy to offer real scoring diversity.
Harrell’s relentless motor will be a boon in transition and on the offensive glass while his attack-style game in the P&R and out of the mid-post can terrorize second units. And Matthews is a dogged wing defender who holds up well in isolation and whose plus shooting makes him the type of plug and play role player every title team wants.
And those are just the new guys.
The holdovers are, of course, championship proven. I don’t need to tell you about what LeBron brings, but it’s worth noting that he is showing no signs of slowing down either from a skills standpoint or from a want-to-win one. When the playoffs came, he was as determined as ever to win a championship and proved to be just as unstoppable as ever, getting to the rim at will, hitting the 3 ball at a rate good enough to make the sagging defense pay, and making the types of plays for teammates that allowed them to be the best versions of themselves.
However, as he enters year 18, I do expect him to pace himself a bit more — particularly with the short turnaround and a condensed season. While that may or may not mean him taking entire games off, seeing his minutes go down and watching him work his way into the type of condition he was in last season for the entire year is almost a certainty. Of course, he’s earned this right and I support him doing whatever he needs to in order to be ready for the playoffs. Knowing Bron, though, I also expect him to turn it on in any given game, if not to make a point, then to give his team the type of burst that can push them ahead and/or win the game outright.
One of the reasons Bron can — if he chooses — use an extended runway in ramping up to peak performance, is because of Anthony Davis. Like with Bron, I don’t need to extoll AD’s excellence. The once-in-a-generation label placed upon him entering the draft looks very much true after a rampage through the Bubble playoffs that saw him shoot jumpers like Kevin Durant while still beasting the paint like a throwback to the golden age of dominant bigs. Add in his all world defense from every angle and every possible spot on the floor and you have someone who is capable, if given the usage and minutes, of winning both the league MVP and the DPOY awards.
Davis is that good and entering into his age 27 season, he’s smack in the middle of his prime years where superstars typically show their readiness to take another leap that propels them to the top of the league. Who knows if AD will actually do that this year — the conditions and context of this season present real hurdles to that. But Davis is currently in that part of his career where he can push through all of that in order to be anything he wants. And from what he showed in limited preseason minutes, he looks ready to try to push the limits of whatever his supposed ceiling is.
When you look at the rest of the team, there’s just more talented and useful depth that has already proven they can play to a championship level. Be it KCP and his balls-to-the-wall effort defensively mixed with plus level 3-point shooting, Alex Caruso’s sublime high IQ and elite intangibles on both ends, Kyle Kuzma’s continued growth defensively and still potent scoring ability, Talen Horton-Tucker’s intriguing mix of on-ball skill and off-ball effectiveness as a rising talent, or Markieff Morris’ ability to stretch the floor while bringing toughness and physicality defensively, the Lakers have a slew of options to flank their two superstars and their new additions.
Of course, this team still has to get on the floor and prove it. Every season there is a team that carries a certain amount of hype as some sort of sure thing that flames out in ways unexpected. The Lakers will need to work together and row all in the same direction, not only from a chemistry standpoint but from a fit and connectivity one via how their skills fit on the court.
This is where Frank Vogel comes in and if last year taught me anything, it’s that his calm and collaborative nature as a communicator and his strong preparation as a teacher and tactician can be relied upon to figure all of it out. Make no mistake, Vogels’ job is harder this year than last — as hard as that is to believe. This team navigated hardship and tragedies, and as much as I credit LeBron for his leadership as a player, I also credit Vogel for setting the right tone as the head coach.
This season, though, Vogel will need to navigate the shortened offseason and training camp on the preparation side, beat back any complacency that comes from winning last season, integrate several new rotation players, manage a rotation that goes 11 deep, and do it all while establishing and maintaining buy-in. When you add the threat of COVID, the empty arenas, and whatever other organic challenges that come up very single season for every NBA team, I don’t envy Vogel at all. Don’t get me wrong, some of these are what we’d call good problems than any coach would love to have, but some of them are just problems and how he responds to them will matter a great deal.
Again, though, I trust him to do the job. Just as I trust these players. When you put it all together, offensively this team projects to be a terror in transition who attacks the rim in the halfcourt and creates the types of open jumpers that the players on this roster can hit at a high level. Defensively they have the ability to pressure the ball, snuff out dribble penetration with smart and timely rotations, and then close back out to the perimeter to contest shots with quickness and rangy athletes all over the floor. Top 5 finishes on both sides of the ball are not out of the question if they compete nightly to a level consistent with their overall talent level.
This team is favored to repeat for a reason. They look to be just that good. Now, all they have to do is go out there and do it. I get there should always be doubts a team plays to the best version of themselves consistently. But if this team comes close, watch the hell out.