Hornets: LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward, Mason Plumlee
Lakers: Russell Westbrook, Kent Bazemore, Avery Bradley, Anthony Davis, DeAndre Jordan
Hornets: PJ Washington (out)
Lakers: Anthony Davis (probable); LeBron James (out); Trevor Ariza (out); Talen Horton-Tucker (out); Kendrick Nunn (out)
I can’t imagine anyone who’s read my work over the years mistaking me for some sort of master tactician. Sure, three and a half decades of watching basketball, caring too much about what I saw, reading about basketball, writing about basketball, then watching more basketball certainly leaves some marks. That being said, my recipe for understanding and enjoying the game has always relied quite heavily on vibes.
In returning to FBG, to preview these games (and occasionally write other stuff), I’ve taken an approach that’s less prone to soft-scientific emotional whims of that vibes-based analysis. Valuable as that often is, for the time being, we’re placing cold logic squarely on the back burner.
The Lakers entered the 2021-22 season as any team with a healthy (at the time) LeBron James and Anthony Davis ought to: with championship aspirations. That they’ve split their first ten games of the season is not evidence that those aspirations were misguided. Neither is the fact that the team has been ravaged by injury – “it’s early” as the saying goes, and there’s time for all manner of bump, bruise and surgically-repaired whatever to heal. Where the potential terror lies is in the fragility of even the top of this almost comically veteran-laden, top-heavy roster.
Prior to the fiasco in Portland, in this very corner of the internet, Darius said, accurately, among several other accurate statements, that:
“I do not expect the Lakers to win a game over the next week (or more) while LeBron James is out. With Bron joining THT, Ariza, and Nunn in street clothes, the Lakers do not have enough forwards or ball handling…”
He was absolutely right, not just in the result, but in his rationale. The issue, of course, is that, even with its full complement of stars, this team has shown a preternatural aversion to making life easy for itself.
Seven of the season’s first ten games have been played at Staples Center. Five have come against the Red River trio of the Spurs, Rockets and Thunder, who’ve thus far combined for a 7-22 record. The most impressive of those outings was a 10-point win over the Rockets in which the Lakers led by 28 at one point. Otherwise, it’s a toss-up between a two-point home win against the one-win Rockets or a four-point overtime triumph over the 3-7 Spurs. After that, we’re looking at two of the racing-to-the-bottom Thunder’s three wins – an eight-point loss following a 34-point second half reversal, or a fourth quarter collapse at home. Each ended with a future Hall of Fame Laker losing composure with the game no longer in question.
So, yeah, even before LeBron was placed on the shelf for (potentially) upwards of a month, it had been an undignified and unedifying first three weeks. Now, things have the potential to get pretty ugly, pretty quickly. Make no mistake, no team, anywhere can afford to lose LeBron. A team that’s already without just about all of its perimeter depth losing LeBron… like I just said.
The extent to which LeBron, two decades in, can still do the heaviest of lifting in pursuit of a title is positively staggering. That this is still the plan is completely understandable. That LeBron has neither the time nor the inclination to nurture kids (in the NBA; by all accounts he’s a fine father) magnifies, in a profoundly un-fun way, his absence on those (increasing) occasions on which he’s out of the lineup.
The manner in which LeBron and Rob Pelinka assembled this roster – moving on from the last vestiges of the 2020 title team, in favor of a Remember Some Guys pantheon, in which Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington and Carmelo Anthony bomb from the outside, with Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore providing some D with their 3s, while Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan rack up easy buckets and provide some measure of rim protection on defense – seemingly has no contingency for LeBron’s absence. Or so it feels. In fact, the Bron insurance on this roster is Russ, and a wager that he is still a bona fide top-tier creator.
So far, that wager is proving precarious. What’s worse, though, is the lack of upside elsewhere on the roster.
For as great as Anthony Davis is, he’s still reliant on others to get him the ball – and (in one man’s opinion) not insufficiently selfish with it when it arrives. Plus, there is the ever-present concern that some nagging injury (or stomach issue) is about to rear its head. Otherwise, there’s not an ascendant player nor an offensive catalyst on the roster.
This, my friends, is where we find ourselves, squinting at a roster in shambles due to injury, hoping that AD can shoulder a generational superstar’s workload every night – and that his shoulders (along with the rest of him) holds up – and that Good Russ pops by more than once a week… while Carmelo Anthony keeps the good times rolling… and that someone else has the hot hand… and that there’s enough perimeter defense on hand to slow down the likes of, say, LaMelo, Mile Bridges, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier.
Whether we get to see this team at full strength and firing on all cylinders remains to be seen. What’s clear is that, for the time being, every time out is going to be an all-hands effort.
We’re in it now.
Where you can watch: 7:30pm start time on Spectrum SportsNet and NBA TV.