The Oklahoma City Thunder are 10-14, 14th in the Western Conference standings and in the early stages of a rebuild. They hardly fit the traditional giant-slayer mold, but they very nearly took down the defending champions in back-to-back games this week, both of which turned into overtime victories for the Lakers. Poor shooting didn't help Los Angeles, but the upset bids were premised on very similar blueprints.
Oklahoma City pulled in 15 offensive rebounds in Monday's loss, something of an anomaly considering their No. 29 ranking in offensive rebounding on the season. They weren't quite as prolific on Wednesday, but still managed to outrebound the Lakers in their second loss. Their real edge, though, came offensively. The Thunder are ranked 29th in offense, yet they managed to drop a staggering 126 points in the paint in the two games combined, reaching 60 in both. The league-leading Cavaliers average 54 per game. The Lakers simply couldn't keep the Thunder away from the basket. It made them look like giant slayers because, unlike last season, the Lakers are no longer giants, at least in the literal sense.
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The 2020-21 Lakers don't have a single 7-footer on the roster, and in replacing JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard with Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol, they clearly prioritized offensive versatility over defensive verticality. The difference has been minimal in some areas. The Lakers are sixth in rebounding, right where they were a year ago, and they have fallen only from first to second in shot-blocking. It's not as though the Lakers lack any interior presence whatsoever. What they've been missing, in particular, has been rim protection. The Lakers are allowing the second-most shots in the restricted area per game this season after hovering around league average in their championship campaign. Opponents shot 60.9 percent there against them last season. Now, they're up to 62.9 percent.
This is hardly a significant postseason concern for the Lakers. An engaged Anthony Davis at center heals most defensive wounds. But Davis missed the Oklahoma City games, and his absence nearly cost the Lakers both. Gasol's immobility proved problematic against Al Horford's shooting. When Gasol sat, the Lakers simply lacked another tall human being to stick near the basket. Horford scored 25 against the Lakers on Wednesday, and he did it without star Thunder point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander setting him up. Davis wouldn't have allowed that had he played, but Davis might not play as often as the Lakers would like during the regular season.
That matters far more than it did a year ago. The Lakers ran away with the No. 1 seed last season, and even if they hadn't, the No. 2 seeded Clippers shared their arena. They would've played any meaningful Game 7 at home regardless of their own seed. That isn't as certain this time around. The emergence of the Utah Jazz as a viable contender not only threatens a road Game 7, but also creates the very real possibility that the Lakers and Clippers, widely regarded as the Western Conference's two best teams in a playoff setting, are forced into a second-round bloodbath that weakens the winner for a matchup with Utah. There are three genuine contenders in the Western Conference. Getting the No. 1 seed means only having to play one of them.
But opponents like the Thunder are proving that with Davis sidelined, the Lakers are too small in their present state to effectively defend the paint. If they plan to make it through the regular-season slog and emerge with the best record in their conference, they could use another big body to turn to as an option when the existing rotation fails to protect the rim. They just don't have an easy way of finding one.
The obvious path to another center is midseason free agency, but at present, the Lakers can't even legally sign another player. The team is so close to the hard cap that it has played out the season with only 14 players on its roster. As USA Today's Yossi Gozlan has explained in more detail, they won't be able to fit another pro-rated minimum salary onto their cap sheet until Feb. 24 at the earliest. That has given other teams the jump on the Lakers in the hunt for mid-season bargains. The Brooklyn Nets, for instance, nabbed Norvel Pelle before the Lakers even had a chance to consider him.
That won't be the last time Brooklyn flexes its free-agent muscles over the Lakers. The Nets aren't hard-capped. In fact, they have so much spending power that they'd be hard-pressed to actually use it all. Unlike the Lakers, the Nets still haven't used their mid-level exception. They also have a $5.7 million disabled player exception, thanks to Spencer Dinwiddie's torn ACL. If that weren't enough, Brooklyn has credible playoff minutes to offer. It has been using Jeff Green as its primary backup center. Between Davis, Gasol and Harrell, the Lakers aren't looking for someone to fill a meaningful postseason slot. They just need a regular-season innings-eater.
No worthwhile player views himself as such, and that puts the Nets ahead of the Lakers in the buyout pecking order. At present, the center market doesn't figure to be particularly robust when buyout season actually rolls around. Rumors aside, there's very little chance Cleveland lets go of Andre Drummond. The Cavaliers' other potentially valuable center is one the Lakers know well: McGee. The problem is that the Lakers legally can't re-sign him for one year after trading him unless he's traded somewhere else. That's not off the table, but it's not especially likely either unless Cleveland is cooking up something bigger.
The new play-in format will limit the number of teams that view themselves as far enough out of the playoff race to cut players loose for free, and the teams that might still fit the bill aren't exactly overflowing with surplus bigs. Minnesota doesn't have much on-court use for Ed Davis with Karl-Anthony Towns back in the fold, but he is so revered in the locker room that they're in no rush to let him go. Detroit actually uses all of the big men it added during the offseason. The Wizards might be open to parting with Robin Lopez, but that would also mean deciding against re-signing him. Surprise names will arise, likely as a result of unforeseen trades, but on paper, 2021 doesn't look like a strong buyout season.
The Lakers could mitigate some of that uncertainty through a trade, but that's an entirely different minefield to navigate. Acquiring anyone of value wouldn't just mean sending value back out, but also salary. That's a problem for the Lakers, because all of the players on their roster that make enough money to make a difference in a trade play vital roles in the rotation. Five Lakers make more than $4 million. Davis and LeBron James are obviously untouchable. Dennis Schroder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are starters. Harrell is a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. None are sensible trade fodder for a minor regular-season addition. The Lakers have draft capital to peddle here, but in all likelihood, they'd have to seek out a player signed for the minimum in a trade just to make the numbers work. There just aren't many good ones out there.
All of this is to say that if Rob Pelinka plans to add a big man at any point during the season, he's probably going to have to get a bit creative in finding the right one. It might seem like a minor regular-season inconvenience right now, but every game counts in service of home-court advantage. Finding another tall human being to park near the basket would go a long way in ensuring the easiest possible path to a second consecutive championship for the Lakers.