Eight games down, four rounds to go for the Los Angeles Lakers. With Thursday's regular-season finale against the Sacramento Kings in the books, the Western Conference's No. 1 seed turns its attention to the postseason. The next game that the Lakers play will actually count in their pursuit of a 17th championship.
But before we fully look ahead to what's coming, let's look back on the eight games that just were and try to take some lessons into the playoffs. What did we learn during the first eight Laker games since March? Here are the five biggest takeaways from the past eight games.
1. Dion Waiters is for real
Laugh all you want, and yes, some of it is warranted. He still makes baffling defensive mistakes. He takes one or two absolutely mystifying shots per game... and that's fewer than the Lakers probably expected. Waiters is a walking meme.
He is also a consistently positive force for the Lakers when he steps on the court, even if his own numbers don't necessarily reflect that. Through his first 166 minutes in Orlando, the Lakers outscored opponents by 17 points with Waiters on the floor. That gave him the best net rating among Lakers at Disney aside from Jared Dudley, who hardly played. Defenses respect him enough as a shooter not to sag off of him, enabling the Anthony Davis post-ups that the Lakers rely on when LeBron sits. They respect him enough as a driver to actually collapse on him at the basket, and he's taken advantage of that through some refreshingly decent passing. Kuzma has found several clean 3-point looks thanks to his ball-handling.
And he's doing this despite an incredibly slow shooting start. He made only four of his first 24 3-pointers. That number started to climb back up to his career average with a 3-of-6 showing on Thursday and assuming that continues, the Lakers will, finally, have a score-first guard capable of steering the offense during the precarious LeBron-less minutes that have plagued them all year. Make all of the jokes you want, but Dion Waiters is an essential part of the Lakers' championship hopes.
2. Kyle Kuzma has established himself as the third-best Laker
Beyond LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers had largely gone sidekick-by-committee throughout the regular season. Different players stepped up in different moments, and it usually worked. Avery Bradley's 24 points were the key in their first win over the Clippers. They went 14-1 when Rajon Rondo scored in double-figures. The two stars did their jobs night in, night out while different players hopped onto the carousel's third seat with each go-round. It worked. It was also unsustainable. The crucible of the postseason is unkind to role players. Someone had to ascend into the third seat permanently.
That has been Kyle Kuzma in Orlando. Everyone else played forgettably in the seeding games, but Kuzma strung together the best stretch of his career. He averaged double figures on efficient shooting, hit a game-winner, found instant chemistry with Waiters and Alex Caruso off of the bench and, finally, developed into a consistently positive defender, someone who can take harder forward assignments off of LeBron's hands for a while and can stand his ground even against unfavorable switches.
The idea that Kuzma needed to be a star was always farfetched. Nobody has three stars right now, and even if they did, who cares if LeBron and Davis are the two best players in the NBA? What the Lakers really needed was a gap-filler, someone to do a lot of things well instead of a few things exceptionally. The Disney version of Kuzma has given the Lakers a little bit of everything. He's fit in practically every lineup. He's been their third-best player by embracing the idea of not being a star, but rather, being a useful part of everything the Lakers do. If that keeps up, the biggest question facing the Lakers all season has been answered.
3. Avery Bradley's absence hurts more than expected
There was a legitimate argument entering the bubble suggesting that the Lakers really wouldn't miss Avery Bradley. He shot well above his head down the stretch of the original season. As valuable as his man-to-man defense is, his lack of size makes him enough of a liability in help situations that his teams generally don't decline much on that end of the floor when he sits. More minutes for Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were theoretically a good thing.
And then, the Lakers ran into a string of star guards, and this happened:
Field Goal Percentage
And so, we've learned a valuable lesson here: having maybe the best point-of-attack defender in basketball is, shockingly, helpful. It turns out you can get away with starting a suspect help-defender when you also have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the NBA's best in that regard.
So this begs the question: who deserves the Bradley role against primary ball-handlers? There isn't a good answer. Alex Caruso is the best point-of-attack defender left among the Laker guards but is small enough to get bullied by bigger guards. Danny Green has the size for it, but he's not as fast as he once was, and has struggled against elite one-on-one scorers all season. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would have been perfect a few years ago when he was among the NBA's best defensive guards. He's slipped noticeably this season.
So Frank Vogel will experiment. The answer will ultimately rely on matchups. They've found no answer for Harden, for instance, but Kyle Kuzma has done well against Russell Westbrook. Green has held his own against Paul for years. It takes a village to defend Damian Lillard. Fortunately, the later rounds will likely not be overly guard-heavy. All things considered, the Bradley-less Lakers are fortunate to have Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo in front of them instead of Stephen Curry and Kyrie Irving. All four pose matchup problems, but the Lakers would much rather take their chances with forwards given their roster construction than roll the dice on smaller guards without Bradley.
4. Dwight Howard has passed JaVale McGee in the pecking order
I present to you, the bubble JaVale McGee experience in one three-minute stretch. Essentially back-to-back-to-back, McGee committed an egregious charge...
Missed a dunk...
And fumbled away a rebound leading to free points.
This has been the norm in Orlando. McGee has never exactly been known for his basketball IQ, but some of these mistakes are downright unforgivable. Basic slip screens should not confound starting NBA centers.
McGee has been a starter all season for justifiable reasons. The version of the starting lineup that included Bradley was among the best five-man units in basketball, outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions. JaVale tends to play better when he's given more minutes. While a case of pneumonia didn't help matters, he played terribly after Ivica Zubac replaced him in the starting lineup last season, but rebounded (literally and figuratively) once Zubac was traded. Starting helps JaVale feel fully engaged. That is when he can actually contribute.
But even as a starter in Orlando, he has been a liability across the board for the Lakers. They were outscored during his minutes in every seeding game he participated in, including a -20 capper in the finale. Something about this isn't working.
Fortunately, it doesn't need to. The Lakers are eventually going to trim their rotation. Davis is going to play more minutes at center, and the Lakers will only need one other big man to fill the minutes that he sits out. At this point, there is no good reason for that big man to be McGee. The entire season has made it clear that the best Laker center not named Davis is Dwight Howard.
The Lakers essentially played opponents to a draw with Howard on the floor in Orlando, a win considering those are bench minutes they just need to survive. He has shot nearly 10 percentage points higher than McGee all season, is a better rebounder, switches more easily onto the perimeter defensively and in the simplest terms, doesn't do as many stupid things. The Lakers know exactly what they're getting out of Howard on a given night: several dunks, adequate defense and voracious offensive rebounding. They have no idea what they're getting out of McGee. The playoffs aren't a time for that sort of risk-taking. When it counts, Dwight is going to get the non-Davis center minutes.
5. The Lakers' championship hopes still rest with LeBron
By LeBron standards, the numbers have been relatively pedestrian. The list of players who can disappointingly average 23 points, eight rebounds and seven assists (excluding his first-half only jaunt Thursday) is short, but when the standard is "best basketball player on Earth," the bar is usually pretty high. At times, James cleared it. His defense against the Clippers was perhaps the best he'd played since his Miami days. The scoring ratcheted up in the last few games. The Lakers didn't have much to play for. He should be forgiven for taking things slow. But the Lakers struggling to score and having a less-than-optimal version of LeBron go hand-in-hand. All season, they have gone where he has taken them.
Reconciling the version of LeBron that laid waste to the Clippers and Bucks right before the shutdown and the version we've seen in Florida since isn't easy. One was unquestionably the best player in the world. The other... jogged his way through a handful of games that won't matter anyway. James has spoken openly about the negative impact the shutdown had on his body. Reconditioning for a playoff run after four months off at the age of 35 is literally unprecedented. We have no idea if James is 100 percent of the player he was in March or something closer to 50.
The answer to that question is what is ultimately going to determine the Lakers' playoff fate. The last time we saw LeBron in the playoffs, he averaged 34 points, nine assists and nine rebounds. That was where he was trending before the season stopped, and given the weaknesses this roster still has, that is roughly who he needs to be for the Lakers to win the championship. The tune-up games are in the rearview mirror. Soon, we'll know whether peak LeBron still exists, or if the King has vacated his throne once and for all.