When last we saw the Los Angeles Lakers, they were staking their claim to the title of undisputed championship favorite with statement wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. The onset of the coronavirus dulled that momentum, and now the Lakers will enter the restarted season just like everyone else: rested, but weakened.
Avery Bradley decided not to play in Orlando. Rajon Rondo broke his thumb at an early Disney practice and is out for six-to-eight weeks. And then there are the intangible costs of the hiatus. How will a 35-year-old LeBron James handle an unprecedented four-month break?
Add all of that up and their favorite status is in question. Fortunately, their roster talent is not. The Lakers are still bringing two All-Stars and a versatile group of veterans to Orlando in pursuit of the team's first championship in a decade. Below is everything you need to know as the Lakers chase banner No. 17.
- Kostas Antetokounmpo (two-way)
- Devontae Cacok (two-way)
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
- Alex Caruso
- Quinn Cook
- Anthony Davis
- Jared Dudley
- Danny Green
- Talen Horton-Tucker
- Dwight Howard
- LeBron James
- Kyle Kuzma
- JaVale McGee
- Markieff Morris
- Rajon Rondo
- JR Smith
- Dion Waiters
All times Eastern
July 30: Los Angeles Clippers, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 1: Toronto Raptors, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 3: Utah Jazz, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 5: Oklahoma City Thunder, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 6: Houston Rockets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 8: Indiana Pacers, 6 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 13: Sacramento Kings, TBD
Backcourt backups: Though LeBron James functions as the Lakers point guard, the players that nominally occupied that slot for most of the season won't do so at Disney. Avery Bradley won't be joining the Lakers in Orlando, and Rajon Rondo will miss the beginning of the Lakers' championship bid. New signees Dion Waiters and JR Smith are fighting for some of that playing time, but the bulk of those minutes are likely to go to incumbents Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Can they scale up so dramatically? Their histories suggest that they can. Caldwell-Pope has been a full-time starter before in both Los Angeles and Detroit. His numbers as a starter this season were significantly better than those he posted off of the bench, and the Lakers are 17-3 in games he started this season. Caruso had similar success in an expanded role last March and April, but it came largely with James sidelined and against weaker competition. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will look like themselves when they return to the floor, and even if they do, their injury buffer in the backcourt is now gone. With so much uncertainty at Disney, that lost depth could come back to haunt them.
Downsizing: The Lakers are the antithesis of the sort of basketball that has won in the playoffs in recent years. Most recent contenders have been designed around small-ball, and have steered into that style aggressively in the postseason. But Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee aren't exactly Draymond Green or P.J. Tucker. The Lakers are designed to play big. It was an unspoken condition of acquiring Anthony Davis, who strongly prefers to play power forward rather than center.
But at some point in the postseason, especially given their limited backup options and relative lack of shooting, a matchup is going to force the Lakers to play small. It's not exactly a look they've shied away from. Davis has played roughly 1,500 possessions at center this season, per Cleaning the Glass, and the Lakers have dominated those minutes. But their identity, especially in an increasingly stylistically homogenous league, has been their size all season. Frank Vogel has to thread a very tight needle in deciding when to downsize. Do it too early and risk sacrificing what made the Lakers special all season. Do it too late and it doesn't make a difference.
Playoff LeBron: He is the NBA's slumbering dinosaur. The last time LeBron James played in the postseason, he singlehandedly laid waste to the entire Eastern Conference and came one legendary JR Smith brainfart away from taking a Finals game off of Golden State on the road. When he missed the 2019 postseason due to a combination of injuries and the team around him, the basketball world assumed that version of LeBron was gone. As great as he's been this season, the gap between "MVP candidate LeBron" and "playoff apex predator LeBron" is still vast.
Does he still have a level to climb when it counts? History suggests it's possible, if not overly likely. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did win Finals MVP at the age of 38, but he was an anomaly. Among perimeter players, only Michael Jordan has ever led a championship run at the age of 35. Neither had to contend with a four-month hiatus. Will the rest help James, or will the rust hurt him?
Reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard has, for the most part, gotten the best of him this season. Physically, Leonard's younger legs are noticeable on tape. Leonard's Clippers will ultimately be the barometer against which James is judged. Putting up monster numbers in a round one romp over Memphis won't mean much. But for the Lakers to win the championship, LeBron is going to have to summon his old self for seven grueling games against Leonard, Paul George and perhaps the best single defense ever built to combat him specifically. Whether or not he can do so will be the single most important storyline of the postseason.