The Los Angeles Lakers didn’t get to celebrate their championship with fans in the stands or a parade, and they probably won’t have a normal ring night.
Now it looks like they won’t even get a proper offseason to decompress from winning their 17th title, as the NBA pushes to start the 2020-21 season on Dec. 22 and have players in training camp by Dec. 1.
Dec. 1, I'm told, has emerged as the likely opening day for NBA training camps if the league's plan to set Dec. 22 as opening night of the 2020-21 season is approved by the union— Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) October 27, 2020
That would give the Lakers a 50-day offseason. They were in the bubble for 100 days.
Whether the league should attempt such a quick turnaround for next season is immaterial; the finances are more favorable for this timeline, so that’s probably what is going to happen. The real question now is how this schedule affects the Lakers as they attempt to defend their championship next season.
Even without knowing what the Lakers roster will look like after the draft and free agency, one thing is for certain: don’t expect the regular-season juggernaut from a year ago. The Lakers were banged up to end the postseason. Anthony Davis hurt his heel in the Finals and had another ankle injury. Danny Green was dealing with hip discomfort and an achilles injury. LeBron James was on the injury report with a groin injury for the entirety of the playoffs.
Ordinarily, the players would have three months before training camp to rest those lingering injuries; now, there’s no chance to heal and enter the preseason healthy. The team will naturally be behind the eight ball simply by recovering from their 2019-20 championship chase.
On top of that, the motivation to win regular-season games won’t be as high. The Lakers had to use their regular season in 2019-20 to develop chemistry and an identity on the court after only bringing back six new players from prior year’s team. There was no culture or institutional knowledge to build on; this group had to create it. Now that their identity is in place, the Lakers can relax a little in 2020-21.
There is a natural hangover after teams win the title — just look at the 2000-01 and the 2009-10 Lakers — because players know that they’re capable of flipping the switch later in the year. That was bound to happen with this team with most of its principals returning. Of the Lakers rotation, only Davis, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (if he returns in free agency) will be under 30 to start next season. The rest of the team simply can’t play back-to-backs or four games in five nights at a high level; it would compromise their health for the postseason.
The presumably accelerated pace of this season would make it even harder for veterans like James or Green or Dwight Howard to play every game, which means the Lakers would likely have to proactively rest their older guys on a regular basis. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, even if it costs the Lakers a few wins. The vets sitting could open up minutes for Caruso, Kuzma, and maybe even Talen Horton-Tucker to assume larger roles. It may also give a chance for the two-way players — Devontae Cacok and Kostas Antetokounmpo, if he re-signs — to step in more frequently.
There are other potential benefits to a compact season. Teams with continuity tend to perform better during the regular season, though that’s partly because good teams make fewer changes year-to-year. Even so, the advantages of continuity would theoretically be heightened when there is a shorter preseason and less time to practice throughout the year. The Lakers will probably bring back their full pre-bubble starting lineup and at least two other key rotation players. So while other teams adjust to new coaches and new teammates, the Lakers can basically run back what was successful in 2019-20. It might even be prudent to do that, given the time constraints of trying to integrate new players.
This season could also be an opportunity for James to pass the torch on to Davis. When Davis arrived from New Orleans, James said that his goal was to make Davis MVP, but the offensive load James had to assume given the team’s roster construction made that impossible. If, however, James is limited in the regular season by the shortened schedule, it could make Davis the No. 1 option on the team by default. At some point, that transition would have to happen — even if James seems like an ageless cyborg — and the special circumstances of this season could expedite that process. There’s a certain magic when NBA players turn 27, and that’s how old Davis is now.
The Lakers probably wouldn’t enjoy returning to play so soon after the physically and emotionally demanding experience of finishing the season in the bubble; Green admitted as much. A team this old, relatively speaking, needs its rest, and the Lakers will get the least of any team except for Miami due to their Finals run. Even if players start off on a high with the motivation of defending their title, that energy will dissipate, and the regular season could be a slog.
But the beauty of starting a season so soon that it essentially feels like an extension of the prior one is that the Lakers did really good work last year, and that will carry over. Usually, momentum fades away during the offseason after winning a title. There might not be enough time for that to happen this year, and that momentum could be enough of a benefit to override the other concerns of this hastened timeline.
Jared Dudley likes to say, “stay ready so you don’t have to get ready.” That will essentially be the team’s guiding philosophy for the next season if this plan comes to fruition. The Lakers have been ready to play for all of 2020; what’s a couple more months?