As the NBA slowly, mercifully, moves towards resuming the 2019-20 season, it is still strange to think about the idea of basketball being played. So much time has passed since the Lakers last suited up against the Brooklyn Nets that it seems like that iteration of the team is gone, and whatever games may be played in the coming months will constitute a different season.
Nevertheless, the record books will show the 2019-20 year as one single entity, even if the games are spread over 12 months. That means it’s worthwhile to think of how the Lakers were playing when the shutdown began.
So with the news that the NBA is looking to start back up again by July 31, here are three questions we still want answers on when the season resumes.
Does LeBron James still have an MVP case?
When we left the Lakers, they had just won two games against the other top two teams in the league (because we have conveniently scrubbed the Nets loss from our collective memory). That weekend — during which LeBron James out-dueled Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard in consecutive games — had vaulted the Lakers superstar into consideration for the league’s biggest individual prize: Most Valuable Player.
The media consensus, and any reasonable statistical analysis, still favored Antetokounmpo at the time, but players have come out in favor of James over the past few months, highlighting James’ ability to perform at his age and the Lakers’ No. 1 seed in the tougher conference.
James’ candidacy was on the upswing after the Lakers collected key wins against the Bucks and the Clippers, and the Lakers had a chance to even catch Milwaukee in team record, giving James another arrow in his quiver. It certainly didn’t hurt James’ case that Antetokounmpo suffered a knee injury against the Lakers and had to sit out the Bucks’ last two games, giving James an opportunity to build up stats in his absence.
If both teams had to finish out an 82-game season, enough time remained for James to theoretically pass Antetokounmpo with a heroic stretch. But there likely won’t be enough games for James to do so in the modified format, unless awards voting happens later than usual, so a more pertinent question might be if James can retain his level of play.
A narrative that has been floated during the hiatus is that the Lakers benefit from the time off compared to other teams because James is older than every other star in the league and could use some rest before a postseason push. But looking at James’ splits over the course of the season, it’s clear he was in much better form in March than in October. His defensive rating, assist percentage, rebounding percentage, and true-shooting percentage were all at their highest in the final month of the season. Whether that’s a matter of James playing his way into shape or simply learning his teammates is an open question, but the idea that James would be better off in an August postseason than in May discounts the positive momentum he and the Lakers had built up.
Just think about James’ performance against the Clippers on opening night versus March 8. He had more burst in the latter game, enabling him to be defensively engaged and get into the paint and to the free-throw line. That’s the James the Lakers need in the postseason, whether it’s enough to win MVP or not.
Is Frank Vogel a good postseason coach, too?
Arguably the most pleasant surprise of the Lakers’ regular season has been the performance of Frank Vogel. The team’s third choice (at best) for head coach during the offseason has been exactly what the franchise needed: he has restored defensive integrity to the Lakers, he commands respect from the locker room, and he has his team prepared on a nightly basis.
Vogel has been flexible throughout the season and shown an ability to mix and match his lineups depending on the situation. Playing Anthony Davis at the five in the the second game of the season, employing Dwight Howard against Nikola Jokic for some more heft, and letting Kyle Kuzma spearhead a bench run against Chicago when the starters were lethargic are all cases of Vogel breaking from his conventions to spark the team.
But there are several examples of coaches succeeding in the regular season who are unable to translate that performance into the playoffs. Mike Budenholzer has won Coach of the Year twice in the last five seasons but has been criticized for his inability to make adjustments during the postseason. In Vogel’s last playoff appearance in 2016, he left a five-man bench unit in for Indiana for far too long in Game 5, allowing Toronto to make a run and regain control of the series. His failure to recognize Roy Hibbert’s ineffectiveness soon enough nearly led to a 1-8 upset for the Pacers in 2014.
It’s one thing to have a team prepared for a different regular-season opponent every game, but it’s another task altogether to prepare for the same opponent whose strategies evolve over the course of a series. The fact that the Lakers beat the Bucks and the Clippers after losing to them on three previous occasions suggests that Vogel is capable of adapting, but we need to see that happen on a bigger stage.
Can the Lakers reliably go small?
At first blush, this seems like an inane question because the Lakers have arguably the best small-ball center in the league in Davis. But going small requires guards and wings to play a little bit bigger as well, and this is where the Lakers are lacking. Watching wing-sized players like Jayson Tatum, Ben Simmons, and Leonard bully the Lakers and exploit their perimeter defense suggests that the team has enough problems without going small.
However, it seemed like the Lakers were turning a corner on that front before the hiatus. James’ renewed commitment on defense was a major factor and he should continue to able to guard the opposing team’s best player. Danny Green has seemingly been on a stealth load management plan all season and can at least play closer to 30 minutes instead of the 25 he has been averaging. Having someone like Markieff Morris has been a boon; his ability to toggle between the forward spots lets the Lakers stay both big and small. Morris’ presence also allows James to either play wing defense or protect the glass instead of having to do both. Kyle Kuzma’s improving effort on the boards also makes going small more tenable, as his defensive rebounding percentage has improved steadily from December through March.
Two of the Lakers’ key competitors in the Western Conference, the Clippers and the Rockets, thrive without a true center on the floor. And in case the postseason is reseeded irrespective of conference, there are multiple Eastern teams who run offense and space the floor in a way that would play Howard and JaVale McGee off the court. The Lakers need to have a small-ball option available just in case, even if it isn’t their preferred style.
Much of the Lakers’ identity stems from their physicality and the fact that they are bigger and stronger than most teams. They don’t lead the league in dunks by accident. Perhaps the best way for the Lakers to go small is by embracing that size with or without a center on the floor.
There are so many questions still left to answer about the NBA’s return to play and the format it will take, but it’s worth remembering that basketball itself spawns just as many discussions and debates. Even though the Lakers had their best team in a decade this season, there are numerous hurdles they’ll have to clear in order to crown themselves at the end of the year.
But those are good problems to have back, because we are finally in a position to think about the Lakers on the court, instead of all the other issues that surround the league.