You don’t need me to tell you that these first two months of the Lakers season have not gone as smoothly as anyone would have hoped. Sure, there was always a chance that things would be somewhat rocky — the players themselves spoke to that all through the preseason, and even into the beginning of the regular season.
But I don’t think even the most pessimistic observer thought it would look exactly like this.
Injuries have again taken their toll on this season, with Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn still not having played in a single regular season game and several others — including LeBron — in an out of the lineup on more than one occasion. Those injuries only amplified the expected growing pains of bringing a new group together, particularly one featuring such a style-transforming player as Russell Westbrook.
Those lack of reps have led to a certain imbalance in the team’s play, not only as the players have tried to learn how to play together, but as the coaches have tried to learn what the players can — and can’t — do effectively in various groupings. Ultimately, the team sputtered along, following any step forward with another backwards due to a combination of poor play, self-inflicted wounds via ill-fitting lineups, and the types of general inconsistencies that can plague any team.
And now, just as the team was starting to find its rhythm and playing better on both sides of the ball while getting some much needed wins in the process, COVID has struck the team, leaving four players sidelined indefinitely in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. With three of those four players currently slotted into the starting lineup — including Westbrook — the team is once again back on its heels and looking to find any continuity and foster togetherness when, honestly, no one should really expect them to be able to.
As much as this all sucks and, really, just isn’t fair, the team must seek out solutions in the areas that they can control, and continue to tap into some of the same resiliency that has carried them through to this point in the season. The challenges they’ve faced thus far, while not ideal, can certainly serve as a guide for what they’re facing now.
And really, if there’s a silver lining in all this, that’s where it lies. It sounds strange to say, but few teams, if any, should be as prepared to manage missing players than the Lakers are right now. Their entire season has been crash course on “next man up” mentality, with both stars and role players needing to carry more of a load than they expected to on any given night due to a wide range of past absences.
With six players currently unavailable due to either injury or COVID protocols, the team is certainly stretched thin. And players who have been out of the rotation entirely lately (Rajon Rondo, Kent Bazemore, and DeAndre Jordan) needing to be a part of the group to step into bigger roles is a legitimate concern. That said, all are certainly capable of playing a small role and/or being effective in short shifts while the team’s stars and more established rotation players take on bigger asks.
Which brings me to LeBron and Anthony Davis. It seems unfair to ask either to do way more than they’re already doing, particularly LeBron, who has really turned up his level of play in the last week and a half. That said, both are certainly capable of raising their respective games up another notch, and both should feel more than comfortable falling back into a two-star system where they no longer need to accommodate a new, high-usage player.
Both can now go back to the formula of playing off each other in more two-man actions in the lineups they share, and anchoring the units as the primary option when the other rests. Vogel will also need to refine some of his substitution patterns more, seeking out the right batch of role players to surround each star.
One suggestion I’d make is playing DeAndre next to LeBron and Rondo next to AD in order to give both a pick-and-roll partner to serve as a pillar of the offense. Flank them with a mix of shooting and defense, and you just might be able to tread water in enough games to still pull out some wins for as long as Westbrook and the others are out.
And, really, that’s what this is about. No one can expect this depleted version of the Lakers to play to the level they have been recently. Having enough talent to win is one thing, but having a complement of enough players to turn to should one or more of your role players have a bad night is another. The Lakers will be the first to tell you they have the former, but it’s pretty clear they do not have the latter.
But, the former can keep games close and can give you a chance in the end. And when you have LeBron and AD, that may just be enough to get them through this stretch.