Before I get to the meat of this story, imagine this:
You’re a participant at a Hell’s Kitchen competition. Your task is to complete a dish made from a vast array of quality ingredients given to you. Note that these ingredients don’t necessarily go together, but all of them can provide flavor to your dish. You have the option to not use some of these ingredients, but the challenge (besides Gordon Ramsay screaming in your ear) is to figure out how to make an excellent meal in less than 30 minutes.
How do you figure out what ingredient goes along with the others? What if there’s not enough time to even consider what makes the perfect recipe? Time, pressure and lack of experimentation could be the factors that determine the ultimate quality of your finished product.
That’s basically the situation the Lakers have faced this season.
The Lakers entered the 2020-21 campaign as the prohibitive favorites to repeat as champions. However, they’re about to end it with a lot of uncertainty. Not only are the defending champs set to compete against multiple contenders in the playoffs, but they’re also going up against time as they try to figure out how to maximize the team’s potential before the postseason.
With just seven games left this season, the challenge for the Lakers is to make up for lost time spent together, figure out their rotations and control their destiny in the Western Conference standings.
How can they do this? By finishing the regular season with a sense of urgency.
The Lakers’ biggest threat isn’t the Brooklyn Nets or the L.A Clippers
It’s lack of continuity.
The team has literally had to adjust to six different rotations throughout the season:
- The complete lineup they entered the season with
- The one after Anthony Davis’ injury
- The one after LeBron James’ injury
- The lineup with just Davis back
- The lineup with both their superstars back along with Andre Drummond and Ben McLemore.
- The current group, with James and Dennis Schröder out with Davis still in the lineup
The addition of Drummond is also obviously a huge change given that he’s now the starting center over Marc Gasol, so it has added pressure on the team to play as many reps as they can in a short amount of time.
The biggest question mark for the Lakers is if seven games is enough time to put the puzzle together. The trio of James, Davis and Drummond will end this season only playing less than ten games together. Meanwhile, Schröder has only played 24 games with both James and Davis. To add to the challenge, the team has only practiced 15 times (twice with Drummond) this season. As head coach Frank Vogel has said, there won’t be enough time to find the chemistry necessary for the playoffs, so the best they can do is to make the most out of what they can build.
Unfortunately, they may not have time to build much
This isn’t last year’s Lakers team.
The Lakers let go of several key pieces from last year’s championship roster in exchange for more talent this year. You can argue that this current squad is more equipped to handle games sans Davis and James, and true enough, they did just that. Sixty two games into this season, this year’s squad has almost the same offensive rating (111) and defensive rating (107.7) compared to last year’s team, which posted a 113 on offense and 106 on defense. There’s no question that the current team has more depth, but you can argue that they did not approach the season like last year’s team did.
Last year’s champions were special because the team almost always put their foot on the gas. That’s not a knock on this year’s team, and obviously the circumstances are way different this season. Injuries and acquiring a starting center in the buyout market were not part of their original plan this year, hence why the past couple of months have been all about adjustments.
But for as talented as the Lakers are, cramming to establish their rotations and chemistry will be a challenge. If they indeed end up in the play-in tournament, the competition in the first round isn’t going to be a walk in the park. To add context, they’re barely above .500 against contenders this season. For them to compete against any top-seeded Western Conference team, they need to get their act together right now.
The Lakers are nowhere close to playoff form
The Lakers are 2-5 since Davis returned, and 0-2 with James back on the lineup. All the talk about how the duo will be able to fix the challenges the Lakers have endured this season will have to be put on hold right now. With seven important games left in the regular season, it’s clear that Davis is still playing catch up, while James has raised more concern about his health.
To make things worse, the Lakers lost two winnable games vs. the Sacramento Kings and Toronto Raptors. These two games would have been huge for them, at least standings-wise, if they want to avoid the play-in. Then, Davis finally woke up versus the Denver Nuggets and played his best game since his injury, and it’s no coincidence that the Lakers are more focused when their leader is active mentally and physically on both sides of the floor.
It’s fair to argue that the defending champions aren’t ending the regular season the way they want to. But those are the circumstances they’re dealing with and can’t control. However, what they can control is the effort, focus and intensity they bring every game. They’re at their best when they stick to and play their own brand of basketball, specifically when they create offensive opportunities through their defense, get out in transition and be the more physical team every night.
We have to note that the Lakers aren’t the only team going through challenges. The condensed, expedited season has made it so every playoff team is in the same Hell’s Kitchen tournament with them. It’s just unfortunate that the defending champions have dealt with arguably the most issues, from losing both of their stars for weeks at a time to having their starting point guard miss the end of the regular season.
But with the season almost at an end, the few contenders who haven’t already figured out their best lineups and identity for the playoffs are in the process of doing so. Meanwhile, the Lakers, who continue to deal with what seems like an unending stream of adversity, will have to keep grinding out victories and experiment their rotations with the postseason fast approaching.
Only time will tell if that will be enough time for them to put together a satisfactory dish, but playing with a little more of the desperation they showed against Denver would certainly help things along.
Nicole Ganglani is a lifelong Lakers fan and basketball journalist in the Philippines. You can follow her on Twitter at @nicoleganglani.