FanPost: Three Reasons the Lakers Are Still Title Contenders

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Editor's Note: We have bumped this story on why the Lakers should still be considered title contenders despite some of their struggles -- originally published in our FanPosts section prior to Sunday's game -- up to front page so it can be more easily seen by anyone visiting the site.

After beating a lifeless Portland Trail Blazers squad that looked more interested in hitting the clubs on New Year’s Eve than competing on the basketball court, the Lakers sit at 18-19, a half-game behind the Clippers for the sixth seed in the Western Conference.

The Lakers’ struggles have been well documented. Here’s a breakdown:

Russell Westbrook is second in the league in turnovers at 4.6 per game, and according to my unofficial eye-count, he’s first in the association in boneheaded plays with a whopping 7.3 per game. Making matters worse, he’s shooting 31.3% from deep off, mostly wide open looks, and he seems to get stuffed by the rim at least once a game when he ventures into the lane.

The Purple and Gold have sifted through the worst collection of perimeter defenders (outside of Houston) in the association for much of the season. Carmelo Anthony might be the slowest defender in the league, Wayne Ellington is a famous stat-stuffer who saves his legs for the fun side of the ball, Kent Bazemore looked like he was glued to the floor when he entered the game, and Playoff Rondo was in hibernation, leaving Lakers fan stuck with Regular Season Rondo and his parking pylon D.

The Lakers have run through 376 different 5-man lineups, tops in the league. Fans in Hollywood have witnessed groupings no one in their most drunken dreams could have concocted. Here’s a small taste:

  • D. Howard, R. Rondo, R. Westbrook, I. Thomas, and J. Jones
  • L. James, C. Anthony, W. Ellington, I. Thomas, C. Brown Jr.
  • L. James, D. Collinson, S. Johnson, M. Monk, T. Horton-Tucker

The Lakers haven’t just been hit by the injury bug; they’ve been walloped over the head with stars circling and ears ringing. Anthony Davis is out with an MCL sprain, LeBron James missed time with an abdominal strain, and Kendrick Nunn has a bone bruise in his knee, just to name a few.

The Lakers currently have one playable center (Sorry, DeAndre Jordan), nearly every player on the team has been hit by COVID-19, and on and on and on...

You get the point.

Despite everything the Lakers have been through in 2021-2022, they are still Title Contenders.

Next, I’ll examine three reasons the Purple and Gold could climb the mountain this year and hang another banner.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are Still the Best Duo in the Western Conference

It seems like forever ago, but last summer, the Purple and Gold were up 2-1 against the eventual Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs before Anthony Davis suffered a series-ending knee injury. AD and LBJ were physically dominating the Suns even with a myriad of Lakers’ roster problems, including:

  • Dennis Schröder was off his game due to a two-week coronavirus layoff right before the postseason began.
  • Montrezl Harrell saw his minutes diminish as the season went on and sulked like a wet cat stuck out in the rain.
  • The Lakers center tandem of Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond was horrendous. Gasol could barely walk, and Drummond looked overwhelmed under the bright lights of the postseason in Hollywood.
  • Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot under 30% from beyond the arc.

Nobody wants to see a healthy Lakers team in the playoffs because the combination of LBJ and AD is a matchup nightmare.

Let’s look at the top three teams in the Western Conference.

The Golden State Warriors cannot guard LeBron and Davis when they are together on the court. Draymond Green is the only person alive in California who can handle "The Brow," but he’s also the only person who can manage James.

That’s a problem.

Andrew Wiggins and Otto Porter Jr. have played excellent defense up in San Francisco, but they don’t have the size to contain "The King," he’ll pick them apart with his post up game and passing.

At the same time, Stephen Curry has been outstanding. He’s the MVP frontrunner and is nearly impossible to shut down in the regular season. Still, the combination of Avery Bradley, Austin Reeves, Trevor Ariza, and Talen Horton-Tucker can slow him down in the postseason with Frank Vogel’s tutelage and defensive acumen. Even with Curry’s phenomenal shooting, he doesn’t offer enough playmaking (5.9 APG) to truly make a difference in the postseason as the lone All-Star on his squad. (let’s not talk about Klay Thompson’s return yet. He’s missed two years of basketball, and he’s attempting to come back from two devastating injuries, a feat no other player has conquered.)

The Utah Jazz have the best offense in the league behind a record-setting three-point attack. Still, they have "regular season squad" written all over them. The Jazz don’t feature a superstar, and they don’t hold an elite playmaker on their roster who can handle the offense when the action bogs down during the postseason. Meanwhile, they have nobody who can try to slow down LeBron James. Making matters worse, Anthony Davis has eaten Rudy Gobert up every time they’ve met in a meaningful game.

The Phoenix Suns pose the only real problem for the Lakers. Mikal Bridges and Jae Crowder are two role players who aren’t afraid of LeBron and have the size and skill to slow him down. Deandre Ayton also does a solid job against AD on defense. This series would be close and could go either way, but LBJ has four titles to his name, and Chris Paul has zero. Most folks would bet on "The King."

The Lakers are Better on D than Most People Think

The Lakers rank 11th in Defensive Rating

  • AD is out.
  • DeAndre Jordan might be the worst center in the league (according to the Cleaning the Glass, the Lakers are 13.6 points worse per 100 possessions with him on the court, good for the 7th percentile out of all centers in the league).
  • LeBron James has had to play center for the first time in his career.
  • The Lakers have depended on Carmelo Anthony for rim protection (I literally laughed out loud as I wrote that).
  • The Lakers’ best perimeter defenders, Trevor Ariza, THT, Austin Reeves, and Avery Bradley, have missed time.

In spite of everything, the Lakers are better than most people think on defense, and things will only get better as we move into 2022.

Malik Monk came to the Lakers with a reputation as an awful perimeter defender. This year, he’s morphed into a solid ballhawk. He’s holding his assignments to a stingy 42.6% from the field as he fights around screens and rushes to cut off drives to the lane.

Undrafted rookie Austin Reaves has a bit of Alex Caruso in him. The stats love the Arkansas native. He’s top-20 in the NBA in defensive rating, he stifles his man into shooting 6.8% lower from the field than his regular mark, and the Lakers are 8.8 points per 100 possessions more frugal with Reaves on the floor.

LeBron James is still a beast on the less fun end. According to Dunks & Threes, he’s in the 80th percentile as a defender, and he’s been all over the court for the Lakers, defending over 12 shots per game, not bad for a player with a top-5 usage rate on offense.

Stanley Johnson has played four games for the Lakers, and he’s made an immediate impact. At 6-6, 240 pounds, he can body up nearly every player in the league. The former Piston is fast, too, defending 13.5 field goal attempts, second on the Lakers. This could be Johnson’s last shot in the league, and he’s playing like it, going 110% on every possession, and motivating the rest of the roster while he’s at it.

I haven’t mentioned AD yet. The Lakers yearly Defensive Player of the Year threat is one of the most versatile defenders in the league. He can body up big men in the lane, provide backline defense for his teammates, and cover speedy guards on the perimeter.

We have yet to truly see what the Lakers’ top defensive unit can do. But, it’s easy to picture the combination of Anthony Davis, LeBron James, Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves, and Malik Monk or Avery Bradley morphing into one of the most tightfisted 5-man lineups in the NBA.

Every Squad Goes Hard Against the Lakers

The Lakers are one of the most famous organizations in the world, they have the most famous athlete in the world in LeBron James, and they have the most famous cast of characters in attendance.

All that fame means a few things.

  • The Lakers have the most nationally televised games in the NBA.
  • All teams, especially small-market teams, want to beat the Lakers in front of the huge audience they bring.
  • Easy weekday night games against poor teams become difficult. Every player in the association circles the Lakers on their calendar and grinds as hard as possible against them.

The Lakers are the most veteran team in the league, and they can’t get up for a game on a Monday night against the starless Oklahoma City Thunder. Everyone in the NBA can play, and if one team with less talent (the Thunder, for example) goes full throttle while the more gifted squad (the Lakers) drives in third gear, they’re going to make things difficult for the superstar laden organization. Sprinkle in some lousy injury luck with a dash of a new roster trying to acclimate to each other, and you have the recipe for some ugly early season losses.

There is a benefit for the Lakers in dealing with every team’s best effort, however: It better prepares them for the intensity of the playoffs.

The Lakers are slowly picking things up, and over the next month, as AD (and hopefully Nunn) returns to the court, look for the urgency to grow within the Purple and Gold. Look for them to slowly play better and better, and by the time the playoffs loom large, LeBron James and company should be ready to go.