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A Roadmap to Winning Without LeBron James

The Lakers have a 7-3 record after the trade deadline, and are 3-2 since LeBron James injured his foot against the Mavericks. Continuing that level of play without LeBron will be difficult, but there is a path to accomplish it.

Los Angeles Lakers v Golden State Warriors

After a thrilling win over the Grizzlies on an emotional night in which Pau Gasol had his #16 retired and raised to the rafters, the Lakers are 7-3 in the games since the NBA trade deadline, and have moved into ninth place in the tightly packed Western Conference standings.

With 16 games left to play, there are still too many moving parts to know who will end up where in the final standings, but the Lakers control their own destiny in their pursuit of a play-in spot, and if they rack up enough wins (while the right teams lose), a move up into the sixth seed and an automatic berth into the playoffs isn’t completely out of the question.

The path won’t be easy to get there, however, and — making things even more difficult — it won’t include LeBron James for the foreseeable future. LeBron is set to be reevaluated in two weeks, which means we should be bracing for at least that long before he resumes basketball activities, which, in the best-case scenario, means at least another three weeks before LeBron could return to play in actual games — at the earliest.

The Lakers are 3-2 since LeBron went down, but in those five games, we’ve learned a fair amount about what works and what doesn’t with this new roster, while also getting just enough of a sample of what things looked like before D’Angelo Russell got hurt to forecast how incorporating him back into the mix (hopefully on Friday vs. the Raptors) could look.

With that out of the way, then, below are some keys to not just remaining competitive, but to winning games while LeBron James remains out.

Anthony Davis, Destroyer of Worlds

I know, I know. You came here for an article discussing how to win games when LeBron is out, and you get some dummy telling you that AD needs to play well? Yes, yes you did. It’s not just him playing well, though, it’s the team continuing to do all the things that are helping to facilitate Davis playing as well as he has been — particularly on offense.

First and foremost, that means continuing to feature AD as the actual hub of the offense. Yes, involving him via pick-and-roll actions or direct post-ups should certainly continue as part of the diet the Lakers offense feeds opposing defenses. He’s too good a finisher not to, plus there’s the added benefit of how much those actions help his teammates get downhill and into positions where they can take high-value spot-up jump shots.

But AD should be much more of a Jokic or Embiid type of focal point; a player who is initiating offense from the top of the floor, the elbows and the shallow wing, and then having multiple screen and cutting actions happening around him to both capitalize on his individual gravity and to occupy help defenders in ways that allow him to cook in isolation.

Davis remains one of the most unique offensive talents in the league, leveraging a combination of quickness, power, grace, shooting touch, craft, and skill that, at his size, translates to one of the most formidable arsenals in the league. As has been a hallmark of his career, in his recent games he’s proving too quick for the burly centers to defend him, too strong and big for most forwards, and too skilled for the guys who would simply try to beat him up.

He’s also improved enough as a passer to keep defenses honest when they send extra help his way, not only when he’s operating out of face-ups and drives, but out of the standard post-ups from both the deep and shallow post on the wing.

Whenever he’s gotten a prolonged stretch of consecutive games played, Davis has shown over and over this season that he’s capable of absorbing usage via scoring and playmaking chances. He should continue to be featured this way while LeBron is out (and, honestly, when he returns too, but that’s another post for another day).

On-Ball Austin, Even with Dennis

Individually, Austin Reaves is having his best stretch of the season in the Lakers' last five games. A simple comparison of his regular season averages to this recent stretch:

  • Season averages: 27.6 minutes, 11.0 points, 50.4% FG, 39.0% 3PT FG, 2.9 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.4 turnovers
  • Last five games: 26.7 minutes, 15.0 points, 52.3% FG, 50.0% 3PT FG, 2.2 rebounds, 5.8 assists, 1.8 turnovers

As part of 5-man units, however, Austin’s recent individual boost hasn’t always translated to team success. Austin is actually a -8 over his last five games in the box score, which stands in stark contrast to his +32 for the regular season as a whole. (As an aside, Austin is actually a -31! in his last 10 games, which has really put a dent into his season-long plus/minus. But I digress.)

It might seem strange, then, to ask for even more Austin as a focal point and driver of team success when the numbers don’t necessarily back that up. And to that I say, I don’t care about the numbers.

Fact is, with both LeBron and Russell out — and this can and will be true even when Russell returns, too — the Lakers need additional ballhandling and shot creation from the perimeter, particularly from a “skill” guard. Dennis Schröder, as good as he’s been in so many ways, is much more of an attacking player who, despite his slight frame, plays with force in the form of speed and quickness attacks off the dribble. He’s effective when he’s able to get downhill and that effectiveness goes up when his jumper is falling. But if he’s defended by a big wing who can keep him out of the paint, he will struggle to score. If that comes on a night when his jumper isn’t falling too, he’s going to be in for a rough night.

Austin is able to both compensate for and be a complement to Dennis in ways that will serve the Lakers well in the short and long term. Austin’s ability to create shots for himself and others, especially in the pick-and-roll, not only helps the team as a whole, but allows Dennis to work as an off-ball player just enough that he does not carry such a burden as the team’s lone perimeter shot creator. This bears out in the numbers, too. In the last five games, when Austin and Dennis share the floor the Lakers have a 121.3 offensive rating — the second-highest rating for any two-man lineup on the team over that stretch — and have a +7.2 net rating.

So, get Austin the ball more, even if he’s on the floor with Dennis. Good things will happen.

Keep the Defense Going

Again, this isn’t rocket science, but it’s worth stressing and reinforcing. The Lakers simply aren’t going to be good enough offensively to beat teams by outscoring them without LeBron. Getting Russell back will help some, but LeBron is too critical of a shot-creator and overall threat to act as though a roster without him can simply absorb his loss and still thrive on that side of the ball.

Instead, then, the Lakers need to continue their defensive intensity and focus, making it the backbone of their identity. That begins with the starting group, and particularly with the trio of AD, Jarred Vanderbilt and Troy Brown. In the 54 minutes those three have shared the floor since LeBron went out, the Lakers are boasting a defensive rating of 92.4 and have outscored opponents by 25 points.

Davis, of course, is the anchor of this group, and his ability to be the back-line defender who dominates the paint by deterring and blocking shots at the rim is the fulcrum for which the rest of the defense is built. It’s this rim protection and general activity in the paint that allows the perimeter players to pressure the ball, top-lock shooters and jump passing lanes for deflections and steals.

But even if AD is the foundation upon which everything else is built on, Vando and Brown are the tentacles that reach out across the rest of the court to disrupt the opponent's actions. Their positional versatility allows them to take on many of the most difficult matchups, which then enables the other perimeter defenders to play to their strengths more often. Further, they’re both good rebounders that, when flanking AD, make the Lakers extremely difficult to get traction against offensively.

In support of those two, Dennis’ ball pressure and ball denials add another layer of defensive fortitude along the perimeter that can put opponents in a box, and steer them towards difficult shots in the mid-range or contested shots in the paint. Nowhere were those characteristics on display more than in the Grizzlies game, where Dennis was terrific in chasing Desmond Bane all over the court, while Brown helped slow down Brooks, and Vando + AD made things harder on Jaren Jackson Jr. (particularly down the stretch in the fourth quarter).

The Lakers will need to channel similar efforts nightly to give the team the best chance to win.

There are certainly several other factors that are extremely important to ensuring the Lakers win at the rate they need to while LeBron is out. From Troy Brown Jr. continuing to shoot the ball as well as he has been to Rui Hachimura providing good production off the bench, or D’Angelo Russell returning to give the team a stabilizing force on offense while not taking away too much from the team’s overall defensive focus, it’s a total team effort to account for missing LeBron while remaining competitive night-to-night.

But there is a roadmap in place. And while it will be difficult, it won’t be impossible for them to keep playing well and, with the right amount of focus and hitting their targets in all the areas above, keep winning games.

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