Among all the disappointments that surrounded the NBA’s suspension back in March, perhaps none loomed larger for the average NBA viewer than the prospect of Lebron not getting what appeared to be his best shot at a 4th ring. Before the shutdown, he was leading the Lakers on a rampage through the Western Conference, going 11-2 in their final 13 games, including statements wins over the Bucks and Clippers in the same weekend. Speaking at least for myself, I was thrilled for numerous reasons that the NBA made its return, largely because I couldn’t stomach the notion of the Lakers having their season just cease when they were playing elite basketball.
However, now that they are back, the Lakers have sputtered to a 3-4 start. Last night they barely squeaked out a win against the Nuggets, who sat their entire starting lineup for the 2nd half. With the playoffs looming, it’s time to acknowledge this team’s very real flaws.
The Lakers simply lack guys that can create offense. Looking up and down the Lakers’ depth chart, excluding Lebron and Davis, there really is just a striking lack of shot creation—particularly in the backcourt. They really do appear to be relying on Dion Waiters to be that sparkplug guard off the bench, despite his essentially being inactive for the past year and a half. While the Lakers have some decent pieces in the backcourt (Caruso, KCP, Danny Green), they essentially all do the same thing: defend, play hard, make the smart play, and shoot well from three (excluding Caruso, who only shoots 33%), and none of them handle well and reliably can create offense. The Lakers are also notably without any of those heat check scorers that seemingly all of their potential Western Conference playoff foes have. While Lebron and AD are obviously elite scorers, they’re not the type to explode for 12 points in 5 minutes the way Dame and CJ can, or Harden and Westbrook can, or Kawhi and PG can, etc.
The difference between when Lebron is on the court vs. off for this team is staggering. He is the only player on the roster who excels at both attacking the basket and distributing, so when he’s off the court, the offense just freezes. The pieces the Lakers have assembled in the backcourt simply aren’t the types of players who can overcome his absence offensively, and the players who have been brought in to try and mitigate that problem and create off the bench (Waiters, Quinn Cook) just aren’t cut out to do it in the playoffs, in my opinion. It really all comes down to Kuzma, who has had his moments, but is still really inconsistent and inefficient, and is a bad three-point shooter at only 31%.
The Lakers do certainly excel defensively; their defensive rating is 3rd in the NBA, and Lebron and AD are both still elite defenders when locked in. However, the Lakers also lacking in weapons to truly take advantage of their defense with transition opportunities. They don’t shoot the three well as a team (23rd in the NBA in 3pt%), and outside of Lebron, aren’t really loaded with good passers. Danny Green, who was the team’s big offseason addition outside of AD, has simply not looked good in the bubble, and will certainly need to turn things around for the Lakers to have a shot.
The eye test for the Lakers just doesn’t look good either. Lebron seems disengaged and weirdly discouraged, and Davis’s play has varied greatly from game to game—why wasn’t he posting up Bol Bol on every possession last night? Lebron did also suggest there were some off-court issues happening, saying, “It’s just some things that you can’t control that’s here, that I really don’t want to talk about, that’s off the floor”. It’s not my place to speculate on what he could be referring to, but that’s something to monitor going forward.
Every team in the bubble has obvious weaknesses (aside from maybe the Bucks), and you can never count Lebron out in the playoffs. Yet the Lakers’ showing in the restart thus far has not warranted much optimism, and with a potential trap series against the now-healthy Blazers looming in round 1, Lebron and co. are running out of time to figure these issues out.