As LeBron James inches toward the twilight of his career — he turns 36 in December — he’s keenly aware that the opportunities to add more championship hardware to his trophy case are dwindling with each passing season. Still, despite his age and the mileage on his body, he’s shown very few signs of slowing down.
LeBron was putting up MVP-worthy numbers before the shutdown and, together with Anthony Davis and a hodgepodge of supporting players, had the Lakers primed to close out the regular season with the top seed in the West and the now-inconsequential homecourt advantage through the first few rounds.
Make no mistake, the Lakers aren’t without their flaws or without glaring question marks up and down the roster, namely in the backcourt, with Avery Bradley opting out of the restart due to health concerns and Rajon Rondo fracturing his finger in practice. But a devastating one-two punch of LeBron and AD that is also capable of elevating those around them puts the Lakers firmly in the top-flight contender column entering the bubble games.
Rajon Rondo (injured)
Thu. 7/30 vs. Clippers, 9:00 PM
Sat. 8/1 vs. Raptors, 8:30 PM
Mon. 8/3 vs. Jazz, 9:00 PM
Wed. 8/5 vs. Thunder, 6:30 PM
Thu. 8/6 vs. Rockets, 9:00 PM
Sat. 8/8 vs. Pacers, 6:00 PM
Mon. 8/10 vs. Nuggets, 9:00 PM
Thu. 8/13 vs. Kings, TBD
1. Los Angeles Lakers: 49-14
2. Los Angeles Clippers: 44-20 (5.5)
3. Denver Nuggets: 43-22 (7.0)
4. Utah Jazz: 41-23 (8.5)
5. OKC Thunder: 40-24 (9.5)
6. Houston Rockets: 40-24 (9.5)
7. Dallas Mavericks: 40-27 (11.0)
8. Memphis Grizzlies: 32-33 (18.0)
9. Portland Trail Blazers: 29-37 (21.5)
10. New Orleans Pelicans: 28-36 (21.5)
11. Sacramento Kings: 28-36 (21.5)
12. San Antonio Spurs: 27-36 (22.0)
13. Phoenix Suns: 26-39 (24.0)
WHAT DOES SUCCESS LOOK LIKE?/WHAT TO EXPECT
Any time you’re talking about LeBron, nothing less than a championship will do. He’s been here often enough that we more or less know what the expect, i.e. transcendent performances. With Anthony Davis, however, it’s a bit of a different story. While not exactly an X-factor — that designation is usually reserved for non-stars — Davis doesn’t have nearly as much experience with deep playoff runs and will be called up on to play at the top of his game over a sustained period that could double as the defining stretch of his career.
J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters are both walking X-factors. They should have this category named after them. Neither of them has played meaningful basketball recently, and the surreal circumstances of the bubble add yet another variable to an already strange situation. Yet Smith and Waiters are both capable of the type of scoring outbursts that could swing a playoff game in their favor, and are equally subject to shooting droughts and/or lapses in judgment that could make them more of a liability than a resource. With an already-depleted backcourt, they’ll have to log real minutes in real postseason games.
BIGGEST ON-COURT QUESTION
With Rondo and Bradley both out, the Lakers’ backcourt is thin. They’ve tapped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to be their starting two-guard, a role he found success with in the earlier months of the season when Bradley was out with an injury. But the combination of him and Alex Caruso and/or Quinn Cook simply cannot replace the experience, defensive tenacity and all-around savvy that Bradley and Rondo brought to the table. Lakers fans have pined for more Caruso minutes and fewer Rondo minutes this season, and they’ll certainly get their fill early on. With Caruso needing to log major minutes, we’ll learn if the spark he brings to the Lakers can be sustained for long stretches.
Their big lineups that include JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard at center helped bolster one of the league’s best defenses during the regular season, but the question of how they’ll match up against smaller, more agile teams in the playoffs is a real concern. On the other end of the court, they’ll rely heavily on LeBron and AD to produce points, and it’s still unclear whether Kyle Kuzma is capable of being a reliable third scoring option, particularly in a playoff run.
The good news is that 35-year-old LeBron has had several months to rest and rejuvenate for the postseason. The less good news is that, depending on how the eight-game slate turns out, they could end up facing a retooled Blazers squad hungry for a first-round upset — and boasting one of the league’s most potent backcourts. Either way, a legitimate test of their mettle early in this process could tell us a lot about their chances.