June 15, 2024

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LeBron’s injury, Anthony Davis’ health and more: The 10 most important Lakers storylines

LeBron’s injury, Anthony Davis’ health and more: The 10 most important Lakers storylines

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers are 35-37 and No. 11 in the Western Conference, half a game behind 10th-place Utah and 1 1/2 games behind sixth-place Golden State.

The post-trade deadline buzz has slightly worn off, with the team losing three of its past five games, including back-to-back heartbreakers against the Rockets and Mavericks last week. The teams around them in the standings are getting hotter. With 10 games left, Los Angeles is running out of time to secure a top-10 seed and a spot in the Play-In Tournament.

From LeBron James’ return to Anthony Davis’ status on back-to-backs to Austin Reaves’ breakout to the remaining schedule, here are the key storylines to watch in the Lakers’ final 10 games.

Return of the King

James’ right foot tendon injury is being re-evaluated this week, which will bring an update — perhaps one as basic as setting another re-evaluation date. The Lakers’ most recent public statement on the matter came before Sunday’s win against Orlando, when coach Darvin Ham said, “We anticipate him coming back at some point.” 

While that update is vague, Ham has often dodged specifics when discussing James’ injury, so it was as close to an encouraging sign as there’s been. Ham continues to insist James is progressing on schedule, though it’s unclear what that exactly means since the Lakers never set a timetable. Ham also believes the Lakers have gained valuable experience figuring out how to survive without their best player.

“Bron, with him being out, it’s revealed that we have a lot of different weapons that are very capable players on both sides of the ball that can help us achieve the goal we’re trying to achieve,” Ham said. “And when he comes back, he’s just going to add to it.”

James’ return, obviously, is the most important factor in the Lakers’ postseason chances. The Lakers are 10-6 since the trade deadline, including 6-5 without James. But for them to have a chance to upset a top seed — the Lakers will likely enter the playoffs as the No. 7 or 8 seed, if at all — they need James available and dominating like he was pre-injury.

Davis’ untimely load management

Back on Feb. 23, Ham said every Laker would be available each game unless they were injured.

I mean, barring any type of injury, I don’t see anybody being out of the lineup,” Ham said. “Obviously, we’ll have to cross those bridges when we get to them. But from my gut, talking to the guys and everybody being excited about the new additions and excited about the potential we have, the run we can go on these last 23 games, I don’t see anybody (sitting out). … We’ll manage how we need to manage on non-gamedays. But I expect everybody to be suited up.”

There was always some wiggle room in that statement. James, for example, had been battling foot soreness since training camp, so the Lakers could have technically used that injury as justification for him missing games.

Now the Lakers now find themselves in a similar position with Davis, who missed 20 games with a stress injury in his right foot before returning in late January. Even though he is pain-free, the Lakers’ medical staff determined it is an “active injury,” which means there is an increased risk Davis would reinjure himself if he played on back-to-back nights. The team has held him out of the second game of the Lakers’ last two back-to-back sets: March 1 against the Thunder (a win) and last Wednesday against Houston (a loss).

The good news for the Lakers is that there is only one back-to-back remaining in the regular season and none in the playoffs. The bad news is that any game could determine the difference between the No. 7 and No. 11 seeds.

On Tuesday, Ham wouldn’t confirm nor deny Davis will play in both ends of the team’s Jazz-Clippers back-to-back on April 4 and 5.

“We have a plan in place, and we’re following that plan closely,” Ham said. “If anything should change when we get to that moment, you’ll be the first to know. But outside of that, we’re sticking to our plan as of right now.”

Austin Reaves’ coming-out party

Reaves’ career-high 35-point performance against Orlando elicited a groundswell of attention around the league and on social media.

The secret is out: Reaves is the Lakers’ third- or fourth-best player, depending on the night. And that means the undrafted second-year wing is going to command a hefty contract this offseason as a restricted free agent.

Due to a salary-cap quirk, the most the Lakers can offer Reaves is four years, $50.8 million. (Other teams can offer up to the max salary if they have cap space, though the Lakers would have the right to match that offer.) That might be low considering Reaves’ growth, production and potential to keep improving. He’ll be 25 in May, but his game isn’t predicated on his speed or athleticism. For at least a few years, he projects to get better as he increases his strength, improves his shooting and tightens his ballhandling.

With James sidelined and Russell Westbrook now playing down the hall, Reaves has been given more opportunities to play point guard, which many believe is his natural position. Considering he’s also at his best defending the ball as a point-of-attack disruptor, Reaves projects as a lead guard who can shift into a 3-and-D role when sharing the court with high-usage stars like James and Davis.

At this point, Reaves is too good not to be playing 30-plus minutes every night. He’s scored double-digit points in 10 of his last 11 games, including 16 or more points in eight of them. However, Reaves has not started a game since Jan. 4 and has only crossed the 30-minute playing threshold four times in 18 games since he returned from a hamstring injury. That’s too low, even when accounting for his post-injury reacclimation and any blowouts.

Reaves is too good not to start, regardless of the vital spark he provides off the bench and his sublime chemistry with Dennis Schröder. It appears the Lakers are going to stick with the Malik Beasley-D’Angelo Russell backcourt to begin games, at least for now, but Reaves is making it increasingly difficult to keep him off the floor.

D-Lo, the X-factor

Outside of James and Davis, Russell is the most important Laker. When he produces like he did against the Raptors (28 points, nine assists) and Knicks (33 points, eight assists), the Lakers have an All-Star-level trio that can compete with any team. But when Russell is a notch or two below that level, as he’s been in nearly every other game with the Lakers, he’s a good, useful player who doesn’t necessarily raises the group’s ceiling. For what it’s worth, he hasn’t been as effective against elite opposing guards (Golden State, Portland and Dallas).

The Lakers have long been looking for a star-level ballhandler who can alleviate some of James’ playmaking and scoring loads. It’s one of the reasons they convinced themselves that acquiring Westbrook was a reasonable idea two summers ago. The best version of Russell can be exactly what they need. It’s just a matter of how often he can get there.

If he’s making his daredevil shots, shooting ice in veins, diming up defenses and conducting the home crowd in mid-April, it means the Lakers are rolling. Meanwhile …

The argument in favor of the Lakers dropping their supporting cast and pursuing Kyrie Irving this summer — as they did last summer and this trade deadline — was on display in Friday’s loss to Dallas. Irving was clearly the best player on the floor, scoring 38 points and dissecting the Lakers defense with his two game-shifting passes to Maxi Kleber on the final two possessions.

But as The Athletic reported over the weekend, the Lakers are unlikely to pursue Irving in free agency this summer, according to multiple league sources granted anonymity so they could speak freely. As of now, the organization’s plan is to run things back with most, if not all, of their free agents.

The reason: Choosing Irving would essentially force the Lakers to punt on their trade deadline additions. To create cap space, they would need to renounce the free-agent rights of Russell and Rui Hachimura, decline a team option on Beasley and waive Vanderbilt and Mo Bamba. (Vanderbilt’s 2023-24 contract is partially guaranteed, while Bamba’s is fully unguaranteed.) The Lakers could technically keep Reaves (due to his $2.1 million cap hold) and/or Vanderbilt (because of his small $4.7 million contract), but that would require persuading Irving to take an even steeper pay cut.

Irving is undoubtedly a much better player than Russell. He’s a legitimate star who easily ranks as a top-15 player in the league at his apex. He’s what the Lakers hoped they’d be getting from Westbrook. But the Lakers wouldn’t simply be swapping Russell for Irving in this scenario. They must decide if Irving is a better option than Russell and most, if not all, of the other free agents.

Perhaps that trade-off is worth it. But if they make it, the Lakers would only have the taxpayer midlevel exception available to them. Their roster would look something like James, Davis, Irving, possibly Reaves or Vanderbilt (unlikely both unless Irving is taking a steep pay cut), Max Christie and their midlevel signing. That’s the foundation of an interesting top-heavy roster, but the Lakers would once again lack depth, which notably hurt them during the 2021-22 season and the first half of 2022-23.

The league’s best defense

The primary reason to be bullish on the Lakers’ playoff chances is the superstar tandem of James and Davis. Few teams can match L.A.’s star power. Their nightly ceiling remains high, even if health and game-to-game consistency are legitimate issues.

But there’s another reason to buy the Lakers as a postseason dark horse if they can get fully healthy: their league-best defense since Feb. 11, their first game after the trade deadline.

In making their flurry of midseason moves, the Lakers replaced the minutes some of their weaker defenders were logging with a combination of Bamba, Wenyen Gabriel, Vanderbilt, Hachimura, Troy Brown Jr., Reaves and Schröder. Reaves, Schröder and Brown have each stepped up as the team’s best perimeter defenders. Reaves and Schröder are wreaking havoc against second units and even in closing lineups. Bamba, Vanderbilt and Hachimura provide the kind of size, length and athleticism the Lakers haven’t possessed since their 2019-20 championship season.

Ham has, at times, drawn criticism among the fan base with his lineup decisions. But he deserves credit for successfully implementing key pillars from Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer’s defensive system and getting his group to buy in.

The most impactful addition to the defense has been Vanderbilt, who has formed a special synergy with Davis. Los Angeles is allowing just 108.6 points per 100 possessions with Davis and Vanderbilt sharing the floor together, a defensive rating that would lead the NBA and ranks in the 95th percentile, according to Cleaning the Glass.


Anthony Davis and Jarred Vanderbilt defend Orlando’s Wendell Carter Jr. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

The backup center hole

The Lakers worked out Tristan Thompson and Tony Bradley on Monday, as first reported by The Athletic. But Ham clarified on Tuesday that the team has “no imminent plans” to sign anyone to a 10-day contract.

“Just kicking the tires to see, making sure we get people in front of us if whatever circumstance changes or whatever,” Ham said. “We’ll know they’ve been in front of us and we’ve gotten to see them first hand. Just doing our due diligence.”

The Lakers had an interest in signing Meyers Leonard, whom they worked out on Jan 13., before he signed with the Milwaukee Bucks for the rest of the season, according to league sources who were not authorized to speak on potential signings. Thompson, 32, hasn’t played this season but has notable ties to James and Klutch Sports. Bradley, a 25-year-old Lakers first-rounder who was traded to Utah on draft night in 2017, has supporters in the organization but has only played 33 minutes across 12 games this season. There aren’t many appealing options.

Los Angeles can probably get by with Davis and Gabriel playing center until Bamba returns closer to the end of the season. But if Davis is going to sit out against the Jazz or Clippers on the final back-to-back and Bamba isn’t back, the Lakers need to figure out a better solution than trotting out a comically undersized group.

Which of the new lineups are working and which aren’t?

The Lakers have had 16 games with their new group, with only three of those coming with James healthy. While that is a relatively small sample size from which to glean insights, here are some early takeaways.

  • The new starting lineup of Davis, Vanderbilt, James, Beasley and Russell has only logged 38 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass. But the Lakers have crushed during that time, outscoring opponents by 26.4 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers’ starters have a 100th-percentile offensive rating (128.9) and a 99th-percentile defensive rating (102.6). These numbers can flip in a game, but this group is certainly meshing well together.
  • Let’s zero in on the frontcourt, which is the most set-in-stone portion of the Lakers’ rotation. Davis and James are obvious starters and closers. Vanderbilt hasn’t earned that status yet — many fans were upset he didn’t play in crunchtime in the Lakers’ March 5 win over Golden State — but he’s making it harder to keep him off the floor. The Davis-Vanderbilt-James trio is shaping up to be dominant, having outscored opponents by 34.7 points per 100 possessions in a limited sample, per Cleaning the Glass. Again, Vanderbilt is proving to be one of the steals of the trade deadline.
  • The Davis-Russell pairing has kept the Lakers afloat during James’ absence. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 6.5 points per 100 possessions with the two players on and James off, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s a solid number.
  • Since Feb. 11, the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 1.5 points per 100 possessions with James off the floor, according to NBA.com. Since Feb. 28 (the first game after James’ foot injury), that figure is 2.2 points per 100 possessions. Every other season — 2018 through 2022 — has been negative (for some perspective, the Lakers are being outscored by 4.1 points per 100 possessions without James on the season, the worst mark since his first season in L.A.). This is the best the Lakers have played without James over an extended period of time.
  • The non-Davis lineups have struggled since James’ injury, getting outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions — the third-worst mark on the team, per NBA.com.

Noticeable 3-point progress

The most dramatic offensive improvement the Lakers have made since the trade deadline has been their uptick in 3-point makes and percentage. With Russell and Beasley, along with Brown’s 3-point surge in an increased role, the Lakers have more capable shooting on this roster.

The trade-off is the Lakers don’t have as many players who can put pressure on the rim, with Westbrook and Thomas Bryant on other teams and Lonnie Walker IV now out of the rotation. Westbrook, in particular, was a one-man wrecking crew during portions of games. Russell is slower and more selective with his driving game. Beasley is a gunner from beyond the arc. Brown is similarly jump-shot heavy.

Still, the Lakers need all of the space they can get on the perimeter. It opens up wider driving lanes when the shooters dotting the arc are respectable. It allows bigs like Davis, Gabriel and Vanderbilt to roam the paint and crash the offensive glass. It gives Davis more room to attack his defender one-on-one.

Here’s how the Lakers fare in the notable 3-point categories before and after the trade deadline.

Lakers’ 3-point ranks

3PT/p100

  

3PTA/p100

  

3PT{e538325c9cf657983df5f7d849dafd1e35f75768f2b9bd53b354eb0ae408bb3c}

  

Pre-Feb. 10

30

29

26

Post-Feb. 10

22

17

27

The Lakers remain a below-average 3-point shooting team in makes, attempts and percentage, but they’re trending in the right direction in an important category.

The stretch run

Nearly 88 percent of the season is done for the Lakers. The postseason is less than four weeks away. Let’s take a look at the Lakers’ final 10 regular-season games.

Lakers’ remaining schedule

Team

  

Date

  

Location

  

March 22

Home

March 24

Home

March 26

Home

March 29

Away

March 31

Away

April 2

Away

April 4

Away

April 5

Away

April 7

Home

April 9

Home

The good news: The Lakers have the NBA’s eighth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon. Los Angeles should be favored in more than half of these games, including Wednesday’s home matchup with a Suns squad missing Kevin Durant and Deandre Ayton. It’s realistic to expect a 6-4 record, even if James doesn’t play again in the regular season. If the Lakers go 7-3 or 8-2, they almost guarantee a Play-In spot and could potentially jump up to No. 7 or No. 8, which is a significant difference in the Play-In. The sixth seed, and a guaranteed playoff berth, is not out of the question either.

The bad news: Several of the teams they’re jockeying with have similarly easy schedules. Dallas has the league’s fourth-easiest. Oklahoma City has the fifth-easiest. Minnesota has the ninth-easiest. The four teams are barely separated, meaning each game could be the difference between the postseason and an early offseason.

The most pivotal remaining matchups are with the Thunder, Timberwolves, and Jazz (twice), three teams the Lakers are directly battling in the standings. The Play-In race is almost certainly going to come down to the final day of the regular season, with potentially wild standings swings at stake.

(Top photo: Stephen Lew / USA Today)