Bubble Dribble: Win helps the Lakers smooth built-in simmering tensions


Editor’s note: This is the Friday August 21 edition of the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. >> There were a lot of Lakers who had something to prove in Game 2. Most of them proved it, at least for one night.

Anthony Davis needed a big game. He had it. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope needed to hit shots. He made them. JaVale McGee needed to show he has value as a starter. He did it. As a team, the Lakers needed to prove that they could win a game without LeBron James taking on a superhuman role every single night. They won.

These little victories that added up to a big Game 2 win that evened the Lakers’ series with the Portland Trail Blazers. But in the larger scheme, as the Lakers chase their 17th championship, those mini-battles are important to resolve the internal issues that are just beneath the surface.

Every NBA roster has inherent tension that can clog the gears of the machine. The best teams are able to overcome it through chemistry. There’s some specific knots in the Lakers’ makeup that for much of the year, they’ve worked through to become the winningest team in the Western Conference, but the bubble has brought some of them up anew:

AD’s desire to play power forward means repercussions for the starting lineup: Is the Lakers’ starting lineup their best lineup? Probably not. The regular season net rating of the current starting lineup with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in for Avery Bradley is minus-1.2, meaning that group (the fourth most-used group according to NBA tracking data) actually gets outscored in the long run.

The lineup a lot of Lakers fans would like to see is Davis at center and Kyle Kuzma at power forward, sending JaVale McGee to the bench. This lineup had a plus-23.3 net rating, which is extraordinary, although the group played in just 43 minutes according to the NBA data available. The group with Avery Bradley instead of KCP also had a plus rating (9.1). It would make sense that the Lakers would try to play their best lineups the most minutes, which means starting off with that group. They have closed with that group a fair amount.

The sticking point all year, from the moment that Davis was traded to the Lakers, is that he has a well-publicized desire to play power forward instead of center. Since he is technically a free agent this offseason, that gives the Lakers incentive to satisfy him. That trickles down not only into coaching decisions, like starting him at power forward, but in the entire construction of the roster: The Lakers leaned into big men, re-signing JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, which has worked thus far. But many NBA observers have assumed that more of Davis’ minutes coming at center is inevitable — that the Lakers will lean on him more to exploit those match-ups as postseason victories are defined by narrower margins. So far, Vogel and the Lakers have stuck to their guns.

Game 2 needed to justify how the Lakers have chosen their starting lineups. Not only did Davis have a fantastic game, but so did McGee, going 5 for 6 with 10 points and 8 rebounds in just 13 minutes. Just a day before, McGee was defending his place in the starting lineup by mentioning it allows Davis to play the position he wants. After Game 2, he also gave props to his general manager for assembling the roster as so.

“Rob Pelinka put a group of champions together,” McGee said. “He knew what he was doing.”

As long as the Lakers do waiver in their supersize lineup, this issue won’t go away. If the Lakers pass through round one and play the small-ball Rockets in the next round, the talk for Davis will only grow louder. Kuzma is also extremely aware of this: He’s stopped short of saying he should be a starter, but he’s said he feels confident enough to start. Vogel has also said Kuzma is the most consistent player of the restart, and while he hasn’t been offensively great in the playoffs, he’s been better defensively and a plus player. It’s a conversation that might be on the shelf for this series, but it’s going to come up.

There is no one closing lineup: Think about it. On a night-to-night basis, the Lakers go with whoever is hot. That could be KCP. That could be Danny Green. That could be Kuzma. It could also be Alex Caruso, or Dion Waiters, or even Rajon Rondo if he does make a comeback in this series. That has been the case for much of the year — the role players have been informed that they need to play their way into the closing lineup every night.

It makes sense from a coaching perspective. If a guy is on fire, he should close, right? But players generally dislike the uncertainty that comes from not knowing if they’ll be called upon to finish. Players don’t like uncertainty in their minutes at all. At least one player on the Lakers has bristled at this system behind closed doors during the regular season, asking for a more defined role at the end of games. Some players need those assured minutes to feel the confidence and rhythm they want to have on the floor.

The playoffs have not brought clarity to the rotation. After only KCP hit 3-pointers in the first quarter, Vogel decided to follow through with a pregame suggestion that he would add both J.R. Smith and Waiters to the lineup. Waiters was in the closing group to the half, a plus-9 in that five minute stretch to close. His only other playoff experience has come with Oklahoma City all the way back in 2016. That can’t feel terribly reassuring to someone like Green, who is already in a shooting slump, but was brought in largely because he has experience with title runs in San Antonio and Toronto. It loads pressure on him to perform better, but it’s unclear how that pressure will make him react.

There was a two-fold benefit to winning big: Not only did the Lakers get to rest their starters and main rotation guys, but their end-of-the-bench players like Smith, Waiters, Quinn Cook, Jared Dudley got to play big minutes. Touching the ball is sometimes healing for players who aren’t seeing the floor a lot, even if it’s in garbage time.

AD needs to be pushed or encouraged by LeBron, and sometimes vice versa: It should be telling that when asked how he responded to pressure from a subpar Game 1 performance, Davis brought up just two people by name who applied that pressure: himself and LeBron. One interpretation of that is that LeBron is the only person on the team who can truly push Davis to be his best.

Davis said James gave him space, and didn’t talk to him much all of Thursday. Davis seemed more tense than usual in his pregame routine, even though he participated in the football drill the Lakers do before tip, and his leap into the huddle after intros. He was trying to assert a new mood, a different attitude than his Game 1 persona. And Davis framed it as if he was trying to prove something to James.

“He kind of already, I mean, he kind of knew,” he said. “He saw the look on my face from the beginning. But it’s just a matter of going out and doing it and just playing with a lot of energy and effort, which you can control. I can control how hard I play. How much effort I play with. I can’t control shots being made, but I can control how I play on the defensive end. I can control my energy and effort.”

This is the realization the Lakers have needed for Davis to lead them through the series. James played poorly on offense. The Blazers decided to harass him as he drove up court, hounding him into 6 turnovers and only 10 points. It was the fewest points James has ever had in a playoff win — Davis’ incredible night made it unnecessary for James to be a star, which is a huge step for the Lakers, who have struggled almost universally when James is off the floor.

We’ve written before about how Davis’ presence keeps James accountable. In the same way, Davis seeks to learn from James. Coaches may tell him he needs to be more aggressive, and teammates might, too. But James’ words carry the most weight with the 27-year-old, who is still navigating how to become the pillar of a winning franchise.

“I never played with a guy of his caliber and to be able to have the success that we’re having so far is great and he’s just been staying in my ear about everything,” he said. “Especially through the playoffs right now. He’s seen it all in the 25 years he’s been playing. So, he kind of has been there for me and supporting me and kind of guiding me through this entire process.”

*****

None of this is to say the Lakers are dysfunctional. Every locker room has its own built-in tensions. But it is a high-visibility, high-expectation workplace, and like any company with those parameters, there’s a lot of stress and pressure that can sometimes make coworkers bump and clash. If the Lakers had lost Game 2, these issues were ready to leap to the front of the picture.

There’s a common saying that winning cures all. That’s no less true for the Lakers, who needed a win in the worst way to smooth out the waters as they continue their playoff run.

— Kyle Goon


Editor’s note: Thanks for reading the Purple & Bold Lakers newsletter from reporter Kyle Goon, who is among the few reporters with a credential inside the NBA bubble. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.


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