In the grand scheme of the championship puzzle, the Lakers have their largest pieces well in place.
Saw the past week the franchise secures their two stars, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, for years to come, meaning the hardest part of the title chase – sticking to top players – has to be in the bag.
But it takes the right conditions to win everything. While the Lakers found the right mix with experienced leadership and physicality last season, and while they are widely acclaimed for their off-season, that’s moving made them younger and more offensive, nothing is guaranteed – even title favorites can stumble.
The rest of the West may be firing on the Lakers, but a repeat offer will be challenged by the conditions of a short low season and the COVID-19 threat as much as the competition, which is deep in the competition. With the Lakers scheduled to hold their first group training on Sunday, here’s a look at the main facets of the training camp that should keep it in check:
The Lakers’ first preseason game is Friday, just six days after their first group practice, Yikes.
Frank Vogel was not shy about how challenging that will be. Less than two months away from leaving the bubble, most returners have not been able to go through their normal off-season training regimens. While there are certainly a handful of unapproved games going on, the normal rhythm of a month-long pickup has been drastically interrupted by the pandemic. Markieff Morris was probably the most honest: “The next few days are going to be a bit difficult.”
The challenge for Vogel between now and December 22 is to get his players, especially those with short off-season, back into shape. It may not be worth risking many preseason minutes for James, whom Vogel said fans wouldn’t see “a ton” in exhibitions. But for other rotation players, especially younger members like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, and Alex Caruso, they’ll have to get up to find their conditioning more likely than they’d like.
This week starts with “small doses,” said Vogel, and the Lakers will likely scatter minutes up and down the roster instead of relying heavily on starters.
“We don’t want to overdo it early on with those guys, but at the same time the games get going very quickly, so we also don’t want to soften so much that we make them vulnerable in those games to injuries,” said Vogel. “So we’ll have to try to find that balance from day to day.”
WHO GETS STARTED
A week into the new era of the Lakers, there is already a small commotion about starters – which will certainly happen on a roster with more than five starting players. Dennis Schröder claimed a place early on, saying he believed that was the reason the Lakers brought him in. Vogel handled the case diplomatically, saying he hadn’t made a decision, but Schröder is certainly being considered (which should be the case for a 19 ppg scorer with Schröder’s overall talent).
James and Davis’s starting roles are stuck. If the Lakers want to orient themselves like they did last season, with James as the primary point guard and two defensive starters in the backcourt, it makes sense to have Wesley Matthews and Caldwell-Pope. But Vogel added that he believes James can effectively play off-ball with Schröder, and that has appeal. It may be an early issue that one of those three guards has to come off the bank as they could all be starters.
To a lesser extent, the starting position in the middle is not publicly established, and Montrezl Harrell is a lot more productive and has a higher salary than Marc Gasol, who turns 36 this season. While Rob Pelinka described Harrell as “a terror and a beast to play against,” his game is orientated in the paint, which jostles offensively across the floor in lineups with Davis. Gasol, who has an outside shot and can move the ball around the field, seems to fit better in the starting line-up on paper.
Vogel balanced those concerns last season by taking a starting caliber center off the bench (Dwight Howard) and mixing up a guard rotation by switching shutters. It will be worth seeing how well his diplomacy works in a new group.
“As a head coach, I am really proud to hear the player, what player you are dealing with and what role is important to him, and that I am trying to create that role for them,” he said. “When they feel good about their role, they run through a wall.”
What is striking about the Lakers squad is that they have four players who averaged at least 18 points per game last season, but the defensive talent left (Howard, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee) is significant. The Lakers had the third best defense in the league last season (106.1 defensive rating), a point of pride that came through in the playoffs as the team was able to fluently adapt to different Swiss military schedules and styles.
There are noticeable holes on that side of the ball, starting with no obvious edge protector outside of Davis. Gasol is one shrewd former defensive player of the year, but his athleticism has faded; Harrell is better suited to guard on the edge. Matthews has an excellent reputation as a fullback, but he is older than Green. Schröder has been an average defender in his career at best.
The way the Lakers talk about defense hasn’t changed. Davis especially stressed the need for a culture of defense. But the reality is that the emphasis has shifted. It will fall on many of the returners, including Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Caruso, to set the tone of defense and physicality to help the newcomers get used to it. Gasol and Matthews can add to that too.
FIND THE SAME CHEMISTRY
On what stood out last season, Davis had an answer that came to mind: “I think chemistry is what I liked the most about our team, 1 through 15. Every man loved each other. That is something that is very rare with teams. ”
It’s extremely rare, and while the Lakers are now bringing back nine players from last season’s squad – Quinn Cook re-signed on Friday for a minimal deal – it’s worth wondering how the group is bridging the chemistry with newcomers in a pandemic world. .
The 2019-20 Lakers began to bond during a pre-camp trip to Las Vegas, then during team dinners, nights out and parties at home for birthdays and holidays – winning regular season games created many bumps in the way.
Is that existing framework a strength? Or is it an obstacle for the newcomers? While Jared Dudley reflected on how difficult it would be to repeat the events that brought the final team so close, he acknowledged, “I’m sure we’ll do something.”
It may help that the team will likely spend so much time together in relative isolation. But with limited social outlets, it can also be a lot more difficult. The Lakers are aware of this.
“After our selection is complete, we’re going to get our group chat going, we get the jokes and the inside story that everyone wants to know that no one will ever find out,” said Caruso. “We will start those conversations and from then on we will just find time to reconnect as a team.”
The looming question about everything is how the league can start a season with normal travel. While the 72-game schedule won’t have many fans in the arena and will have limited tour groups with strict guidelines on what players and staff can do, there’s just a lot more risk outside of a bubble environment. The struggles of football and college basketball to lead normal seasons are constant reminders of what will be a Sisyphean job a new season.
The NBA this weekend added guidelines to its existing list of protocols, including rules about socializing and dining out, who can visit players and team personnel at hotels, and how the league handles potential vaccines (strongly recommend players and staff vaccinations). The visceral threat of COVID-19 has the power to delay games and put stars back, and even ignore the health consequences.
Minnesota forward Karl-Anthony Towns gave a chilling reminder of the cost of the pandemic on Friday by revealing that seven of his family members, including his mother, have died from the disease – confirming that the threat isn’t just for players. and traveling employees, but also for their families.
Dudley said the Lakers have spoken about being accountable to each other for COVID-19 safety – the Lakers understand that they put their health in each other’s hands.
“My thing is, I don’t want to miss the workout,” said Dudley. “I don’t want to be on the bottom line if you guys are doing your job with ‘Jared is out with COVID.’ And it’s hard, you know, to prepare for that 100 percent, but we can do our bit. ”