When the season resumes with 22 teams gathered at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, the Los Angeles Lakers will enter as the betting favourites to win it all.
It's no different than back in March when the Lakers were also favourites coming off a pair of emphatic wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and LA Clippers, the other two teams which make up the consensus top three. As always, all eyes will be on LeBron James, who is hungry to reclaim his spot atop the NBA's hierarchy following a disappointing 2018-19 season in which he missed the playoffs for the first time in over a decade.
With the addition of Anthony Davis last offseason, came heightened expectations, and the Lakers have delivered. James and Davis displayed uncanny chemistry from Day 1 as they've become a borderline unstoppable one-two punch on the offensive end with Davis emerging as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate on the other. Perhaps most importantly? Davis's ability to hold James accountable on the less glamorous end as the four-time MVP put forth easily his best defensive season since his days with the Miami Heat.
But questions still linger. And while the Lakers may be favourites in the eyes of bookmakers and many pundits alike, it's hardly a slam dunk.
Two of our Global NBA.com writers - Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles) and Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) - discussed several of the obstacles the Lakers need to overcome if they're going to hoist the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.
Clutch concerns for LeBron?
Adams: OK Scott, let's get one thing straight right out of the gates: nobody is calling out LeBron James for an inability to rise to the occasion. We're not going down the 2011 path of debating whether or not LeBron is clutch.
But... and there's a big BUT... there are some early warning signs that we'd be remiss to simply let slide.
Rafferty: I wrote about this a couple of months ago. The coles notes version is that LeBron has struggled quite a lot in the clutch this season. As I wrote then: "Of the 54 players who have scored at least 50 clutch points this season, only one has done so less efficiently than James. That player? Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic, who has a true shooting percentage of 41.9 in the clutch."
The problem is that his jump shot has completely abandoned him with the game on the line. LeBron is still scoring at a high rate when he gets to the restricted area, but he's 6-for-39 outside of the paint, the bulk of those misses coming from the 3-point line.
To me, that's a little worrying even though we've seen him rise to the occasion time and time again in his career.
Adams: There are two ways to approach this, specifically as it relates to that 6-for-39 number, which even the most ardent Laker fans can't be too jazzed about.
- It's a small sample size and 39 shots is nothing to get worked up over.
- It's a product of a player that's in Year 17 with more mileage than any 35-year-old in NBA history.
Where do you fall on that?
Rafferty: The latter, although, again, it feels weird to question LeBron given how much he's accomplished in his career and how dominant he still is. I just can't help but wonder if this is the product of him not being able to beat defenders off the dribble quite as easily as he used to and having to rely more on his jump shot, which has always been the weakest part of his game.
What about you?
Adams: LeBron is so good that he masks signs of slippage in a way that nobody in the history of the sport has been able to. And yet if he's even a half-step slow and thus not able to get to the cup whenever he wants or the legs simply aren't there to consistently make those shots when gassed, it could finally be an indication of something larger at play.
And the numbers support that.
This season, 20 of his 60 attempts in the clutch came in the restricted area. If you look back to just two seasons ago - the last time he made a run to the Finals - 50 of his 129 attempts came in the restricted area. If you expand that to include all attempts in the paint, it paints an even clearer picture.
|Pct of FGs in paint||49%||35%|
Is it glaring? No. But when there's no clear-cut favourite - as is the case this year - championships can be won or lost in the margins.
Rafferty: All of this is why I think the Clippers would have the edge on the Lakers in a playoff series. Because with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Marcus Morris, they have three of the best LeBron defenders in the league. If they can keep him out of the paint and LeBron is unable to beat them with his jump shot, it's going to be hard for the Lakers to beat them four times in a seven games series.
By the way, LeBron ranks second in the league this season in assists in the clutch, many of which have come from him breaking the defence down off the dribble, getting into the paint and kicking the ball out to shooters or cutters. So keeping him out of the paint isn't just about preventing him from scoring where he's his most efficient. It's about preventing others from getting high-quality shots.
Adams: It's a great point. The playmaking in the clutch is symptomatic of some larger issues as well.
You mentioned the penetration being about far more than scoring. Well, when looking up and down the roster - unlike with his championship teams in Miami or Cleveland - there isn't much else in the form of playmaking. Davis is a beast but that's not his game. You mentioned those 26 clutch-time assists for LeBron... nobody else on the team has more than four.
For what it's worth, Davis has one the entire season. He may be among the most versatile bigs in the league and capable of breaking down defences on his own, but let's not pretend he's out there facilitating like Nikola Jokic.
Rafferty: I mean, that's never been a part of his game. Davis has improved as a passer in his career, but he's not someone you run the offence through expecting him to consistently create looks for everyone. And to be fair to him, I'm not sure the Lakers need him to be that player. For instance, the Clippers might have three players who can match up well with James, but they don't have an answer for Davis.
Adams: Seems like a good time to talk more about AD...
Worried about AD's lack of playoff experience?
Adams: Let's cut straight to the point. Anthony Davis has made the playoffs twice and has been out of the first round once. Is that a problem?
Rafferty: This might be a quick conversation. I don't think it's a problem. Granted, he hasn't had much team success in the playoffs, but it's not like he struggled individually. In 13 career playoff games, he's averaging 30.5 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. And he did that against good opponents! Two Golden State Warriors teams that went on to make the Finals and a solid Portland Trail Blazers team that were favoured in the series.
Without the pressure of having to be the No. 1 option anymore, I'm not concerned about Davis.
Adams: I feel like a broken record, but there are two ways to look at this once again.
It's not an issue because of everything you just said. For example, he's one of two players in NBA history to average 30 PPG in the playoffs. The other is Michael Jordan. You can go on down the list of comparing his statistical dominance to other greats and he stacks up very nicely.
It's an issue because AD's experience falls short of LeBron's other championship sidekicks. Dwyane Wade was already a champion. When the Cavs won it all in 2016, Kyrie Irving had already gone through one deep run and played in the Finals.
And even in the case of Wade, it took a failed attempt before they ultimately got the job done. There's going to be a moment - whether it's against the Clippers or Rockets or Bucks or somebody - in which Davis is going to be called upon and there's really just no way of knowing how he'll respond in that moment until we see it.
Rafferty: That's fair. I guess I'm not worried about Davis in the playoffs for the first 43 minutes of every game. It's those final five minutes where he's going to have something to prove. Because like you said, there is going to be a time where he's going to have to step up big for the Lakers in the clutch in order to win a championship. We haven't really seen him in a high stakes situation yet.
Adams: And that's where the stylistic differences between Davis, Irving and Wade come into play. In the past, James has had another All-Star calibre player along for the ride in the final five minutes that he could give the ball to and get help in creating off the bounce. For as incredible as Davis is, he's not that guy. As you said that's just not his game. Only time will tell if that rears its head.
For what it's worth... remember that 6-for-39 shooting for LeBron outside of the paint in the clutch? Well, he went 6-for-38 on those same shots in 2015-16 during the regular season. Who was it that hit the biggest shot in the 2016 Finals en route to winning the title? Kyrie Irving, who by the way outscored James in the clutch during that postseason.
So the clutch-time struggles which we already went into and the stylistic differences in second bananas do intersect and there could come a time when LeBron needs Davis to come through if the Lakers plan on hanging banner No. 17.
Why the Lakers won't win the title
Adams: So we've touched on the clutch-time struggles and the lack of experience for Davis. Are there any other major red flags that jump out as reasons the Lakers won't win it all in Orlando?
Rafferty: Ultimately, how LeBron and AD play will go a long way in determining how successful the Lakers are in the playoffs. I guess the only concern I have is that the Lakers don't have quite enough shooting around them for them to be at their best. They've obviously been incredibly successful this season despite not being a 3-point shooting team, but I'm guessing that's something the best teams will look to exploit in the playoffs.
Adams: It's why the addition of Danny Green was so important. Looking up and down the roster, there's really not anyone else I'd trust to knock down timely shots when teams inevitably load up on LeBron and AD, which you know they're going to do.
Rafferty: And the problem with that is Green really wasn't very good in the playoffs last season. He went from shooting 46.5% from the perimeter in the regular season to 32.8% in the playoffs. If that happens again, that would be much more troublesome to the Lakers than it was to the Raptors because they aren't exactly loaded with shooters.
Adams: And that's a big problem when comparing this Lakers team to that Raptors team. That Raptors team had scorers all over the place. Kawhi Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, even Norman Powell.
It's why my biggest causes for concern - even moreso than the clutch or experience factors - is the lack of a reliable third wheel. Is Green really going to be the third-best player on a championship team? Or Kyle Kuzma? Or Dwight Howard? Or Avery Bradley?
Rafferty: It should be Kuzma, right?
Adams: I mean, I guess?
Rafferty: Should, not is. And that's sort of the problem.
Adams: I don't mind Kuzma but you start going down the list of championship teams and he's not remotely close to the calibre of a typical third guy. And if it's not Kuzma, suddenly you're banking on Green carrying a role he's not really suited for or asking Howard to be a player that he just isn't at this stage of his career.
Pascal Siakam, Klay Thompson, Kevin Love, Draymond Green, Tony Parker, Chris Bosh, Jason Terry, Lamar Odom, Ray Allen, Manu Ginobili... you probably have to go back to 2006 to find a team with a third wheel on par with whoever it is for the Lakers. After Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, that team's third-leading scorer in the playoffs was a past his prime Antoine Walker.
Rafferty: This brings up something else we should probably discuss, which is their closing lineup. Some of it will be dependent on what team they're facing, but it probably involves Davis at centre. LeBron is also out there, obviously, probably with Green.
Then, what, Bradley and Kuzma?
Adams: In theory, I'd agree with you and maybe it's something they're waiting to more heavily deploy in the playoffs. But for what it's worth, their four most common fourth-quarter lineups this season have included James, Davis and Howard. So while we're all angling for Davis at the five, there's been some real caution in going all-in with that look.
Again, that's a symptom of a lack of depth on the perimeter because they just don't have much in the form of reliable guards. We talked about this at the very beginning of the season when the fit of Kuzma given his place on the team never really seemed to make much sense.
Rafferty: Their most used Davis at centre lineup has been Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Davis. Their most used Davis at centre lineup with LeBron in it has featured them two with Bradley, Green and Kuzma.
The numbers aren't even that great. Awesome defensively, but Rondo-Cariso-Caldwell-Pope-Kuzma-Davis have a 106.0 offensive rating. LeBron-Bradley-Green-Kuzma-Davis? 100.0.
Adams: That feels... dicey.
OK, this is a lot of negativity for a team that's head and shoulders above everyone else in the west. Which brings us to...
Why the Lakers will win the NBA title
Adams: Occam's razor. They have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Nobody else does. Sometimes, it's just as simple as that.
Looking around the league, I'm just not sure there are many teams even capable of making all of those other factors matter. I genuinely think there are only five teams that can beat the Lakers in a playoff series. Clippers, Houston Rockets, Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. That's it.
That's not to say those are the only other teams that can win it all, but I just don't see any other teams with the personnel to make both LeBron and AD work hard while leaning on the Lakers' other weaknesses enough for it to matter.
Rafferty: That's interesting. To me, it's...
Adams: The Rockets just shoot so many 3s and play such an odd style that it's hard for me to count them out against anyone. Davis might average 48 in a series against them but it just might not matter. As for the 76ers, there isn't a team in the league - including the Clippers -- with the bodies to throw at both of the Lakers superstars.
Rafferty: But as you said for the Rockets, AD could in theory average 40 against the Clippers and it might not matter if LeBron isn't able to get his as easily. Either way, your point remains. It's probably only those four teams that could realistically beat them.
Again though, this comes back to the Clippers being their biggest threat. No disrespect to the Bucks, who have been the best team in the league all season long, but I think I'd pick the Lakers in a series over them right now. As for the Rockets and 76ers, there is a world in which they beat the Lakers in a series, but they've both had their ups and downs this season, to the point where it seems far more likely that they'd lose in five games to the Lakers than push them to the brink.
Adams: The Lakers are dependable. They're a known quantity. And there's safety in that. For all of the warts, at the end of the day, the Lakers rank in the top four in both offensive and defensive efficiency, which is one of the hallmarks of championship teams.
And while they might not be the Bucks, they're among the best teams in the league at defending around the rim, which is so vital come playoff time when limiting easy opportunities is far more important than it is in January.
And while we railed a bit on the supporting cast, it is worth pointing out that this is a veteran group that won't be surprised by anything. That's always important but perhaps even moreso in the unusual and unprecedented circumstances down in Orlando.
Rafferty: Right. They play both ends at a high level and the combination of LeBron and Davis alone gives them a chance against anybody. They could be the two best players in any series. Even against the Clippers. We've voiced our concerns about both of them, but there's still a case to be made that LeBron is the best player in the game and that Davis is the perfect No. 2 for him.
Adams: So all of that being said... I'm putting you on the spot.
Rafferty: Uh oh.
Adams: Finish the sentence. The Lakers will...
Rafferty: I'm predicting how their season will end? Oh boy.
The Lakers will lose in the Conference Finals to the Clippers. The Clippers were my pick all season long and I think they've only gotten better as the season has progressed.
Adams: I'm right there with you.
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