LeBron’s health, defensive regression and more Lakers storylines to monitor

The Los Angeles Lakers enter the final third of the season as one of the hottest teams in the NBA.

Los Angeles has won six of seven games and eight of 11, positioning itself to potentially make a run for the No. 6 or No. 7 seed over its final 26 games.

With a pivotal stretch coming up — including matchups with the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns and LA Clippers just in the next week — here are 10 storylines to monitor for the rest of the season.

1. Will LeBron and AD hold up the rest way?

This is the defining question of the Lakers’ season — as it always is.

LeBron James and Anthon Davis have each managed to stay relatively healthy, though James is continuing to deal with an ankle that is now keeping him out of Thursday’s game against Golden State. Nonetheless, the superstar duo is on pace to miss their fewest combined games since the 2019-20 season (15 games).

James had the shortest non-injury minute restriction in NBA history. He’s averaging nearly as many minutes (34.9) as last season (35.5). Davis, who leads the Lakers in scoring for the first time in the James-Davis partnership, is playing his most minutes since 2017-18 back in New Orleans.

Both players have sustained injuries that caused them to miss at least a few weeks in each of the past three seasons. Can they remain healthy? Can they survive their larger-than-expected workloads? This is the question that will determine not only Los Angeles’ seeding but also its odds in any postseason matchup.

2. How sustainable is the offensive improvement?

The Lakers have ranked 19th or worse offensively in three consecutive seasons. They began this season the same way before turning a corner in early January — nearly halfway through the season. Since Jan. 7 — the date of their important win over the Clippers that sparked this 13-7 stretch — they’re eighth in the league in offense, averaging 119.3 points per 100 possessions.

The team has taken significant steps in its understanding and execution of coach Darvin Ham’s new five-out offense, with players’ passing and decision-making going to another level. The Lakers are second in true shooting percentage, third in the league in assists, fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio and third in pace over that 20-game span.

“Playing unselfish. Making the extra pass,” Austin Reaves said at practice Wednesday. “And that shows in the last 15 games where our offense has been so good. So hopefully we can continue that.”

D’Angelo Russell (more on him below) has been a driving force. Ham inserting Rui Hachimura into the starting lineup and playing him more, consequently reducing the minutes of Taurean Prince, also has added more verve and juice to the offense. James and Davis trust their teammates in a deeper way than they did earlier in the season. Players are throwing passes to spots, knowing their teammates will be there.

There has been a trade-off, though, which brings us to our next storyline.

3. Can they lift their defense back to at least a league-average level?

Los Angeles shifting more toward offense has led to considerable defensive slippage. Over that same 20-game stretch, the Lakers are 19th in defensive rating.

A notable reason is their available personnel — Gabe Vincent has only played in five games, and Jarred Vanderbilt (six games), Max Christie (three) and Cam Reddish (14) have each missed time recently. Those are all of the Lakers’ best non-Davis perimeter defenders. They’re currently trying to get by with Reaves, Hachimura, James and Prince, which isn’t going to cut it against elite offenses with multiple perimeter weapons.

By committing to their new starting lineup, the Lakers are inherently tilting more toward offense. Their starting group doesn’t have a traditional wing stopper. They need either Hachimura to guard down, Reaves to guard up or James to exert more defensive energy than he’s capable of consistently in lower-stakes settings. Davis, arguably the best defender in the world and a potential NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate, can only put out so many fires by himself.

The Lakers need to strike a proper balance and get their defense at least around league average to have a shot of advancing in the postseason. Adding two plus perimeter defenders in Christie and Reddish, potentially as soon as Thursday vs. Golden State, helps a lot. Vanderbilt’s availability is the X-factor, though. In the meantime, the Lakers can mitigate some of their defensive shortcomings by playing bigger, which became slightly tougher with the news that Christian Wood (left knee effusion) is going to miss at least two weeks.

4. Can the supporting cast stay healthy?

In recent seasons, it’s been the Lakers’ stars who couldn’t stay healthy. This season, though, it’s their role players, with most of the rotation missing at least a few games due to an ongoing series of random injuries.

The Lakers were dealt two blows coming out of the All-Star break with the news that James is going to miss the Golden State game and Wood is going to miss at least two weeks. This team just hasn’t been able to get healthy for a sustained period, and it’s had an effect on their lineups and rotation.

The front office designed this team to be deep and able to withstand injuries, unlike more top-heavy teams such as the Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks. Yet that theory has been tried with the sheer number of injuries they’ve dealt with. As reductive as it sounds, LA’s playoff chances likely come down to the availability of their supporting cast.

Christian Wood is set to miss at least a couple weeks due to injury. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / USA Today)

5. Will Ham push most of the right buttons again?

Often lost in the recounting of last season’s historic turnaround from the No. 13 seed to the Western Conference finals is the fact that Ham made several smart and key decisions down the stretch of the season.

Promoting Reaves to the starting lineup. Benching Hachimura late in the regular season to get him to lock in more consistently. Leveraging Davis’ defensive brilliance to construct an effective game plan against the Warriors’ offense. Riding the hot hand at various points in various playoff series. Replacing Russell with Dennis Schröder in Game 4 vs. Denver. Slotting Hachimura and James on Nikola Jokić to allow Davis to roam off Aaron Gordon and act as a second line of defense.

No coach bats 1.000, but Ham’s decision-making has sometimes been questionable. He’s relied on Prince far too much. Conversely, he’s not relied on four of the six returning players from last season’s run — Reaves, Russell, Hachimura and Vanderbilt — as much he should have. The current starting lineup of Davis, James, Hachimura, Reaves and Russell has only played in 10 of the 30 games it’s been available. Players have at times felt like they don’t know their role or responsibilities game to game.

But Ham has made some shrewd moves lately. He moved Prince to the bench and reduced his role. He’s promoted Reaves, Russell and Hachimura back into the starting lineup. He was deploying Vanderbilt in smart ways offensively before his injury. The team has prioritized practices and shootarounds more in recent weeks, ironing out nagging wrinkles on both sides of the ball.

Ham will face his toughest challenge in the coming days and weeks if the team rounds into proper health and he has to navigate the landmines of a full rotation. And there is just as much pressure to make a deep run as last season, if not more with James a year older and with a $51.4 million player potion hanging over the offseason.

6. Will this version of D-Lo continue?

When factoring in the context of playing on a team with title aspirations, this is arguably the best stretch of Russell’s career. He’s had moments when his numbers have been better in Brooklyn and Minnesota, but he’s impacted winning more directly recently.

The turning point was the James-less loss in Utah on Jan. 15, when Russell exploded with a season-high 39 points on 15-of-26 shooting to go along with eight assists. As he has explained several times since, Russell learned from his time away at the end of December and in early January due to a tailbone injury that the best way to complement James and Davis is by being aggressive himself.

“Me. Me. Me. Me first. Me first,” Russell said Wednesday at practice. “Making teams worry about me, and then it becomes easy to make those decisions versus the other way around. … Starting with aggression is what gets the ball moving like that.”

Russell has exceeded expectations over these past six weeks. Over the past 16 games, he’s averaging 23.4 points on 46.6/46.0/88.9 shooting splits and 6.9 assists.

The questions with him always come back to the playoffs and the high-stakes moments. But Russell has carried himself differently this year — at least since his return. He’s appeared more confident and secure in his game and who he is. He’s leaning into his bravado and aggression. If he can continue this level of play into the playoffs, and hold up against the best and more physically imposing teams, he raises the Lakers’ ceiling to a different stratosphere.

7. How much can Vincent help — if at all?

It’s easy to forget that Vincent was the Lakers’ primary offseason addition. He’s making nearly as much this season ($10.5 million) as Prince, Reddish, Wood and Hayes combined ($11.56 million), yet the Lakers have missed him for all but five games.

Vincent was the de facto Schröder replacement, with the Lakers swapping in better offense for slightly worse defense. Vincent would stabilize bench units with his 3-point shooting and flammable scoring and potentially close games in matchups in which Russell or Reaves are struggling.

Now, it’s unclear how much Vincent can help after the Spencer Dinwiddie addition and with Prince, Christie and Reddish all also capable of playing shooting guard. There are only 96 backcourt minutes available — Russell, Reaves and Dinwiddie will take up at least 80 of them. At this point, anything Vincent provides is gravy, but it’d be nice for the Lakers to have their non-taxpayer midlevel exception contribute this season and, at a minimum, rebuild his trade value.

USATSI 21779683

Gabe Vincent hasn’t been around that much this season. (Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

8. What does the healthy rotation even look like?

This question will be irrelevant if the Lakers’ season continues the way it’s been going. But in the scenario that they can somehow get close to healthy, Ham will be tested with difficult rotation decisions. James, Davis, Reaves and Russell are obvious locks. Hachimura has played well enough — with the numbers supporting his starting role — to keep his starting spot, even if Vanderbilt returns. Dinwiddie is the backup combo guard.

After that, the rest of the rotation is less clear. Vanderbilt might not return — if he does, he’ll play. Prince has played less but will almost certainly factor. One could argue Christie is a better fit given similar shooting percentages but better defense and rebounding. Reddish started a good chunk of the season. Hayes has been playing better for several weeks. Wood has largely been in the nightly rotation. Vincent is a relative wild card given his inability to stay healthy up to this point.

It’s hard to whittle down this roster to just eight or nine players. The Lakers’ theoretical playoff rotation has never played together. That’s a significant unknown variable this late in the season for a team that’s hopeful to play deep into May and June.

9. Are they done on the buyout market?

This is likely the Lakers’ roster for the rest of the season. LA is monitoring the buyout market, as The Athletic previously monitored, but no viable options have emerged since the Dinwiddie signing. Plus, if Los Angeles was to waive any of its veteran’s minimum players — Reddish, Wood or Jaxson Hayes — the Lakers would have to also cover their 2024-25 salary since each player has a player option.

It’ll be interesting to see if Wood’s injury affects the Lakers’ activity. He isn’t expected to miss much time beyond his initial two-week prognosis, but Laker injuries have tended to lag longer than expected this season. In the case that Wood doesn’t miss much time, though, there isn’t a clear buyout option who’s worth the organization eating the longer-term salary.

10. Can they get the No. 6 seed?

Multiple Lakers stated before the break that their goal is to avoid the Play-In Tournament and earn the No. 6 seed. The benefit, of course, is sidestepping the disastrous scenario of losing in the Play-In and missing the playoffs altogether. Los Angeles is currently 3 1/2 games back of the No. 5 Suns and No. 6 New Orleans Pelicans, 2 1/2 games back of the No. 7 Dallas Mavericks and two games back of the No. 8 Sacramento Kings.

The top four teams in the West are essentially set in some order. Beyond that, anything is impossible. It’s unlikely the Lakers jump all four of the catchable teams in front of them, but leapfrogging at least one or two is realistic.

They have a home-heavy schedule over the next few weeks, with seven of their next 10 games at home and nine of their 14 games in March at Crypto.com Arena. To be clear, it’s a tough slate — they host the Nuggets, Thunder, Bucks and Timberwolves, among several other good teams — but Los Angeles has the fifth-best home record in the West (19-9) and should be able to at least tread water.

They play the Suns, Kings (twice), Pelicans and Warriors (three times) over their remaining schedule, providing ample opportunity to make up ground in the standings.

(Top photo of Darvin Ham: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top