Where Do the Lakers Go From Here?

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Last Friday, Anthony Davis sprained his MCL, which, knowing Anthony Davis, will keep him out for between four and 40 weeks. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Lakers were pulverized 108-90 by the Phoenix Suns, dropping the Lakers to 16-16. Despite the fact that Lebron James is still one of the best players in the world, he’s failed by a supporting cast that seems to actively sabotage him; in their loss to the Suns, the Lakers’ depressing back-up point guard battery of Isaiah Thomas and Rajon Rondo combined for 3 points on 1-13 shooting. It’s clear to even the most ardent Lakers believers that shit is going south. For LA’s legendary, aging warrior, is this a dagger which he sees before him?

It might be a little bit premature to say the sky is falling, but it’s definitely sagging dangerously. While the Lakers are still firmly in the playoff picture, they’ve been buoyed by the league’s fourth-easiest schedule so far; schedule-adjusted metrics such as Basketball Reference’s simple rating system or 538’s ELO both peg the Lakers as a bottom-ten team. Still, the team has generally been given the benefit of the doubt—almost nobody actually believes that there are 24 teams better than the Lakers. But now, as the team faces a prolonged Anthony Davis-less stretch, the Lakers’ playoff hopes seem increasingly grim. 

For a team with such lofty pedigree, the Lakers’s success was always oddly precarious. Whereas most great teams are able to win easily, the Lakers are visibly straining. They have no easy releases—the spacing is naturally cramped and relies on layers of intricate off-ball actions to unclog the floor; their offensive production and defensive soundness are both almost entirely reliant on Lebron James’s all-history greatness. If teams like the Suns and Warriors are proof of how synergy and physical empathy can engender victories, the Lakers operated on the assumption that their talent and experience could paper over their awkward construction. And they were kind of right—before their recent Davis-less three-game slide, the Lakers were 11-6 with James in the lineup. 

As such, Davis’s injury reveals the fragility of this team’s internal calculus—you can only out-talent your opponent if you can guarantee the health and availability of all your talent. Davis has always been an elemental part of the team that the Lakers imagine themselves becoming, even if he’s struggled to recapture his previous Bubbled greatness. In particular, he caulks over some of the team’s more glaring structural flaws; he represents a broadening of possibilities. A versatile defender and slithery interior scorer, Davis is a central component of every style the Lakers could potentially assume—he’s dextrous enough to play alongside another center in ultra-big lineups, yet physically imposing enough to anchor units on his own. Amongst a topsy-turvy team, he had been the one consistent, stable force in the frontcourt; 12 Lakers’ lineups have logged more than 50 possessions and Davis has been part of eight of them. 

In this sense, it’s almost hard to imagine how the Lakers can play without Davis—and, evidently, it’s been hard for the Lakers to imagine this too. Under head coach Frank Vogel, a crucial element of the Lakers’ identity has been their humongousness, the result of the combined size and skill of James and Davis. Without Davis, though, that arrangement is impossible—Vogel’s infamous two-big lineups barely worked when Davis was healthy, but any lineup with both Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan would be such a disaster it’d border on farce.  

Unable to play large-ball, the Lakers have downsized, relying on lineups that are anchored by James or (gulp) Carmelo Anthony. And while these lineups are offensively potent, they place a possibly unmanageable load on two guys more used to load managing. More, these lineups reveal the Lakers’ paucity of wing depth; the weirdly lopsided Lakers just don’t have enough useful players, especially in this Covid-addled state. Outside of their star troika and Anthony, the Lakers bench ranges from mediocre (Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk, Austin Reeves, Wayne Ellington) to bad (Kent Bazemore, DeAndre Jordan) to quite literally some of the worst players in the NBA (Isaiah Thomas and Rajon Rondo). 

Going into this season, it was clear that Davis’s injury prone-ness, James’s oldness and Westbrook’s general on-court vibe made the whole operation more tenuous than anybody in Laker-land seemed willing to admit. To a degree, this team represents the limits of Lakers exceptionalism, the belief that everything will be okay because, well, everything has always usually been okay. This roster isn’t quite the maladaptive ratking that NBA Twitter seems to believe it is; rather, it’s a victim of organizational hubris.

At some point, the cavalry will return—Davis's injury isn't supposed to be season-ending and Kendrick Nunn will presumably shore up their rickety backcourt. But that's almost besides the point—nobody has any reason to fear the Lakers anymore. It's no longer heretical to question whether the King still has clothes.

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