Four months is a long time. So we’re getting reacquainted with the title race by looking at the nine NBA teams with at least a 1 percent chance of winning the title according to our in-house playoff odds (a.k.a. Zach Kram), plus the 76ers, who defy all math and logic, leading up to reopening night on July 30.
Team: Los Angeles Lakers
Numbers: 112.6 offensive rating (4th in NBA), 105.5 defensive rating (3rd), 7.1 net rating (2nd)
Seeding opponents (in order of schedule): Clippers, Raptors, Jazz, Thunder, Rockets, Pacers, Nuggets, Kings
Last Time, on the Lakers …
LeBron was coming for everyone’s heads before the league went dark. In a March rematch against the Bucks, LeBron played bully ball on the block against Giannis Antetokounmpo, outdueling him so convincingly that it cast a little seed of doubt in an MVP race that had been a walk to that point. In the very next outing, the Lakers avenged their early-season losses to the Clippers, with LeBron treating the entire second half like it was the game’s last possession, pointing out mismatches and ruthlessly taking advantage of switches.
We’ve seen LeBron cruise through the back nine and conserve his energy for the postseason in the past. Now there’s no need. Be afraid.
How They’ve Spent Their Quarantine
News broke late Sunday night that Rajon Rondo broke his right thumb in practice, sidelining him for the next six to eight weeks. Rondo potentially missing the first two rounds of the playoffs is a substantial blow, especially with the Lakers already without Avery Bradley, who opted out to be with his family. That’s 45 minutes a game of backcourt play coach Frank Vogel will have to replace, and he has very little time left to experiment with new lineups.
Bradley and Rondo weren’t world-beaters this season, but they understood their roles and raised the collective IQ of lineups without LeBron. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will have to step into big minutes, and the signing of J.R. Smith becomes a lot less trivial; LeBron will be forced to shoulder an even heavier playmaking load, but losing Bradley and potentially Rondo could be mitigated by having more shooting on the floor.
Seeding-Games Goal: Avoid the Pelicans
The Lakers aren’t going to lose any sleep over having to play a team that they swept 4-0 in the regular season, but Zion Williamson and the Pelicans have the highest floor and ceiling of any of the potential 8-seeds. Memphis is a few battle-tested veterans short, Portland can’t ever seem to get stops, San Antonio will be without LaMarcus Aldridge, and Sacramento doesn’t have enough horses up front. New Orleans, however, sports a killer starting unit that was wrecking teams to the tune of plus-26.3 in net rating during Zion’s first 19 games. There’s enough shooting (tied for third in 3-point percentage) to catch the Lakers in a 3s-versus-2s-type tradeoff, and Zion might already be good enough to win a playoff game on his own.
Biggest On-court Bubble Question: How Will the Lakers Handle the Extreme?
Bubbleball is going to be weird. Teams like the Rockets, who beat the Lakers earlier this season with the debut of their no-center lineup, are going to try and make it even weirder. The Rockets (and the Mavericks) regularly attempt over 50 3s per game and increase the variance of a game’s outcome in a way the Lakers won’t. While neither of those teams seem very likely to beat the Lakers four times in seven games, shoot-outs don’t typically favor teams with this kind of shot profile (28th in free throw percentage, tied for 17th in 3-point percentage).
The Lakers need all the experience they can get handling some of these extreme strategies (will Hack-a-Howard make a comeback?), but veteran coaches aren’t likely to tip their hand before the games really matter. The Lakers had a 7-3 record this season when their opponents attempted at least 40 3s; finding ways to influence the number of opponent 3s taken, if that’s even possible, is a question worth exploring for Frank Vogel and company.
Player in the Spotlight: Anthony Davis
The pressure of playoff basketball weighs on everyone differently; how an empty arena with no home-court advantage impacts that remains to be seen. It’s especially interesting for Davis—maybe his playoff inexperience (13 playoff games in seven seasons) won’t matter as much inside the bubble, where everyone is new to the environment.
Rarely do mysteries still exist for seven-time All-Stars in their primes, but what “Playoff AD” looks like is still relatively unknown. Davis has flashes where he’s the league’s most terrifying defender—can he be that player consistently? Will he be willing to take the big shots late, à la Kyrie Irving? How will his symbiotic relationship with LeBron, who becomes a different player in the postseason, change? LeBron chasing MJ will always be the main attraction, but we’ve been waiting years for Davis to write the next chapter in his legacy, and it’s finally here.
On a Scale From Wizards to 10, Where 10 Is the Best Shot at a Title, What Are the Lakers’ Odds of Winning the 2020 Title?
My inner Billy Bob says otherwise, but I have to give it a 9. The Lakers are undoubtedly title worthy … but so are the Bucks and Clippers. There’s more parity than usual, and the bizarre circumstances of the playoff bubble mean there are no sure things.
D.J. Foster is a writer and high school basketball coach in Oceanside, California.