Each week during the 2020-21 NBA season, we will take a deeper dive into three of the league’s biggest storylines in an attempt to determine whether the trends are based more in fact or fiction moving forward.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble
The Lakers entered Friday having lost four of their last five games and five of their last six, falling from a game behind the Western Conference-leading Utah Jazz to a game up on the fourth-place Phoenix Suns. Three of those losses have come by double digits. The stretch coincides with Anthony Davis' re-aggravation of his right Achilles strain in the first of them.
So, we shouldn't really be worried about the Lakers, right? As long as Davis returns to health by the playoffs, when he and LeBron James are the NBA's most dominant pairing, L.A. should still be the favorite to repeat as champions.
Achilles strains are no joke. We know what became of Kevin Durant's Achilles strain in the 2019 playoffs, which gives the Lakers every reason not to rush Davis back before he is fully healthy. The variance for Achilles injuries is wide. Orlando Magic forward Aaron Gordon missed two games last season with Achilles soreness, returned for four and rested one more before rejoining the lineup on a regular basis. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love has yet to play this season with a more serious Achilles strain in the preseason. Davis is closer to Love on that spectrum.
Meanwhile, his injury lays bare the issues his dominance masked and places a greater burden on his running mates.
The Lakers tweaked their center rotation, swapping out Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee for Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell. On paper, it was an upgrade. In practice, it has made the Lakers less of a vertical threat. With almost 40% of their shots coming at the rim, the Lakers ranked second last season, per Cleaning the Glass. They are eighth this season, closer to 36%. Likewise, they have seen their ranking in opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim drop from fifth last season (61%) to 17th this season (63.4%). Their margin for error has been winnowed.
Their defense as a whole still ranks atop the league, which is another positive sign for the playoffs, but their offense has slipped from 11th last season to 17th this year. That should change when games are more meaningful, as it did last season, when their offense ranked first among the final eight teams, because James and Davis are just a lethal combination, and the Lakers have the rest of this regular season to maximize Gasol's floor spacing around them.
It could just be that the Lakers are finally running into the same problems that have plagued so many other teams this season. They have lost fewer games to injury and health protocols than the majority of the league, but starting point guard Dennis Schroder missed four games after his reported potential exposure to COVID-19 before returning during Friday's victory over the Blazers. The Lakers have nobody else on the roster besides James who consistently creates for others. This week's release of beloved teammate Quinn Cook indicates they are gearing up to address one of their depth concerns.
All of this has placed an inordinate amount of pressure on James, who at 36 years old has played every game and exceeded 40 minutes in four of his last 11. The second half of the season is going to be more of a grind, especially if Davis' absence stretches beyond the weeks-long timeline the Lakers initially offered. James may be superhuman, and he is chasing his fifth MVP award, but is it really worth taxing him to improve the team's standing in the West?
With the Jazz stretching their lead atop the conference and facing one of the easiest remaining schedules, it might actually be better for the Lakers to finish fourth or fifth in the West. From a matchup standpoint, the second-place Clippers still pose a bigger threat to their repeat. (Who on the Jazz defends James and Davis?) Avoiding a second-round L.A. rivalry in hopes another team takes them out, as they did last year, is probably a more sound strategy.
All of this said, none of it may make a difference in the end. Barring any limitation of James and Davis, the Lakers will be favored to win every series they enter in the playoffs, concerns about slimmer margins and depth be damned.
The Orlando Magic should host a fire sale
No team has been hit harder by injuries this season than the Magic, and it is not close. Two of their most important building blocks — Markelle Fultz and Jonathan Isaac — are out for the season with torn ACLs. Rookie Cole Anthony (rib) is sidelined through the All-Star break, and Aaron Gordon (ankle) is in the middle of a four-to-six-week recovery.
All of this leads to the March 25 trade deadline.
Orlando has somehow won four of its last seven games, starting the likes of Dwayne Bacon, Gary Clark, James Ennis and Michael Carter-Williams around All-Star center Nikola Vucevic. The Magic entered Friday just two wins back from a spot in the play-in tournament and a shot at a third straight playoff appearance. It is smoke and mirrors. Orlando is being outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions, essentially operating like the third-worst team in the entire league.
Which is what the Magic should want to be. This is a stacked draft, featuring three or four potential franchise-altering prospects. The Magic know too well what it is like to pick beyond a draft's drop-off point. They missed Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis, De'Aaron Fox and Trae Young by single picks from 2014-18. The one time they have had a top-three pick in the past decade, they got Victor Oladipo. (And gave up on him too early — a story for another day.)
Orlando is a lost cause. Even when healthy, the Magic have been nothing more than first-round fodder since the 2010 Eastern Conference finals, when a No. 1 overall pick (Dwight Howard) made his last stand for them. How many of the roster's current players are going to be around when the team threatens to advance to the third round again?
The list goes no further than Fultz, Isaac, Anthony and maybe Chuma Okeke, their first-round pick from 2019 who missed all of last season with an ACL injury. Of course they should hold a fire sale. Evan Fournier's deal is expiring. Get what you can, while you can. Gordon is in his seventh season on the Magic. Time to cut bait. Terrence Ross is signed through 2023. Take what you can get. Mo Bamba, the sixth overall pick from 2018, is playing less than 10 minutes per game. Give him a chance, or extract some value before it is painfully obvious you have given up on him.
The biggest fish is Vucevic. The 30-year-old is enjoying a career statistical year (24.1 points on 48/40/84 shooting splits, 11.7 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game) in the void left by a depleted roster. He has two years left on his deal after this one. Nobody wants to trade their best player, but what is the Magic's ceiling with him in that role? Where will he be by the time they develop or sign someone better? He may never hold more value than he does right now. If it takes waiting until the summer to get the best haul for him, so be it, but it is beyond time to blow up the Magic.
Believe in the Wizards again
At season's start, I had the Wizards securing one of the East's eighth playoff spots. Two weeks ago, they were 6-17, owners of the fewest wins in the NBA and their conference's worst record. All-Star guard Bradley Beal was "damn tired" from carrying them even that far. He was also fresh off publicly committing to righting the ship in Washington.
Since then, they are 6-1, better than anybody but the surging Brooklyn Nets. This is not a soft 6-1. Their lone loss came agains the Clippers. They have beaten the Nuggets twice, along with the Lakers (albeit without Davis), Celtics, Blazers and Rockets. Washington has leapfrogged three teams in the standings, sitting two games back from a play-in spot with only one more loss than the fifth-place Toronto Raptors. A playoff berth is still very much on the table.
Beal's 32.8 points per game continue to lead the league in scoring. Russell Westbrook has more assists than anyone in the NBA over Washington's recent stretch, averaging a 19-11-11 despite abominable shooting (44/8/50 splits, thankfully on just two 3-point attempts per game). They are trying on defense. It is at least some semblance of the partnership we imagined, because how could two All-NBA-caliber talents not lead a team to the playoffs in the East?
And there is room to grow. The improvement has coincided with a starting lineup shift. A season-ending injury to Thomas Bryant and failed experiments with Robin Lopez and Alex Len afforded Moe Wagner a chance to start at center. The threat of his shooting opens a half step here or there for Beal and Westbrook to attack the basket. Same goes for undrafted second-year guard Garrison Matthews, who is shooting 43.8% on four 3's a night in the first eight starts of his career. Neither has been a disaster on defense, and the Wizards are no longer digging early holes.
Davis Bertans catching fire from distance has only further opened the floor for everyone. Rui Hachimura's mid-range game has benefited from spacing previously crunched by sharing the court with multiple non-shooting threats. Lopez has shifted to a reserve defensive specialist role, especially when they need stops and veteran stewardship in crunch time. One way or another, Wizards coach Scott Brooks has finally found a rotation that at least make sense.
None of it is great, but as far as the playoffs are concerned, the Wizards have a path they can believe in now.
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