The coronavirus pandemic halted the NBA season four months ago, the equivalent of an entire offseason. It is easy to forget where everyone left off, let alone what has changed since we last saw NBA basketball. In order to get you up to speed before the July 30 season re-opening slate at Walt Disney World in Orlando, we will be reviewing and previewing each of the 22 teams scheduled to participate.
[More NBA restart previews: Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Houston Rockets • Indiana Pacers • Los Angeles Clippers • Memphis Grizzlies • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Toronto Raptors • Utah Jazz • Washington Wizards]
Where were the Los Angeles Lakers?
Place: First in the West
If the Lakers have exceeded expectations, it is because expectations of what was possible with LeBron James and Anthony Davis at the head of any roster were too low. They are as skilled and complementary as any tandem in NBA history, and the attention they command unlocks quality from the mediocrity of their supporting cast. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 10.4 points per 100 possessions with both of them on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass. That number dips below zero when James leaves the court, an on/off rating that has vaulted him into another MVP conversation at 35 years old.
James and Davis have drawn resurgent seasons out of a number of reclamation projects, Dwight Howard included. A trade deadline search for more skillful help came up relatively empty, leaving their margin for error thin, but the sheer size and athleticism of the Lakers makes them a force at the rim on both ends. Their two-way brilliance was on full display in back-to-back victories against the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks that cemented the Lakers as odds-on favorites to win the franchise’s 17th title.
Who’s in and who’s out?
Out: Avery Bradley (opt-out), Rajon Rondo (thumb)
Bradley’s decision not to join the Lakers for the restart out of safety for his immunocompromised son was an underrated blow to the Lakers’ championship chances. A staple of their most dominant lineups, he is an elite on-ball defender against opposing point guards, and his offensive skillset — most notably as a catch-and-shoot 3-point shooter and off-ball cutter — was an ideal match for James and Davis.
The broken thumb Rondo suffered since joining the team in Orlando further limited the Lakers’ lineup versatility. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will be asked to fill many of those missing minutes, increasing the likelihood the Lakers will rely on recently signed and less reliable options Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith.
Over/under wins in the bubble: 5.5 (Over +120; Under -150)
NBA Finals odds: +125
Championship odds: +250
The Lakers dangled third-year forward Kyle Kuzma at the deadline, hoping he would fetch a more trustworthy third scoring option, but they met a dead end. It was a sign of Kuzma’s inflated value in L.A. In a reserve role smaller than his two previous seasons, Kuzma’s efficiency has dipped along with his production, and he is now the fifth-worst shooter among all who attempt four or more 3-pointers per game. That severely limits his ability to contribute to Lakers lineups not otherwise ripe with shooting.
Kuzma has made strides on the defensive end this season, and his streakiness makes for the occasional 20-point night. If he ever came out of the break with an improved above-the-break jumper, Kuzma would elevate already potent lineups. The Lakers are 17-2 when Kuzma makes multiple 3-pointers, the only losses coming to the Clippers on Christmas and the Toronto Raptors in November. They are 12-9 when he fails to make a single three. Few players fluctuate more wildly between impactful and detrimental.
All times Eastern.
July 30: L.A. Clippers, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 1: Toronto Raptors, 8:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 3: Utah Jazz, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 5: Oklahoma City Thunder, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Aug. 6: Houston Rockets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 8: Indiana Pacers, 6 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Aug. 13: Sacramento Kings, TBD
The Lakers are favorites to win the 2020 title, both by sportsbooks and FiveThirtyEight’s statistical projections. That is the benefit of boasting two of the NBA’s five most dominant players. James led a lesser Cleveland Cavaliers teams to the Finals in 2018, and it would be silly to think he cannot do the same with Davis at his side. But this is the West, where threats to those championship hopes can come as early as the first round. Davis knows all too well how much more difficult his conference is to navigate.
Unless the Portland Trail Blazers can unseat the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff seed or Zion Williamson realizes his full potential on an eighth-place New Orleans Pelicans squad, the Lakers will easily have the two best players on the floor in the first round, and that is an un-winnable obstacle. The Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks linger as high-ceiling potential second-round upsets, but James’ postseason track record is far more proven than James Harden’s and more extensive than Luka Doncic’s.
Throw in Davis, and the scale tips in the Lakers’ favor until the Western Conference finals. It is not until they meet a deeper and more versatile Clippers team that can also match their starpower that the Lakers face a nonrandom threat. It will take superhuman efforts from James and Davis to carry a less talented core against the Clippers and/or Milwaukee Bucks. On the other hand, both may just be otherworldly.
Yahoo Sports NBA prediction
Place: First in the West
Finish: Western Conference finals loss
More from our NBA restart series:
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