The 2020-21 NBA playoffs are less than two weeks away, but LeBron James and the LA Lakers are stuttering to the finish line. Considering their indifferent recent form at a crucial stage of the season, the defending champions have their task cut out.
Five biggest concerns for the LA Lakers
The LA Lakers' aura of invincibility got over after they dropped six of their last seven games.
They are on a three-game losing streak even with Anthony Davis playing the last six games and LeBron James the past two. The 114-121 setback against the 27-38 Toronto Raptors on Monday showed just how much the Purple and Gold (36-28) have slipped from a 21-6 start to their campaign.
On that note, let's have a look at what is ailing the 17-time champions, LA Lakers.
#1 Defensive woes
The LA Lakers have been one of the best defensive teams in the league since last season. They rode on their stellar defense to the 2020 NBA title, but things began to go downhill once their two talismans, Anthony Davis and LeBron James, got injured and missed several games.
The duo's return was expected to bolster the LA Lakers' defense, as the two superstars are among the league’s best in that department. Instead, the LA Lakers' defense has continued to flounder. From the start of the season to April 18, the LA Lakers were No. 1 in defensive rating at 105.8, including games where there was no LeBron James or Anthony Davis.
On Davis’ return, the LA Lakers' defensive rating plummeted. From April 19 to May 3, which includes James’ two games, the LA Lakers were only 23rd in the league in terms of their defensive rating (114.3). That’s a big dropoff, especially considering that three of the four worst teams in the league, the Detroit Pistons, Minnesota Timberwolves and Houston Rockets, have had better defensive numbers than the Purple and Gold during this stretch.
#2 Three-point shooting
Floor spacing appears to be another issue plaguing the LA Lakers, particularly when it comes to three-point shooting. Their offense is in shambles.
In the 12 games, before Davis made his return, the LA Lakers shot 37.5% from the 3-point range, making an average of 13.1 threes per game. Since then, they’ve only made 31% from beyond the arc and only 10.2 makes per contest.
At the defensive end, the LA Lakers have recently allowed opponents to shoot 39.3% from the three-point territory, whereas they had stymied other teams to 34.4% shooting from the arc in their 12 previous games.
If they can get better shots from the deep while preventing their opponents from having open looks, it would solve one major problem area for the LA Lakers going into the postseason.
#3 Rotation issues
One of the most difficult aspects of LA Lakers coach Frank Vogel has been juggling the minutes of his players.
Marc Gasol, their first-choice center to begin the season, has had to accept a reduced role with the arrival of Andre Drummond.
That has resulted in Gasol missing a chunk of games lately due to DNP-CDs. In his two short appearances in the last six games, the former All-Star and Defensive Player of the Year had a plus/minus rating of +8.0 in 13.2 minutes of playing time.
Drummond has been the LA Lakers’ starting center since he arrived, but he has been a plus/minus -1.3 during the last six games. His primary backup, reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, is faring worse with -5.6.
It’s a minuscule sample size, but perhaps the LA Lakers' problem at center could be solved by playing Gasol more and reducing the game time of Harrell.
And we haven’t even talked about Markieff Morris’ and Wesley Matthews’ dwindling minutes since the return to action of the two LA Lakers stars.
#4 Tough five-game stretch
In their next five games, the LA Lakers will face the Denver Nuggets, LA Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks.
The Blazers and Knicks have the same record as that of Vogel’s team, while the Clippers (43-22), Nuggets (43-21) and Suns (46-18) have all fared better. What’s more concerning for the LA Lakers is that the latter three have beaten the defending champions this season.
Unless they can get their act together both offensively and defensively, the LA Lakers could end go 0-5 in these games. While that seems improbable, it’s also noteworthy to consider that the LA Lakers haven’t been this bad all season long.
#5 Health Concerns
Perhaps more than their team chemistry and other issues, the LA Lakers are dealing with their players nursing all sorts of injuries. From their top stars to their bench players, the LA Lakers can’t seem to put a healthy team on the court.
It’s not unjust to put the blame for that on the league’s early start this season, just two months after the LA Lakers won last year’s championship. The early start has certainly played a not-so-minor role in the LA Lakers' mounting injury woes this season.
The 36-year-old James has battled injuries in two of his last three seasons. Against the Raptors, he left the game midway through the fourth quarter and did not return due to right ankle soreness.
Starting guard Dennis Schroder was a late scratch for Sunday’s game after being placed in the league’s COVID-19 protocols, his second such instance this season. Davis had been out the longest, missing 30 games, and he hasn’t looked like his dominant self since coming back.
Others are also dealing with minor injuries as well.
The LA Lakers would wish they had more time before the playoffs to get their players back in full health. But unfortunately, they don't have the luxury, as games continue to come thick and fast.
When healthy and in sync, the LA Lakers are a joy to watch, especially when their defense is humming. Vogel and his staff have the tough task of working around these issues as the postseason nears, as the LA Lakers' title defense hopes are on the line.