I PROMISE THIS COLUMN IS NOT about Dwight Howard. But here are three facts which paint an interesting picture when taken together:
- It took 48 wins to reach the postseason in the West last year, and the conference is widely expected to be even more competitive this season.
- The Westgate in Las Vegas has the 2019-20 Lakers’ over/under pegged at 50.5 wins.
- In eight of the last nine seasons, the under has hit for the team employing Dwight Howard. [The lone exception was the 2014-15 Rockets, a season in which Dwight played only 41 games.]
We have plenty of circumstantial evidence at this point to conclude the #Dwightmare is a real phenomenon, but it’s not the point. In announcing his signing, the Lakers were clear about what the extent of his role will be and the degree to which they will not tolerate his well-chronicled tendencies toward distraction and nonsense. [For real. The contract is structured such that he can be cut at any time, for any reason, with no additional money owed to him.] This is the first time an organization has truly had leverage over Dwight during his career, so much like Carmelo Anthony in Houston last year, it’s reasonable to expect the Lakers to kick D12 to the curb sooner rather than later if there are any signs of discontent with his presence. [Yes, I am aware I’m giving L.A.’s slap-dick front office far more credit than it probably deserves, but it’s a new season and Magic Johnson isn’t around anymore to goon things up, so we’ll grant them a mulligan to start the round. Sure, they’ll almost certainly burn it right off the first tee, which will only serve to further justify the clowning they receive down the line if they yet again prove they do not warrant the benefit of the doubt. Anyhoo.]
Point is, even under ideal conditions, the Lakers would have topped out as first round cannon fodder last year. [At the time LeBron was injured, L.A. was on pace for approximately 48 wins which, again, turned out to be the playoff cut line.] Obviously, conditions were not ideal. Regardless of what the messaging was going into the season, the reality is the Lakers wasted what was ostensibly one of LeBron’s last prime seasons. And despite all the melodrama, the Lakers again benefited from the giant horseshoe crammed up their collective ass, lucking into the fourth overall pick in the 2019 draft, which allowed them to secure generational big man Anthony Davis by shipping out every asset not nailed down, including the pick. And yet, with two of the league’s top ten players in the fold, the margin for error remains razor-thin in a Western Conference which is about to look like the fight scene from Anchorman. [If we’re extending the analogy, JaVale McGee is clearly Brick Tamland, though based off his 58.8% career free throw percentage, I don’t have a ton of confidence the trident would find its mark.] It’s amid this backdrop they consciously decided to expose themselves to Dwight’s disease, even if they are taking steps to ensure this strain is relatively mild.
The AD trade was the “Look out, the Lakers are back!” moment for a franchise which has been an abomination for most of the decade. But with everything we know, it’s at least worth asking:
Are we sure?
THE CASE FOR THE LAKERS becoming a 54+ win contender is pretty straightforward: they have LeBron and AD, and everyone else doesn’t. They have useful complementary pieces in Kyle Kuzma and Danny Green. The front line talent, plus just enough theoretical floor spacing, should make L.A. a top-tier offensive outfit. No argument there.
Here’s the rub: constructing a darkest timeline isn’t much more difficult. As good as they are likely to be on offense, the defense could be the inverse. Davis and Green are both high-end defensive players, and Howard, for all the, ahem, difficulties he presents, remains an effective rim protector as well (much more so than Boogie Cousins, whom Dwight will replace in the rotation, would have been). Beyond them, however, is there anyone in L.A.’s rotation we should expect to consistently get stops? Avery Bradley was a plus defensive guard during the earlier portion of his career, but his offense has been so execrable over the past two years, he may prove unplayable. Jared Dudley is solid, but does he have enough left in the tank to give them anything beyond spot minutes? LeBron still rates as a net-positive defensively, as per usual, but there is no more well-worn narrative in the league at this point than the King’s tendency to float through stretches of games and seasons on the defensive end.
The counterargument to LeBron’s lack of effort is sure to be, “Yeah, but this is the first time all decade he didn’t play into mid-June. He’ll be rested and ready to go all-out this season.” Will he though? First, James will be 35 in December. We know his commitment to physical maintenance is legendary, but at a certain point, the energy level simply isn’t what it used to be. Second, yes, he did play a lot less basketball last season, but you know what he spent his summer doing? FILMING A MOVIE. Have you ever heard an actor/producer/director promoting a film say, “You know what was super restful? Working twenty hours a day on this feature-length movie. I sure did feel great physically when that was over.” No, because by all accounts, making a movie is fucking grueling. Do we really have reason to suspect LeBron, the star and executive producer of Space Jam 2, is going to stroll into camp fresh as a daisy? Color me skeptical. [Davis — along with every other Klutch client known to man, apparently — will also reportedly appear in the film.]
Under the best of circumstances, this is likely to be a middle-of-the-road defense. If Davis and/or Green should miss any time — let alone LeBron — they could easily crater on that end.
So if we’re looking at a team with an elite offense and a sub-par defense led by a late-prime LeBron and a second star in the neighborhood of his apex, what does that mean? Fortunately, we have a useful analogue for this: the 2016-17 Cavaliers. For Lakers fans, using Bron’s penultimate season in Cleveland as a guidepost offers some good news and some bad news. The good news: that team won 51 games (checks out) and finished second in the East. For the season, the Cavs had the no. 3 offense and the no. 21 defense. [For anyone who doubts the impact of defense in the NBA, the ’15-’16 Cavs, with largely the same cast of characters, were also 3rd on offense but 10th on defense. They won 57 games, and as you may recall, the championship.]
Cleveland stormed its way through the playoffs, going 12-1 in the first three rounds before falling 4-1 in the Finals to an even-better-than-we-remember Warriors team in its first season with Kevin Durant. History will recall those Finals as a blowout, but in reality, they were not. If KD misses the dagger three in LeBron’s mug in Game Three, there’s a reasonable chance the series goes back to Oakland for Game 5 tied 2-2. Sure, an absolutely loaded Golden State squad probably still pulls it out in a long series, but we end up thinking much differently about the way it went down. Cleveland gave the Dubs all they could handle in Games Three through Five, and their 137-116 Game 4 win to secure the gentleman’s sweep was one of the most gob-smacking offensive performances I’ve ever seen. [I’ve said this before, but seriously, go back and watch the game sometime. The Cavs just don’t fucking miss.]
So the ’16-’17 Cavs won 50+ games, steamrolled through the playoffs, and went toe-to-toe with one of history’s greatest teams. You’re probably wondering why I think this portends ominous things for this year’s Lakers. Well, here’s the bad news. First, the obvious one: the Cavs play in the East, and in the ’16-’17 season the conference was, to put it charitably, wretched. The top-seeded Celtics won only 53 games — this was the “Isaiah Thomas goes nuts with dribble hand-offs all year, then torches the Wizards in Round 2 with a bum hip while mourning his sister’s untimely death” season — and by Simple Rating System (which accounts for both margin of victory and strength of schedule), there were a full five teams in the West better than anyone in the East. The Cavs finished with the seventh-easiest schedule in the league, and all of the teams they throttled in the playoffs (the Pacers, Raptors, and Celtics) had even easier slates than did Cleveland. Based on point differential, those Cavs had an Expected W-L record of 49-33, which already puts us in “Uh-oh” territory in the West. Their SRS of 2.87 would have landed them in 7th in the West in the ’18-’19 season, sandwiched between the 49-win Thunder and 48-win Spurs. [Again, checks out, and perhaps slightly more encouraging.]
Here’s where it gets hard to replicate, however. Those Cavs enjoyed relatively healthy seasons from both of their stars, getting 74 and 72 games from LeBron and Kyrie Irving, respectively. They had a third All-Star in Kevin Love, albeit one who only played 60 games. [The Cavs were 40-20 in games where Love played and only 11-11 in games he missed.] LeBron is now three years older and coming off the first “real” injury of his career, and Anthony Davis has been known to miss stretches of games nearly every year. [On average, he’s played about 67 games per season.] Are we confident the two of them will combine for 145+ games played this year, especially given the way teams now manage rest even compared to just three years ago? Can a 24-year-old Kyle Kuzma approximate the impact of a then-28-year-old Kevin Love, who was busy making his fourth All-Star team and shooting 37% from deep? The answers to these questions aren’t a definitive “no,” but it takes a little bit of mental gymnastics to get to a “yes.” [Fortunately, most Lakers fans might as well be Simone Biles doing the floor exercise in this regard.]
The depth of the ’17 Cavs was not enviable, but it may still be preferable to what the Lakers will be working with this year. In addition to Love as the third option, they got a healthy, productive season out of Tristan Thompson, along with the last real embers of NBA viability from veterans Richard Jefferson, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye. The three graybeards shot a combined 41% from three on 721 attempts during the season. Can the Lakers’ non-primary guys match this sort of efficiency against tougher opposition and in a potentially more cramped offensive environment? Quinn Cook, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso are all likely to be important cogs in the machine, which only feels like a mild improvement over the island of misfit toys they had populating their bench last season.
Depth matters in the regular season because it’s a function of arithmetic. A team has to fill 19,680 minutes of available court time, not counting any potential overtimes. Even assuming good health, the Lakers will probably only get 10,000 or so of those minutes from the top four of LeBron, Davis, Kuzma, and Green. Those other 9,000+ minutes have to come from somewhere, and the options are not particularly inspiring, even with the most generous estimation of what Dwight might offer. Top-heavy rosters continually have to make up for the drag from the lower half of the rotation. Just ask Anthony Davis, who only has two playoff appearances to his name, in large part because of the similarly flawed rosters former Pelicans’ GM Dell Demps put around him.
Getting positive contributions from players five through ten goes a long way to padding win totals, and I struggle to see where those contributions are going to consistently come from with this supporting cast. Teams like the Raptors, Bucks, and Nuggets were filling every one of those 9,000-ish minutes with legit, above average NBA players last season, so they weren’t doomed to take an L any time one of the stars was injured, or having an off night, or being load managed. For a team with a bottom-half defense and lackluster depth, the road to 50+ wins is littered with landmines, no matter how glitzy the star power at the top. And if one of those top guys should have to miss significant time, there’s no one to fill the production void. Kaboom.
Beyond the depth of talent itself, there are questions about how this mish-mash of players is going to fit together on the floor. The basic outline of the offense isn’t hard to surmise: LeBron/AD pick-and-rolls flanked by shooting. Do virtually nothing else, and it’s a top-10 unit. But how much will they deploy this configuration, and do they have enough competent floor spacers to make it work? Green and Cook should prove to be snug fits, but Kuzma’s outside stroke has been mostly theoretical to this point (30.3% last season on 6 attempts per game). Once new coach (for now) Frank Vogel gets down into the Rajon Rondo/Alex Caruso/Jared Dudley/KCP/Avery Bradley section of the roster, there’s no telling if he’ll get consistent shooting, and even if so, whether it’ll be offset by other deficiencies.
To go one step further, on the assumption this look represents the most efficient version of the Lakers — and I suspect it will — it is dependent on AD playing heavy, high-leverage minutes at center, a prospect at which he has repeatedly expressed his displeasure. As soon as JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard checks into the game alongside Davis, the spacing and geometry of the offense change. Perhaps they can overcome this structural shift by just being freaking huge — so hot right now — and using the lineup in the right doses and against the right opponents, but it’s going to be an adjustment as the season progresses. And oftentimes, when a team is busy tinkering with lineups and establishing an identity on the fly during a season, you know what happens? They lose winnable games to teams with less talent but more continuity. And in the West, if they stack enough of those one-off, woulda-shoulda-coulda losses on each other, they miss the playoffs.
[On a related note, I’m not here to pile on Davis after how his entire saga went down, but his whole “I don’t want to play the 5” talking point is some utter bullshit. I get he’s a hyper-skilled, multifaceted big man. It’s a large part of what makes him so great. But in the end, he is what he is: a near-seven foot, 250-pound athletic freak with “Go-Go Gadget” arms who excels at finishing, rebounding, and defending the rim. In other words, A CENTER. The best, most versatile bigs in today’s game can capably man either the 4 or the 5, as Davis clearly can. While it creates some of the challenges mentioned above, it’s a problem most teams would kill to have because of the lineup versatility it engenders. It’s not as though AD isn’t going to spend a bunch of time in the middle, but a player angling to limit how the coach uses him both kneecaps the team strategically and comes off as more than a little weak. You’re Anthony Freaking Davis. You’re really worried about the beating these other centers are going to put on you? Instead, how about you just go be the generational unicorn you are and dominate their big, slow, unskilled asses right out of the league? I do not begrudge the power and agency the league’s stars have earned to chart their own professional courses, but all of the money they make and the off-court opportunities they are afforded ultimately exist because when they step between the lines, it is their JOB to do whatever it takes to help their team win. When it’s nut-crunching time for these Lakers, I can pretty well guarantee the best chance for them to win will be with AD at center. If he refuses to embrace that role, tacitly or otherwise, it will be a dereliction of duty on his part. End rant.]
Let’s say the worst-case scenario comes to pass. Injuries expose the lack of depth, the defense is lousy, the shooting never materializes, Dwight offers them nothing but metaphorical gluteal soreness yet again, and L.A. misses the playoffs with 43-45 wins. What then? For all it took to land Davis, he becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2020 and could begin to second-guess whether strong-arming his way to L.A. was a prudent move.
After eight straight Finals trips, LeBron would have flushed away two whole seasons without so much as a playoff berth to show for it. He remains under contract for 2020-21 (with a player option for ’21-’22), but it’s not as though he has ever had any qualms about applying pressure to owners or front offices he perceives as under-performing. With no future assets to trade and very little financial flexibility to work with, LeBron’s only true leverage over the team would be to request a trade. I don’t see it happening, but I also don’t have much confidence in the Lakers’ brass to maximize this window, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. I doubt LeBron wants his legacy to be as the guy who repeatedly bailed on franchises when it suited his interests — if this hypothetical becomes reality, he’ll have jumped ship four times in a ten-year span, counting Cleveland twice — but history tends to dull the edges on these things over time. And perhaps it would be a poetic bookend to the player empowerment decade, a final reminder that no matter what transpires, LeBron remains the queen on the chessboard.
All of this is wild speculation, of course. Maybe LBJ comes back rejuvenated, he and AD click on the court and off, the supporting cast is fine, Dwight turns out not to be a pox on the locker room, and the Lakers roll to 55+ wins and a top-4 seed in the West. It’s not impossible. But if the wheels come off, the Lakers find themselves on the outside looking in for the seventh straight year, and heads start rolling? Don’t say you weren’t warned.