How the Lakers save their season!
How a perfect storm of good fortune could catapult the Lakers into playoffs and make them the team nobody wants to play
Enough with the jealous whiffs of a dystopian future where LeBron’s broken down, Luke’s been fired, Magic has quit, and the Lakers are back to tanking. The truth is the Lakers are actually in a perfect position to save their season.
Forget the latest odds from Vegas. The Lakers will not only make the playoffs. They’ll become the dangerous team nobody wants to play in a 7-game series, the team opponents would even tank a few games to avoid having to play. While the Lakers have struggled and are now 10th in the West, 3 games out of the #8 spot with 25 games to go, they were the 4th best team in the West with the 7th best defense in the league before LeBron and Lonzo went down.
Once play resumes after the All-Star break, you’ll see a different Lakers team, a team laser-focused on crushing every opponent and winning every game. Lakers fans will see a LeBron they’ve never seen before in purple and gold, the MVP LeBron that overpowers and rips the heart out of opponents. Injury not withstanding, LeBron’s been coasting most of this season. Finally healthy, he knows the playoffs start this Thursday night against the Houston Rockets.
But LeBron James playing at an MVP level is just half of the untapped power waiting to elevate the Lakers as a team and catapult them into the playoffs. The Lakers are also scheduled to get starting point guard Lonzo Ball back by the end of this month. Ball is the heart and soul of the Lakers’ team identity, especially defensively. Losing him to injury in mid January is why the Lakers’ defense, 7th best in the league before he went down, has ranked 28th since.
With the Anthony Davis trade drama in the rear mirror. Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram appear to be primed and motivated to show the world that they’ve been seriously undervalued, underestimated, and underappreciated. Kuzma’s finally regained his 3-point stroke as he showed All-Star weekend and Ingram is finally playing consistently at high level at both ends of the court. Both should have average near 20 points per game the rest of the way.
While the Lakers bashers were enjoying the team’s ill-fated attempt to trade for Anthony Davis, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka actually pulled off two midseason trades that’ll greatly help solve the team’s 3-point shooting woes. By trading Svi Mykhailiuk, Michael Beasley, and Ivica Zubac for Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala, the Lakers added two elite high volume 3-point shooters to provide the floor spacing desperately needed to unleash LeBron.
Before the All-Star break, the Lakers’ major offensive weakness was 3-point shooting, averaging just 30.3 threes attempts per game (19th in league) and making just 10.3 of them (20th in the league), for 33.9% (26th in league). Since the Lakers allowed opposing teams to make 11.7 threes per game, the result is the Lakers losing the 3-point shooting war by 4.2 points per game, not even factoring in how lack of shooting made guarding LeBron easier.
But Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala should change that as together they have averaged 10.9 three point attempts and 4.0 makes per game for 35.4%. Both will immediately be the Lakers best and most prolific 3-point shooters. The beneficiaries of more and better long range shooting will be LeBron James and Brandon Ingram, whose forays into the paint will suddenly become much easier surrounded by capable and willing 3-point shooters.
Finally, expect to see the Lakers play a lot of small ball with five out sets with either LeBron or Muscala playing the five as the Lakers prime for the playoffs. We’ve seen a few teasers of a Lakers’ version of the Warriors’ Death Lineups but I think Luke now has the weapons to make such a lineup a reality. Mike Muscala could be a preview of what the Lakers may be looking for in free agency this summer, a stretch five center who can unleash LeBron James.
There are other wild cards that could help or hurt the Lakers’ playoff run, including whether Rondo can stay healthy, McGee can get back to the player he was before pneumonia , Chandler can hold up over a long season, Hart can get healthy and find his shot, or Caldwell-Pope can suddenly get red hot. But as long as LeBron plays like LeBron, Lonzo’s back 100%, Kuz and BI ball out, and Bullock and Muscala are shooting lights out, the Lakers will be fine.
The midseason break could not have come at a better time for the Lakers. With the AD trade drama behind them, the team is now in perfect position to make a big run to get in the playoffs and do damage when they get there. LeBron’s healthy, ready to rumble, and primed for his 14th straight playoffs. Lonzo’s due back soon to anchor the Lakers’ top-10 defense, and Luke Walton suddenly has some new toys to turbo charge the Lakers’ 3-point shooting.
LeBron and the Lakers know how critical making the playoffs is to their plans to sign a second superstar in free agency this summer. That’s why the playoffs start for them Thursday night when they face the Houston Rockets at home.