Will the Return of Anthony Davis Be the Catalyst to Kick Start the Lakers?
Forget the stumbles and disappointments of first half of the season because the Lakers will finally get an opportunity to see if the superstar big three they envisioned when trading for Russell Westbrook can actually work.
Anthony Davis is expected to be back in the starting lineup as the Lakers get ready to play three critical road games against the best of the East. They play the Heat tomorrow, the Nets on Tuesday, and the 76ers on Wednesday. Showing they can compete with the top teams in the East will not only prove the Lakers are a legitimate contender but could also determine whether or not Frank Vogel remains as head coach of the Los Angles Lakers.
Because of untimely injuries and Covid protocols, the Lakers’ superstar big three has only played 15 games out of the team’s 46 total games and 291 minutes of the team’s 2,248 total minutes. That’s just under 13% of the time. With 36 games remaining in the 2021–22 regular season and 10 games until the February 10th trade deadline, the Lakers will get a chance to see how their superstar big three fares and whether they need to make changes.
As a team, the Lakers have been unable to play good, consistent basketball. Every time they appear to turn the corner, they instead find a way to fail. No more excuses. Here’s what Lakers need to do to take advantage of AD.
1. Fix the Starting Lineup
Vogel’s lineups have been a major source of concern. Frank needs to understand his job is still at risk and, now that he has AD back, he needs to make smart decisions about the Lakers’ starting lineup and rotations.
LeBron, AD, and Russ will all start and usually close games as expected. Russ will start at the one, LeBron at the four, and Anthony at the five. That leaves starting roles for a shooting guard and small forward to go with the big three. While there’s some question about who was making lineup decisions for the Lakers, it does appear right now that head coach Frank Vogel has been given that power for the time being, as was shown by his benching of Westbrook.
Last night, Vogel started Westbrook, Bradley, James, Ariza, and Howard but swapped Howard for Johnson the second half. With AD back, it’s obvious Johnson should be the Lakers small forward to go with James and Davis. Stanley Johnson starting the second half allowed the Lakers to switch everything on defense, which should be a strategic defensive goal rest of this season and the playoffs as it makes it easier to stay in front of your man.
Starting today, Frank needs to to replace 6' 3" Avery Bradley in the starting lineup with 6' 5" Austin Reaves, who is the the Lakers’ best perimeter defender and the perfect player to complement their superstar big three.
2. Make Russ the Third Option
One of the problems the Lakers have endured in this third straight Covid and injury plagued season is LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook were only on the court together for 15 games and 291 minutes.
With James missing 12 games and Davis 19 games, Westbrook was left having to function as the team’s second option for much of this season rather than third option that was envisioned, which led to a chaotic first half of season. Hopefully, the moves by Vogel to make Westbrook more accountable for his turnovers, poor shot selection, and half-hearted defense and the return of Anthony Davis will be enough for Russ to embrace being the third option.
This season marks the third straight year Russell Westbrook will have had to adjust to a new team and new teammates. In his first year with the Rockets and then with the Wizards, Russ played better the second half of the season. While the Lakers discussed the possibility of trading Westbrook, it appears now the goal is to give the Lakers’ superstar big three an opportunity to show what they can accomplish now that LeBron, AD, and Russ are finally healthy.
The Lakers have seen Russ make a legitimate effort to adjust his game to fit what the team needs from him as their third superstar. With LeBron and AD healthy, Russ now needs to embrace being the Lakers’ third superstar.
3. Narrow the Team’s Rotations
After playing so many crazy lineups and rotations due to injuries and Covid protocols, the Lakers finally have enough key players available that they can start playing a legitimate starting lineup backed up by quality rotations.
With Russ starting at the one, Reaves the two, Johnson the three, LeBron the four, and AD the five, Frank Vogel needs to make tough decisions to narrow the team’s rotation to 9 or 10 players instead of the usual 11 or 12 players. Narrowing the bench rotation to just 4 players — Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, and Dwight Howard — will eliminate the terrible indefensible lineups Frank Vogel was forced to play earlier in the season.
Narrowing the rotation essentially means players like Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, DeAndre Jordan, and Talen Horton-Tucker will be relegated to third backup roles in case of key players injuries or foul trouble. The Lakers only have 36 games left in the season and their top priority should be establishing consistent starting lineups and rotations so everybody knows their role and what to expect as the team heads into the playoffs.
The major challenge Frank Vogel has overcome is his hesitancy to remove underperforming players from the starting lineup or rotations. Vogel needs to remove Avery Bradley from the Lakers’ starting lineup and rotations.
4. Take Advantage of a Rested AD
One of the keys to the Lakers winning their 17th NBA championship in the bubble was having a healthy and rested LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a result of the four and a half month Covid driven suspension of the season.
As the Lakers head into the last 36 games on this regular season schedule, they will hopefully benefit from Anthony Davis having had over a month off to strengthen his injured knee and spend time fixing his shooting mechanics. Anthony Davis needs to be the bubble AD if the Lakers are to come back from a disappointing first half of the season and win their 18th NBA championship. Anything less will not be enough for the Lakers to prevail.
Lakers need Davis to get back his stroke from the bubble playoffs when he averaged 27.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks, shooting 57.1% from the field, 38.3% from deep, and 83.2% from the line. That would be an improvement over his stats for this regular season, where he’s averaged 23.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.2 steals, and 2.0 blocks, shooting 52.1% from field, 17.9% from deep, and 72.7% from the line.
Now that AD is healthy and rested, the Lakers need him to be the lethal midrange and 3-point shooter he was during the bubble championship. A healthy and rested Anthony Davis will be the key to the winning it all.
5. Trade THT at the Deadline
21-year old Talen Horton-Tucker is the Lakers most valuable trading chip. Like they did with Klutch Sports’ client KCP, the Lakers rewarded THT with a big raise right before they’re likely to trade him to another team.
Talen’s problem has always been his fit alongside LeBron, AD, and Russ. Like the Lakers three superstars, THT is a player who’s strength is his ability to attack the paint and finish at the rim and his weakness is 3-point shooting. The Lakers need to move Horton-Tucker and his 3-year $30 million contract for a player who is a better fit for the Lakers, ideally a bigger, longer 3&D wing with 6' 8" to 6' 10" size who can defend other teams bigger wing scorers.
The Lakers have already offered THT, Nunn, and their 2027 first round draft pick for Jerami Grant but the Pistons don’t appear ready to accept that offer. Besides Grant, the Lakers have been linked to numerous other NBA starters. The Pacers’ Myles Turner, Rockets Christian Wood and Eric Gordon, Sixers’ Ben Simmons, Kings’ Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield, Raptors Chris Boucher and Goran Dragic have all been rumored to be Lakers trade targets.
In the end, the Lakers best fit could be an excellent 3&D guard like Eric Gordon or shot-blocking stretch five center like Myles Turner. Gordon or Turner would both help elevate the Lakers team defense back to the top.
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