NBA Coaches: 3 Reasons Struggling Lakers Still West Playoff Favorites

Everything is a struggle now for LeBron James and the Lakers

Getty Everything is a struggle now for LeBron James and the Lakers

Judging by the quotes coming from the Lakers after the Sunday night loss to the lowly Raptors, who were shorthanded in the game, the wheels are either coming off on the defending champs’ bus, or they’re already off and the team just desperately needs to put them back on.

But, listen: All is not lost. This is still a really, really good team. We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, we’ll wallow in the Lakers’ negativity. Here’s what Anthony Davis had to say about the Lakers’ predicament: “We really can’t get any lower than this.”

Here’s what Kyle Kuzma had to say: “I just don’t think we’re connected right now. I just think we’re unhealthy and not good enough.”

Here’s what LeBron James, whose sprained ankle still is not quite right, had to say when looking at point guard Dennis Schroder’s situation, out indefinitely in the NBA’s health and safety protocols: “If it’s not one thing it’s another.”

This is a glum and testy bunch, one that is now deadlocked in a 5-6-7 tie with Dallas and Portland in the Western Conference standings. The Lakers have already lost the season series with the Mavericks and are 1-1 with Portland and will play the third game of the series on Friday.

With the looming reality of the No. 7 seed, and a spot in the NBA’s play-in tournament that comes with it, James lashed out at the league, saying whoever came up with the idea of the play-in “should be fired.”

Yeesh.

But we’re not here to rain on a Lakers parade that has already gotten doused in the past couple of weeks. No, we’re here to bring some sunshine and light to this dark Lakers moment. Things are not as bad as they seem, not relative to the rest of the conference.

As easy as it is to poke at the Lakers right now, when we asked around among assistant coaches and scouts in recent days, the message was still clear—the Lakers are the team to beat in the Western Conference, and those who doubt them do so at their own peril.

Three reasons stood out:


1. The Lakers Have the Top Duo

In the last two games, no doubt, LeBron James and Anthony Davis have not been themselves. Davis still is coming back from two months off with a calf/Achilles tendon injury, while James is returning from a month-and-a-half away with a high ankle sprain. Health is the major factor with the James-Davis combo, but if they’re close to 100% …

Western Conference scout: “Would you really bet against LeBron and AD? I would not. I don’t think the supporting cast is great, I don’t know if they can get healthy in time for the postseason. But if they can, there is not a 1-2 punch that is better in the West, not in the playoffs and that is where a 1-2 punch matter the most. You get time off between games, as long as you have your Top 2 guys out there, you have a good chance. If LeBron is even 85%, I still like their chances.”


2. The Defense Is Still Tops

As awful as the Lakers offense has looked at times, the defense has not wavered, even as players have shuffled in and out of the lineup and even as some of the team’s better defenders have had to sit out. The Lakers are No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency, allowing 106.7 points per 100 possessions. That is even better than last year, when they were third.

West assistant coach: “The offenses this year, everywhere in the league, it’s been off the charts. But that is going to be reined in in the playoffs. You’re going to have to defend. And Frank Vogel deserves a ton of credit because he has gotten them to just play solid across-the-board defense. They defend the paint and they defend the corners (3-pointers), and those are the two spots where your defense is the most vulnerable. Not the Lakers. And I have seen Frank over the years, he has tricks up his sleeve he has not even used yet.”


3. The Experience Factor

The Lakers, of course, are coming off an NBA championship. Though that was a unique situation, in the Orlando bubble, L.A. still has an advantage with its ability to read the postseason landscape and react accordingly.

West playoff-team,  assistant: “It has been a weird year across the board. I can see experience and veteran leadership and all of that being a big factor once you get into the postseason because you’re going to be dealing with some unexpected stuff. So, who do you listen when there is adversity? Phoenix has Chris Paul but he’s never won anything. The Clippers have Kawhi (Leonard) but he never talks. Utah doesn’t really have anyone. Denver has no one. There just are not a lot of teams who have reliable, experienced veterans right now. The Lakers do, and that is pretty much it in the West when you’re talking about contenders.”

 


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