Besides a hope or a prayer, here’s how opponents can try to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2020 NBA Playoffs.
The hours of negotiations, epidemiological presentations, and press conferences were nothing more than whitewater following in the wake of LeBron James’ statement all the way back in the spring that he intended to finish out the 2019-20 NBA season. In the NBA, what James says goes, and he foresees future fallen dominoes better than most players. It didn’t hurt, either, that the Lakers were in prime position to get James back to the Finals for the 10th time. The past several months have been about building toward what James decided a while ago.
In order for this season to be different than James’ previous two playoff runs, the Lakers will have to dominate a leveled playing field. The many gifts of James will not give the Lakers a nightly advantage in a situation where playoff inconveniences such as travel, frenzied crowds and media hoopla have been replaced with public health regulations and, well, boredom. Not since the NBA Finals aired on tape-delay in the dead of night has the basketball on the court had so much to do with who will be named champion. You can’t beat James in a chess match, but you can beat him in a brawl.
So how do you beat the Los Angeles Lakers in a playoff series?
Fight to a draw in the paint: To beat these Lakers, teams cannot allow the likes of Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard to dominate the interior. The Lakers’ inside defense is so good that Davis’ stats actually look the worst of the bunch, but to understand that, we have to dig in further.
Start with the outside. The Lakers’ team dashboard from The Basketball Index shows the strength of the team is actually its perimeter defense. More than the Cavaliers were able to, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers assembled a squadron of versatile guards and wings to surround James, to much success. Head coach Frank Vogel unleashed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Alex Caruso in many combinations, and the entire team was great at preventing dribble penetration as well as taking away open 3s. Those skills only work, of course, when there is a back line to plug up the leaks.
Playing Davis at power forward has been perfectly fine for the Lakers after Davis’ clashes throughout his career with coaches who wanted him to be a center. Davis has guarded 4s 41 percent of the time, and his block rate has in turn jumped to his highest in five seasons. He blocks nearly half the shots he contests, and opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim is 15 percentage points lower than expected based on Second Spectrum tracking data. Avoiding Davis is easier said than done, but opponents have to put shooters across the floor to pull Davis away from the hoop and challenge him to cover more ground.
The problem (for opponents) is the centers have been just as good. The fear that Howard inspires in scorers on other teams is just as striking as it was in his prime. The one-time MVP candidate is again among the best in the league deterring field goal attempts at the rim, according to his player profile at The Basketball Index. And his performance backs it up. Howard this season contested 40 percent of shots at the basket. It was unclear whether Los Angeles would even sign Howard as a replacement for DeMarcus Cousins, and there was a chance Howard would not play in Orlando. Somehow, Howard now stands as one of the most important pieces on the Lakers’ roster and one of the biggest turnarounds in the NBA.
If there is a weak link in the Lakers’ frontcourt, it’s McGee. Teams are not afraid to challenge him, and his instincts and athleticism are not quite at the level of the other two. It’s easy to give more credit to the perimeter defenders when you look at McGee’s stats versus the other two, and this is the loggerheads opponents will find themselves at deciding how to attack the Lakers’ defense. When the other two guys in a rotation are Hall of Fame-caliber defenders, McGee is the best target.
Though Bradley will not play for the Lakers the rest of the year, Los Angeles’ perimeter defense is too good to beat (maybe even more so with Rajon Rondo not playing). If teams can get inside, they have to use those opportunities to their advantage. Just before the break, we saw Spencer Dinwiddie and Ja Morant lead victories over the Lakers by seeking contact inside and creating open shots for teammates behind the arc. Far more dynamic ball-handlers will face the Lakers throughout the playoffs, and that recipe is replicable.
Spread the floor: The Lakers aren’t a complicated team. They’re a group made up mostly of smart veterans who execute like machines. If they lose, it’s not because somebody shows them something they’d never seen before. Anyone scouting them for the Orlando playoffs should focus on simplifying the game and trying to force them into a shootout.
Both losses to Memphis and Brooklyn just before the shutdown featured the winning team scoring fewer than 110 points. The Lakers have the 11th-ranked pace in the NBA, but most of their transition opportunities come off of turnovers, not because they try to juice their offense after opponents’ made baskets. This led to a transition attack, thanks to James’ preternatural outlet passing ability and Los Angeles’ depth of play-making talent, that was the fifth-most efficient in the NBA on a per-play basis, according to Synergy Sports play type data.
This means the Lakers’ brand of speed is not a sprint, but a careful series of sprints. It also means that while the Lakers can create fast breaks at will, other teams mostly have to score in the halfcourt. The best way to do that is to stock lineups with as much shooting as possible. This is what makes the Pelicans such a fun first-round playoff matchup to imagine. New Orleans isn’t afraid to bomb away the moment a player springs open.
Other teams will have to get out of their comfort zone. The Clippers were thinking as far ahead as the playoffs (back when we thought those would happen in May) when they traded for Marcus Morris at the deadline. The first adjustment we will see the Lakers make if their offense can’t keep up with an opponent is to downsize with Davis at the 5. They can then get James and Kyle Kuzma on the court together, or any mix of their dynamic guards. That doesn’t mean we won’t see Lakers losses in the playoffs that come solely because opponents blitz them early before Vogel makes that switch.
The teams who can bring enough shooting to the floor without sacrificing other strengths are mostly those the Lakers will face deep in the playoffs (think the Bucks, the Raptors or the Rockets in addition to their crosstown rival Clippers). It may not be a problem early, but when we imagine an end to the NBA season that doesn’t involve James hoisting a trophy in a mostly empty Wide World of Sports arena, it could come down to another team simply making more shots.
Pray that the end of the bench isn’t ready: The Lakers are already down two rotation guards before they play even one of their “regular season” restart games in Orlando. Without Bradley and Rondo, it’s clear the Lakers will have to rely on at least one of the characters they added to their elongated restart roster. That means that somehow, in 2020, we’re facing a playoff run for the NBA’s most famous team that will prominently involve J.R. Smith, Dion Waiters, or both.
The math necessitates it. Los Angeles has been careful with Green’s minutes all season, and we shouldn’t expect him to surpass his season-long average of 25 minutes per game unless it’s absolutely necessary. Caldwell-Pope can be pushed a little harder, but he’s actually been better in a smaller role this season. Expect fan favorite to Caruso to soak up many of the Bradley and Rondo minutes, perhaps being the first guard off the bench or even starting in some matchups. Even if we leave out the fact that Green will play some 3, that leaves a battle between Smith, Waiters, Troy Daniels and Quinn Cook for the remaining 20-25 guard minutes every night. That’s not to mention Markieff Morris, a reserve big whose arrival in Orlando this week is being celebrated like it’s Lance Armstrong touching back down on Earth. None of these guys have played in high-leverage playoff moments at all in at least two years.
The more times we hear names like Morris, Smith or Daniels on a broadcast during the playoffs, the worse we can assume things are going for the Lakers. Should they sustain even one more injury, the Lakers would be looking at someone like Jared Dudley to step in after rarely contributing this year. Though this Lakers team is far deeper than most of James’ previous title-contending rosters, there is only so much loss any group can deal with.