The NBA is set to return to action by the end of the month with three scrimmages and eight remaining regular season games between 16 of the 22 teams in Orlando and the postseason.
The Los Angeles Lakers have already punched their ticket to the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and are almost certain to take the top seed in the Western Conference into their quest to reach the Finals and win the championship. Nevertheless, their final seeding games in Orlando are not worthless and they will give us a decent outlook on what to expect from the best Lakers team in a decade.
Here’s five questions we hope to be answered in those seeding games and scrimmages.
1. How will the Lakers adjust to no Avery Bradley or Rajon Rondo?
The big news so far in the season resumption has been the Lakers’ shortened point guard depth. The squad will be without Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo, at least to start their Orlando journey.
Bradley, who started most games as the nominal point guard next to LeBron James’ ball-handling, opted out of traveling to Orlando and playing the rest of the season due to health concerns. Rondo, meanwhile, injured his hand in practice and will be out six to eight weeks, aiming for a return some time in the playoffs.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is expected to get the starting nod and the Lakers have been excellent in the 20 games he started this season with a 17-3 record. KCP brings much better shooting than Bradley and ideally, there won’t be much of a defensive downgrade in containing smaller guards.
Meanwhile, fan favorite Alex Caruso should be getting more minutes and that is a genuine positive for the Lakers. They have outscored the competition by 19.4 points per 100 possessions when Caruso has shared the floor with both James and Anthony Davis so getting more minutes with that trio together should be a priority for Frank Vogel.
KCP and Caruso have both played significant two-guard minutes, however, with Danny Green as the only big wing on the roster beyond James which means there will be opportunities for others to gain some minutes. New signings J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters could see more playing time than expected and someone like Quinn Cook could be dusted off despite not seeing much game action this season.
In the postseason with shortened rotations, however, the guard spots will mainly be managed by Green, Caruso, and Caldwell-Pope with each getting roughly equal minutes on the floor. Getting the three of them confident and comfortable playing with each other in different combinations will be crucial in the team’s warm up games before the playoffs.
The Lakers will be able to put their guards to the test immediately against the Clippers on opening night, a game in which they are favored to win.
2. Will J.R. Smith or Dion Waiters earn playoff minutes?
The Lakers have raved about their great chemistry all season and attributed a lot of their success to being able to achieve that familiarity despite a lot of new players joining the roster last July. Can Smith or Waiters be added to that formula so quickly?
It’s going to be difficult to get a fair assessment of either player in eight mostly low-energy games as everyone tries to find their game fitness. But it will also be very important for Vogel and his staff to learn what they have in those two new additions in case he needs to go to either well in the postseason.
The team has spoken a lot about Waiters’ playmaking potential and that possibly becoming much more necessary in Rondo’s unexpected absence. Could he earn himself some backup point guard minutes to keep Caruso in his preferred two-guard spot?
Meanwhile, Smith could be a 3-and-D option behind Green that theoretically should be a lot easier to integrate into the team’s play style. If he shows out, KCP and Caruso can take the point guard minutes without having to be over-exerted in playing time.
The Lakers should clearly not have too high expectations for either Waiters or Smith considering how little, if at all, they have played basketball this season. But if either one can put together some decent showings, it takes a lot of sting out of the Lakers’ absences.
3. How will Vogel use the seeding games?
The Lakers have a 5.5 game lead on the second-place Clippers (who they play on opening night) and can secure the top seed by winning just three games. It also might not matter if they get that spot in the standings depending on how much you care about their first and second round opponents. In all likelihood, they are looking at a Western Conference showdown against their crosstown rivals in a different town.
With that being said, how will Vogel use these seeding games? Will it just be about getting every single player, including rookie Talen Horton-Tucker and two-way players DeVontae Cacok and Kostas Antetokounmpo, into game shape? Or will he attempt to get the Lakers back into the strong form they were in before the season shut down when they beat the Clippers and Bucks in back-to-back games?
Balancing injury risks and physical conditioning is going to be a tough tightrope to walk for the coaching staff. It is effectively a second preseason for the Lakers but with much higher stakes on the other side of the eight matches.
The Lakers, and LeBron James in particular, where peaking at the right time. We know the superstar cares highly about getting that proper form back especially at this stage of his career. The communication between him, Davis, and Vogel will be key to correctly managing those minutes.
4. Can Kyle Kuzma get going?
In what has been a spectacular season for the Lakers, Kuzma has been inarguably the most disappointing part. Most fans wanted him to grow into a role as a third option but his inconsistency in every facet of the game has limited his ability to be called upon.
Still, Kuzma is an important part of this team and getting him going in the right direction can have a major impact on the Lakers’ ceiling as a whole.
Before the season shut down, the Lakers were starting to get a little more out of their third-year player mainly as a result of a positional change. Kuzma was slowly becoming one of the team’s more reliable wing defenders and put together some great showings against All-Star caliber players.
Nevertheless, if Kuzma’s shot isn’t falling, it’s hard to see him get significant playing time considering how important the other bigs have been and how seamlessly Markieff Morris has integrated into the team in his little playing time so far.
Much like Caruso, lineups with Kuzma, James and Davis have excelled but he needs to be more consistent even when he’s not sharing the floor with both Lakers stars.
The Lakers have beaten teams in the paint and at the free throw line but at the end of the day, most teams in the NBA live and die by the three.
The Lakers are pretty average in that department, ranking 17th in 3-point percentage and 23rd in attempts. Their record despite this shows that they can win without relying on making shots from deep which is a positive.
But being able to knock down those shots could make or break their season, as well. The Bucks, the Lakers probable Finals opponent if they make it that far, give up 38.3 attempts behind the arc, nearly 15 more than what the Lakers take in a game. They crowd the paint and force you to beat them from deep.
Now, Milwaukee is smart enough not to leave great shooters open and will instead dare shakier opponents to take long range bombs (especially above the break but they give up a lot of corner threes as well). The Lakers absolutely need guys like Caruso and Kuzma to knock down their shots and that starts with getting in a good rhythm in an uncharted territory from the start of the bubble season.