The 2000-01 Lakers are most remembered for their 15-1 rampage through the NBA playoffs en route to their second straight title, with the only blemish coming at the hands of a legendary performance by Allen Iverson in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Even though the Lakers were the defending champions and boasted the best superstar duo in the league that year (and maybe ever), their postseason run still caught many off guard. After all, the Lakers only won 56 games in the regular season, two behind the no. 1 seeded Spurs and just one ahead of the no. 3 Kings. And even then, they needed an eight-game season-ending win streak to reach the no. 2 seed.
The Lakers were clearly the most talented team in the NBA that season, and they played like it when it mattered most. But the regular season was anything but a cakewalk. There were a number of reasons why: from the feud between Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal starting to grow more public to Shaq showing up to training camp out of shape to Derek Fisher missing most of the season due to injury. But the 2000-01 Lakers are proof that it’s really, really hard to repeat as NBA champions without at least expecting some issues along the way.
That brings us to this year’s Lakers squad, overwhelmingly expected to win their second straight championship behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. I am not here to dispute that. The Lakers have an incredibly deep and talented roster that looks far better, at least on paper, than the one that dominated the bubble playoffs just a few months ago.
Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schröder were the top two finishers for sixth man of the (pre-bubble) year last season. Marc Gasol is a former defensive player of the year with passing and shooting abilities that JaVale McGee could only dream of. Wesley Matthews should be a fine addition to a versatile bench that includes Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris both returned to roles that the Lakers would have had a hard time filling elsewhere. And Talen Horton-Tucker has looked so good in the preseason that he’s getting mountains of hype from teammates and multiple national media columns.
And then there are James and Davis, who seem to genuinely get along amazingly both on and off the court. All that said, though, there are still plenty of pitfalls the Lakers can run into during this regular season. Lakers fans should expect these, and understand that none of them necessarily spell doom for the team’s 2021 championship hopes.
The Short Offseason
Just over two months will have elapsed between the Lakers’ title-clinching bubble Finals victory on Oct. 11 and their season opener on Dec. 22, the shortest offseason in North American team sports history. As much as James may have scoffed at load management before COVID-19 threw everything into chaos, it’s hard to see any other way to make sure he and Davis are ready for the games which matter most–and LeBron knows it. Frank Vogel has already publicly speculated that Horton-Tucker’s rise may give him the flexibility to rest his stars more. Likewise, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the two biggest additions to the Lakers’ roster are a skilled ball-handler in Schröder and a bruising rim-runner in Harrell.
Even if James and Davis do not sit out too many games entirely, it seems unlikely we’ll see the same level of effort from them that we saw for most of last season, especially at the beginning. LeBron’s effort level on both ends throughout last season was a revelation, especially at his age. But unless he sees a chance to gun for his fifth NBA MVP, I don’t expect it to be a recurring phenomenon.
Injuries and COVID-19
James and Davis, of course, are not the only rotation players from last year’s Lakers forced to make quick turnarounds — Caruso, Kuzma, Morris and Caldwell-Pope will as well. Though the Lakers have no major injuries that we know of, it seems at least fair to wonder how the returners’ bodies will hold up after such a short offseason. Both Caruso and Caldwell-Pope are already on record saying that they will need time to physically ramp up over the next few weeks and months. Fortunately, the team’s training staff seems much improved under Judy Seto, and the Lakers’ depth should help them withstand any non-major injuries among their projected 10- or 11-man rotation.
That depth is also key as the NBA attempts to start its season amid the largest (and hopefully last) COVID-19 surge the United States has seen. Though there have thankfully been no major COVID outbreaks that we know of among NBA teams, the track record of other sports played outside a bubble environment makes such an occurrence almost inevitable. The Lakers could easily be faced with a scenario where they are without one or more key players for at least 7-10 days.
Schröder, Harrell, Gasol and Matthews were all fantastic offseason pickups for Rob Pelinka and co. and should make a difference for the Lakers this year. That said, they still have not played a meaningful game with each other or the rest of their new teammates. It will take time for them to learn the Lakers’ system on offense and commit to Vogel’s typical hard-nosed defense, though the early signs in the preseason have been encouraging.
All of these guys are veterans who have changed teams in the past, so I do not expect any major issues with their ability to acclimate to a new environment. But these things always take time, just like most people take time to get fully adjusted to a new job or workplace. With the shortened offseason and training camp, that process may bleed over into the regular season and cost the Lakers in the short term.
Again, none of this should cause Lakers fans too much worry. You know who likely will not be overly concerned if any of these factors cost the Lakers a few early-season wins? LeBron James. Two of the three championship teams James has played on failed to clinch the no. 1 seed in the following year, costing them home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals. It never really mattered — the 2014 Heat dispatched the Pacers in six games and the 2017 Cavaliers took care of the Celtics in five.
This likely will not stop the nonstop NBA media and Twitter machine from circling like vultures at the first sign of trouble, though. Not that it is necessarily their fault, such is life as a championship favorite. For months, the Lakers have given NBA fans and media virtually nothing to criticize them about on or even off the court. That has to change at some point.
But barring one or more catastrophic injuries, the Lakers should cruise to a top-three seed in the Western Conference on talent alone. When the struggles do hit, just remember, it’s a long season. We don’t even know how much back to normal the world will be in five or six months. The Lakers, though, will probably be fine.