20 questions for Lakers to answer during regular season

Lakers
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The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2021-22 campaign will officially begin on Tuesday. If there is one defining concept behind the season in its early stages, it’s that there are plenty of questions to answer from now until April when the Lakers will hopefully enter the playoffs as one of the favorites to win the championship.

So what better way to keep track of those questions by listing them out now before we tip off the new NBA season?

Let’s get started.

1. How much will Anthony Davis actually play the five?

While the rest of these questions are in no particular order, I do think that this is ultimately the biggest question mark of this season. In previous years, I was not too concerned about AD’s position despite acknowledging that both he and the team are at their best when the big man plays center.

This season, circumstances have changed. The Lakers added an important piece in Russell Westbrook whose play is crucial for the team’s success. He also happens to be one of the worst shooters in the NBA. To me, playing a non-shooting big alongside AD while Westbrook is also on the floor seems unlikely to yield good results offensively. Of course, it can work in spurts, which is why AD won’t be a full time center (and injuries will affect this balance) but for the Lakers to be at the best, Davis should play the majority of his minutes at the five.

2. How will Russell Westbrook integrate as a team’s third best player?

As stated above, Russ’s play on the court will be a deciding factor for how the Lakers fair this season and there is a wide range of possibilities there. Westbrook is of course an extremely talented and accomplished player but he is also someone who plays with a degree of chaos and an “everyone get out of my way” attitude.

How will that dynamic work now that he is a team’s third best player? I would venture to say that if Westbrook’s play style makes Davis the player that has to take a step back to allow the other two stars the lion’s share of utility, then the Lakers will suffer. They want Russ to be Russ but there have to be firm limits on how much he can hijack the offense to the detriment of his fellow stars, especially AD.

3. How will LeBron’s role change with Westbrook?

Since LeBron James first signed with the Lakers, every offseason has included a decision to alleviate his ball-handling and playmaking responsibilities, from the first season (that we don’t talk about) to Rajon Rondo to Dennis Schröder. And every year, LeBron had still had to take over the offense without much help.

The Lakers have asked a lot of LeBron in regular seasons and last year, it (and discomfort from his ankle injury) seemed to catch up to him in the playoffs. Westbrook should theoretically fix this issue but how much will LeBron actually be able to sit back and let Russ take over? How soon Westbrook gels in the offensive system could be a deciding factor but there’s also something to be said about James having to change his play style to be more comfortable off the ball than he has been in the past. That partnership and balance will take time but the sooner they figure it out, the more it will pay dividends down the line.

4. Will the Lakers be healthy going into the postseason?

An underrated part of the Lakers’ success in 2020, aided of course by the long layoff before the postseason, was their health. Last season was the polar opposite with the team’s three most important players – James, Davis, and Schröder – all nursing injuries or battling rustiness due to previous absences as the playoffs began.

It’s pretty obvious but with an older team that is likely more susceptible to injury concerns, going into the playoffs as close to 100% could really just be the difference between winning a championship or not.

5. Who will win the starting shooting guard spot?

If Davis does ultimately become the team’s starting center, there seems to be one starting position up for grabs. The big three seem to have been joined by Kent Bazemore as guaranteed starters if preseason is anything to judge on.

That presumably leaves an open spot on the wings where Malik Monk, Wayne Ellington, Kendrick Nunn, Talen Horton-Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and even Austin Reaves can openly compete to win the starting job.

Monk stood out during the preseason and is probably the leader in the clubhouse. But the NBA season is long and Frank Vogel will likely tinker with starting lineups all season to find his best units.

6. Will the Lakers’ defense finish top five?

The Lakers lost a lot of their defensive difference-makers for more offensively-minded counterparts. On paper, their defense should be getting worse but Vogel and Davis can create a sound defensive team even without the best personnel. A strong defense would give the Lakers more leeway as they adjust to playing together offensively and it greatly increases their odds of winning the title. It also gives AD his best opportunity to finally win that coveted Defensive Player of the Year award.

Will the Lakers get 2019-20 Dwight Howard back?

The Lakers’ trio of Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, and Andre Drummond never really replicated what Dwight Howard provided in the championship year. Similarly, Howard did not have the same individual impact with the 76ers in his one-year hiatus from LA. Will the third marriage between the Lakers and Howard be the same as the second?

Howard’s play will have huge effects on the team’s overall defense and could give Vogel more lineup options, including playing him alongside AD in those brutalizing frontcourts that dominated the Western Conference at times. If Dwight is not at his best, then the Lakers’ frontcourt suddenly has very little depth.

8. Will Kendrick Nunn hold off Rajon Rondo in the backup point guard battle?

Nunn was brought in on a higher salary than most of his role player counterparts suggesting some level of expectations from the Lakers front office and coaching staff. But Frank Vogel adores Rondo and when push comes to shove, how long of a leash will Nunn have before being replaced by the veteran point guard?

Vogel has said they’re not expecting many minutes for Rondo this season but if Nunn underperforms, it would not be surprising to see him lose his spot in the rotation to the more proven alternative.

9. How many times will Vogel talk about Rondo’s swag?

Self-explanatory.

10. How many threes will the Lakers shoot and at what percentage?

The Lakers made a huge commitment to sign shooters after struggling in that department for years. Their shooting coming alive two seasons ago was a major component of a title run and probably a prerequisite to their success this season especially with Westbrook now in the fold.

It’s not enough that the Lakers hit their threes at a high rate, they should also be taking more of them to keep defenses honest enough to give LeBron, Russ, and AD just that extra sliver of space they need in the paint.

11. Will Avery Bradley make it to the end of the season?

And if not, who will replace him?

Bradley can theoretically give the Lakers a point-of-attack defender that they don’t really have with Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope gone (Kent Bazemore might be the best option right now). But do his negatives outweigh that very specialized role? Bradley’s contract is nonguaranteed if waived by January 7th which means the Lakers likely have to make their decision before knowing who will be available in the post-trade deadline buyout market.

12. Will THT have his breakout season?

There are a lot of reasons why this matters. For one, Talen Horton-Tucker was paid a lot of money based almost purely on his potential rather than his production and the Lakers need him to perform to those standards. THT also represents one of the few avenues for internal improvements that can extend this championship window with LeBron. Finally, THT is probably the most versatile of the role players on the roster and his production and improved skills would allow the Lakers a lot more options in their lineups and game plans.

13. Will Austin Reaves get opportunities to play?

Reaves was one of the most impressive parts of the Lakers’ preseason and was lavished with praise by his teammates and coaches. Vogel did not dive into specifics but said the undrafted rookie had “done enough to earn his trust.” Does that trust translate into on-court minutes? Could Reaves take the place of, say, Wayne Ellington in the rotation? Like THT, Reaves being the real deal gives the Lakers a lot more future flexibility in building their roster around their aging superstar.

14. Are Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore enough for wing defense?

It’s basically been a problem that the Lakers haven’t really addressed for the past three seasons but there doesn’t appear to be too many good options to guard bigger wings. Bazemore is more of a guard and point-of-attack defender. Ariza at this stage of his career is better suited for guarding power forwards. Would these two (along with James and Davis, of course) be enough to counteract James Harden and Kevin Durant, for example? Or will the Lakers need reinforcements?

15. How long will it take for the Lakers to gel?

The title team came together in a surprisingly quick fashion two seasons ago. Early returns seem to indicate it won’t be the case this season, perhaps because this roster does not have the same defensive ceiling that gives them time to figure things out on the offensive end.

A big part of this is Russell Westbrook and how soon he adjusts to playing with both LeBron and AD. In recent years, Westbrook has been slow out of the gate on new teams before really turning it on in the second half of the season but perhaps having LeBron and AD can accelerate that process.

16. Will the Lakers get Good Melo or Bad Melo?

Carmelo Anthony’s role on the Lakers this season probably won’t be huge. He can really only play as a power forward and that’s a position that both LeBron James and Anthony Davis will spend time at.

Still, Melo will get minutes and getting the best out of him could be huge down the line. He’s obviously not the player he once was but Anthony can still get as hot as any other scorer in the NBA and I still think he is going to win a huge quarter for the Lakers in the playoffs with his shooting.

17. Who will emerge as the Lakers’ biggest threat in the West?

In previous years, it was the Clippers, Nuggets, and Rockets. The Rockets are a lottery team and both the Clippers and Nuggets are missing one of their top two players for most, if not all, of the season.

Utah will probably be a good regular season team and might even be favorites for the top seed but will they show themselves as a tough playoff matchup? Can the Warriors make an in-season trade that vaults them up? Are the Blazers or Mavs finally going to match their potentials?

18. Will the Lakers have a positive net rating when LeBron sits?

The key to resting LeBron and keeping him fresh for the playoffs is for the Lakers to be a good team even when he is on the bench or not playing at all. LeBron teams tend to fare poorly when he is on the bench because they are all built around him and his skillset. That’s logical. But as he gets older, the Lakers need to be better prepared for those minutes, meaning Westbrook and Davis’ chemistry together in non-LeBron lineups has to be immense.

19. AD Revenge Tour, when?

Anthony Davis had a bad season last year. Even before his injury issues that ended his season early, Davis was not the same player he was during the title run. That has, predictably, led to some murmurs about his standing as one of the league’s best players.

Davis has nothing to prove. He has accomplished more than almost any player at his age has. That said, you can see that he is coming into this season with some extra motivation. An in-shape, motivated Davis is the thing I am most excited about this season and I cannot wait to see him put the Lakers on his shoulders on nights when his counterparts don’t have it going.

20. Who will be the reliable role players?

Role players, almost by definition, are volatile players and don’t always perform at the same level. The very elite ones in the best circumstances, however, can be consistent and reliable. The Lakers, in the 2020 playoffs, had that in Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and even Rajon Rondo. Having three stars gives a little extra room for error but they will still need some role players to separate from the pack and be resources that Vogel and the three stars can rely on.

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