As a general rule we don’t write “list articles” on LAPB. No particular reason for it really, we just don’t. This article didn’t start out that way. I was going to write about the best and worst case scenarios for the Lakers heading into the new season. As I wrote about the possible pitfalls however the teams top three potential risks came into focus. The Lakers could win it all next season, or they could self-destruct. Few would have guessed last seasons team would not earn a playoff spot, but they didn’t.
This team could suffer that same fate. I don’t think they will, but if they do it will likely be caused by one, two or all three very specific things. Those risks aside Lakers fans are justifiably excited by all the free agent signings, new coach and big trade you might have heard about. The upcoming 2019-20 season in fact may be the most anticipated season for the Purple and Gold, ever.
Ok, not ever. I mean, this is a franchise that has won 16 championships and two three-peats (one while still in Minneapolis). They are used to adamant anticipation. But still, there is no denying this is a big year for them. This is a team that hasn’t made the playoffs or finished above .500 since the 2012-13 season. In an effort to end both droughts they went all in trading a lot of their future for the services of Anthony Davis to pair with LeBron James.
Today’s NBA requires stars to win. Of course, those stars need to grow from being great individually to being great collectively, but not having at least two legitimate stars is a deal breaker if your goal is to lift the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. Last season they didn’t have that, this season they needed it and to the teams credit they went out and got one of the best.
There is no denying what an impactful player Davis is. He is one of those unique players that is comfortable on the post as well as behind the three point line. He can rebound and makes almost 80% of his free throws. I understand why his nickname is the Unibrow, but the Unicorn is much more appropriate.
I know that name is taken, but it fits Davis better than Prozingis.
Goal #1 for 2019-20 was a second star – check!
Does adding Davis ensure the Lakers a playoff spot? They thought adding LBJ last season would and that didn’t end up so well. Looking back on the 2018-19 season it’s easy to see how the team around LBJ was simply not set up for success. In addition to a second star the team identified a lack of shooters as another issue. During the 2019 off-season they set out to fill that gap. They signed Danny Green, Troy Daniels and Quinn Cook all of whom boast a FG3% of over 40%. Jared Dudley comes in just under that at 39.2%.
Goal #2 for 2019-20 was to bring in shooters – check!
You have to give credit to the front office for recognizing their issues and setting out to resolve them. The up-side for this team is kinda obvious. It is not an exaggeration to say this team could win it all in 2019-20. Las Vegas odds makers see them as a favorite as does every Lakers fan in existence. Literally, every fan!
When it comes to the possible down side though I see three risks. I will not take injuries into account in preparing this list. They are likely to happen, in fact we know they will happen, but it seems uncool to predict them. So instead my focus will be on what could go wrong.
1. Shooters don’t shoot.
This would be catastrophic. You only have to look at last seasons team to understand the importance of hitting from long range in today’s NBA. If the guys paid to shoot and make 3’s when LBJ and/or AD kick the ball out after a double team do not make their shots with consistency this team is in for some trouble.
The good news is that of the four shooters highlighted earlier, Green, Daniels, Cook and Dudley only Dudley is on the downside of his career. Green is just starting to slope downward, although he had arguably his best season last year playing in 80 games (all starts), with career highs in minutes played and three point percentage.
Chances of Lakers shooting not shooting in 2019-20 are very low – 20%
2. Team doesn’t jell.
This is a scary one. “Jelling” is an odd, but very real concept. Jelling doesn’t mean the team gets along. Shaq and Kobe famously did not, but they won. Jelling doesn’t even mean a team is more likely to win. It simply means that the team is more likely to meet it’s full potential. With a team like the 2019-20 Lakers with infinite potential, the need to jell is a very important barrier. So what exactly is it?
It’s one of those things that you recognize when you see it. Players on a team that has jelled understand their individual roles. They don’t, as a habit, sulk on the bench. They don’t argue with the coach about playing time or spout off passive-aggressive quotes or tweets. They do the little things well, they rarely make mistake. These teams take advantage of two-for-one opportunities, they don’t waste possessions, they defend with passion and they are generally fun to watch
Teams that have jelled put themselves in position to win every night.
The Lakers of 2019-20 have to jell. It’s no secret to anyone who watched this team last season that they did not. Will AD and LBJ find the same connection former Lakers greats like Magic & Kareem or Shaq and Kobe shared? Will players be happy with their role and the minutes allotted to them by new hard coach Frank Vogel? Will Rajon Rondo spit, umm allegedly, at anyone this season? It all seems possible, but I just don’t see this happening two seasons in a row.
Chances of Lakers not jelling in 2019-20 are 45%. Possible, but not likely.
Last season the Lakers were just eh when it came to defense. They weren’t bad, but they certainly weren’t good. The easiest to understand rating is Hollingers Defensive Efficiency which simply ranks the teams based on the number of points a team allows per 100 possessions. There is no denying there is more to defense in the NBA than this, but it is a good overall indicator of the teams success on the defensive side.
The Lakers last season ranked 15th in the Association. Right in the middle.
It’s corny to say that Defense is mostly about effort, but, defense is mostly about effort. Effort is something you can’t coach it’s just wired into some players. In short, its hard to quantify. For a league fascinated with analytics, defense remains a bit of a numbers mystery. But, they do try and analytically speaking the Lakers best defensive player, in terms of Defensive Win Shares, last season was LeBron James.
That should give all Lakers pause.
Defensive Win Shares calculates the players points allowed per 100 defensive possessions. James finished 40th in the league. For a league comprised of 390 or so players, that’s not bad. But, no one would rank James as one of the leagues best defenders. He can, and does, defend when the situation calls for it, but he also knows when to conserve energy and take some possessions off. If he is the teams best overall defender, it could be a long season for the Lakers.
It’s safe to not expect much of an improvement defensively for the Lakers going into next season. Considering they finished middle of the pack last season, that is not necessarily a bad thing. It is also safe to expect an increase in their offensive efficiency. If they can play the same “middle of the road” defense as last season while improving their offense, they should be in good shape.
Chance of team improving defensively over last season is small – 10%
Chance of the lack of defensive improvement over last season to matter overall however is also small – 10%
One caveat here, the above only takes the regular season into consideration. Two of the top four teams in defensive efficiency last season met in the Finals. Defense in the playoffs matters more than it does in the regular season. While I don’t see the team being impacted by a potential lack of defensive improvement in the regular season that lack could cost them in the playoffs.
Phil Jackson, former Bulls and Lakers coach, used to say that it wasn’t until Thanksgiving that he could properly gauge the type of team he had for the season ahead. On Thanksgiving 2018 the Lakers were 12-9. That is a winning percentage of .571. If they would have stayed on that trajectory they would have finished the season at 47-35. That would have put them in the 9th spot in the Western Conference.
They finished 37-45 in the 10th spot. Coach Jackson is clearly unto something.
It’s unlikely that anyone would have predicted last years squad would finish where they did. No, this formula doesn’t work all the time, but it is eerily accurate a lot of the time. The “magic” of Thanksgiving is that by that time most teams have jelled, if they are going to jell. By that time their assignments should be clear. Personalities are exposed (for better or worse). By Thanksgiving a coach, and the teams fans, pretty much know what they have.
The challenge there is that means you only have about 20 regular season games to figure things out. This is all the more true for a team with a lot of turnover from one season to the next. For the Lakers, who return only six players from last years squad with a new coach, this is very applicable.
Will the shooters shot? Will the team jell? Will the defense defend? Will we have our answers to all these questions by Thanksgiving 2019? One of the reasons we are sports fans is because we just don’t know. We watch to see how it will play out. We watch to see if our guesses will be right. We watch to see the greatest players play the greatest game.
Regardless of how all the above plays out, the Lakers have put themselves in a position to win. As a fan, that’s all you can ask from a team. Until of course the whistle blows, the jump ball is released and the regular season begins. Then every fan wants their team to compete.
In the 2019-20 NBA season, after identifying and addressing each of their issues last season, the Lakers have as good a shot as competing all the way to the Finals as any other team. If they successfully address or avoid the risks presented here then they become prohibitive favorites to win it all.
Jose has written for Bleacher Report, Clipperholics, OC Weekly and wrote a series of articles covering the 2010 NBA Finals for the LA Times. He lives in Southern California and is excited to watch thePeachBasket grow!