As the NBA heads into its makeshift All-Star break and haphazardly thrown together All-Star game, the Lakers—perhaps more than any other team—will be desperate for the brief respite. LeBron James is sitting out his first game of the season Wednesday, despite repeated insistence he prefers not to miss time. Anthony Davis hasn’t played since reaggravating his Achilles injury in Valentine’s Day loss to the Nuggets. Key rotation pieces Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso are nursing their own maladies. Overall, Los Angeles has lost six of its last nine games, dropping them to third place in the West, bunched with the Suns and Clippers looking up at the Jazz. All of this is happening after the shortest offseason in NBA history, and yet, even with the latest round of obstacles thrown their way, there is still absolutely no reason to have any level of panic about this Lakers season.
Simply put, this Lakers team is still very, very good when healthy. The recent struggles can quite easily be chalked up to Davis’s absence. L.A. has one of the best starting fives in the league when everyone is on the floor. The LeBron, A.D., Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope unit has a 13.9 net rating in 280 minutes together. Of lineups that have played more than 200 minutes together entering Wednesday, that’s the third-best mark in the league, and notably slightly better than Utah’s starting lineup. And after last year’s team was constantly searching for the right players to put around James and Davis to close games out, this year’s Lakers squad seems to also know its closing combo. The LeBron-AD-Schroder-KCP-Caruso five-man group has played the most fourth-quarter minutes of any Laker lineup, and has a 42.2 net rating. However you slice it, the Lakers have been one of the best teams in the NBA with their full complement of pieces.
So health is obviously going to be the biggest question mark for L.A. moving forward, particularly Davis’s. And the Lakers can afford to take the time to let him get fully healthy. It would probably be better for the team to enter the playoffs as the 10th seed through the play-in tournament with Davis at 100% as opposed to the team pushing him to return early and adding any extra stress to his Achilles. With crowd sizes varying around the league, it’s still unclear how much homecourt advantage will matter during the postseason. (And the Lakers’ biggest playoff threat may play in the same city, anyway.) But really, what so much of this comes down to is how do you expect anything other than LeBron making the Finals once he gets to the playoffs?
Let me tell you a little story about a team from the 2018 season. This team had a top-five offense and top-five defense. They had the second-best net rating in the NBA. This team, led by its two stars, had made the playoffs every year since 2014. This team was the Toronto Raptors, and in 2018, they lost in four games in the second round to LeBron and a Cavaliers team that had finished the regular season with the second-worst defense in the NBA. That series, perhaps more than any other in his career, showed the type of margin of error LeBron is working with. In the first round of those playoffs, LeBron’s Cavs were outscored by the Pacers and yet still somehow won the series. He was coming off seven straight Finals trips. And Cleveland was the No. 4 seed in the East. There was absolutely no statistical basis for Cleveland beating Toronto that year, but LeBron’s team swept them.
That’s why I don’t really buy the Jazz or the Suns as real threats this year. We’ve seen this movie play out before. LeBron’s team scuffles during the regular season. An upstart wins a bunch of games. And all the numbers would indicate James is somehow in trouble. But few players in the history of the league are capable of erasing that gap by themselves, and LeBron has proven time and time again how his presence alone is enough to defy logic. (To an extent, anyway. Let us not forget the Kevin Durant-aided Warriors.) Even the Orlando bubble version of the Lakers was far from perfect. They were light on shooting and seemingly none of the role players were reliable. But their path to a title was a relative breeze compared to LeBron’s previous championship runs, losing only five times in the playoffs, and never trailing a series after Game 2.
There’s not necessarily panic around this Lakers team, but some people certainly have their eyebrows raised. The Suns and Jazz get praised for taking wins in Davis-less games. Utah is the talk of the NBA, with some arguing they deserve three All-Stars. But L.A., to me, is still the prohibitive favorite to make it out of the West. This is one of the deepest teams LeBron has ever played for, and it’s a better one than he just won a championship with. It won’t be time to start worrying until either Davis is missing playoff games or an opponent takes a 3–2 lead in a series.
The Lakers could obviously still very much use this upcoming break. And as great as LeBron is, this team is going to need Davis to accomplish its goals in the summer. But whatever short-term hangups there are—the second-half slog, Davis’s injury, LeBron’s minutes, Utah’s emergence—James and the Lakers have thoroughly earned the benefit of the doubt. Unless their current issues follow them into the playoffs, L.A. is still the team to beat.