It's Hard to Get Too Worried About the Lakers

The Lakers will undoubtedly continue to sink in the standings without LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But here is why you should not be too concerned.
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Welcome to the Morning Shootaround, where every weekday you’ll get a fresh, topical column from one of SI.com’s NBA writers: Howard Beck on Mondays, Chris Mannix on Tuesdays, Michael Pina on Wednesdays, Chris Herring on Thursdays and Rohan Nadkarni on Fridays.

The Lakers are bad right now.

It could get worse.

And it probably won’t matter.

Sunday’s 104–86 steamrollering by the Clippers highlighted the state of the LeBron-less, Anthony Davis–less Lakers. The offense was bad (40% from the floor, 19 turnovers), the defense worse (48% shooting for the Clippers—and 50% from three) in a game that felt like a glorified scrimmage—one the Clips were in no danger of losing.

And get ready, L.A. Bad days could be a-coming. Tuesday’s game in Tampa against the wayward Raptors is the first of five straight on the road. When the Lakers return, a two-game set with the white-hot Jazz will be waiting. The losses could pile up.

And it couldn’t be less relevant.

It’s hard to get too worried about the Lakers. Sure, things look rough right now. Frank Vogel says Anthony Davis is “a ways away” from returning from a nagging calf injury and LeBron James is posting pictures on Instagram in a walking boot. This would be a problem if it were mid-May when the playoffs start. In early April, it’s just a distraction.

The Lakers will undoubtedly continue to sink in the standings. L.A. is just four games back of ninth-place San Antonio in the loss column. But they are eight games up on the stumbling Warriors and injury-riddled Pelicans, camped out at 10th, making it unlikely they fall completely out of the playoff mix.

And if they make the playoffs, what difference does anything else make? So they have to get in via the play-in tournament. Is anyone betting against a LeBron and AD against Memphis, San Antonio or anyone else a healthy Lakers team would have to roll through? No home court advantage? One road win gets it back, and we all know home court this year isn’t what it used to be. A tougher road to the Finals? Remember last year when the top-seeded Lakers were supposedly in trouble after a healthy Blazers team battled its way to the eighth seed? It took all of five games for L.A. to send Portland packing.

Betting against LeBron to fail just doesn’t work. It’s like betting on Floyd Mayweather to lose—you convince yourself it can happen, right up until they walk through the competition. Last season in arguably the most challenging environment in NBA playoff history, LeBron & Co. lost three times in the Western Conference playoffs. Against Miami in the Finals, L.A. lost twice.

And this year the Lakers are better. Montrezl Harrell, the reigning Sixth Man award-winner, has been as advertised, nearly mirroring last season’s production while raising his free-throw percentage—critical come playoff time—to 71%. Dennis Schröder, effectively swapped for Rajon Rondo, has been excellent. Pre-LeBron injury, the Lakers' roughest stretch came before the All-Star break, when L.A. went 0–4 with Schröder in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Talen Horton-Tucker is among the NBA’s most improved players.

And then there is Andre Drummond. The Lakers got just 14 minutes out of Drummond last week before the ex-All-Star was forced out with a toe(nail) injury. But it was enough to see his potential. Against Milwaukee, Drummond blocked a shot, altered a couple more and generally supplied the kind of physical defensive presence L.A. lost with the offseason exit of Dwight Howard. And Drummond—who had not played since mid-February—is only going to get better.

The Lakers will try to tread water the next few weeks. They will need more ball movement, after totaling 16 assists in the loss to the Clippers. “We have to play together as much as possible,” says Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. They have to get easy opportunities. “Lakers basketball, we’re great in transition,” says Caldwell-Pope. “We haven’t been able to do that lately.”

They will need the best out of Marc Gasol. Gasol expressed frustration last week about being supplanted in the Lakers rotation by Drummond. “You're not Plan A right now,” Gasol says. “You're Plan C [or] D. You have to accept it because that's your job. And that's what you sign up to do. It's never easy to accept that.” But Gasol will be needed with Drummond out, as well as in the playoffs, where Gasol is steeped in the kind of experience Drummond lacks.

But help is on the way. On the Lakers media Zoom call from Tampa on Monday, Davis popped in and out of the camera shot. Caldwell-Pope joked that he thought Davis was ready to give L.A. five minutes on Tuesday night. James is traveling with the team on this road trip, too. The Lakers gave themselves some breathing room in the last couple of weeks, squeezing out wins over bottom-feeding Cleveland, Orlando and Sacramento. Another win or two (Brooklyn and Charlotte, two teams L.A. will see on this road trip, will be banged up) will give them some more.

“We’ve just got to get back to what we did,” Kyle Kuzma says. “If you look at those three wins that we’ve had so far, it starts with playing the right way on our offense. Defense, we’re never worried. I think we’ve done a pretty good job every game outside of maybe one game from a defensive standpoint.”

And that’s all they need. So the path to the Finals could be tougher. So L.A. may face Utah, Denver or the Clippers in the first or second round instead of the conference finals. James has been in this position before, and now he has a reloaded lineup to support him and a defense that ranks atop the NBA.

Picking on the Lakers in April is easy.

Pick against them in May at your own peril.

WILL THE BULLS REGRET THE VUČEVIĆ TRADE?

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It’s too soon—way too soon—to offer any sweeping analysis of the deal that brought All-Star center Nikola Vučević to Chicago—and sent two first-round picks out. But the results have not been good. The Bulls have lost four out of five since Vučević came on board, which has less to do with Vučević (20.8 points, 9.8 rebounds with Chicago) and more to do with a porous defense, but it has left Chicago in a dogfight for the final play-in slot in the Eastern Conference.

Look: There’s no question the Bulls are a better team with Vučević. And establishing a winning culture is important, especially when your superstar, 26-year-old Zach LaVine, has not experienced any of it. But there was risk in acquiring Vučević. With just a third of the season left and limited practice time, incorporating a player as significant as Vučević would be challenging. And if they can’t do it, the short-term cost—specifically that 2021 first-round pick—could be high.

With the caveat that declaring a draft strong or weak is an inexact science (unless you had Robert Williams as emerging as a Clint Capela–like presence in 2018, save it), there is enormous value in a top-10 pick, which is the position Chicago’s pick is headed for if the Bulls don’t come together over these last 20-plus games. And while a full season with Vučević will make Chicago better next year, it will be fair to wonder if the LaVine/Patrick Williams/Coby White core would have been better off with another young player in the mix than 2 ½ years of Vučević, who will be 32 when his contract expires in 2023.

There are other ways to build a winner, of course, and the Bulls, who will have some interesting decisions to make this summer, most notably with restricted-free-agent-to-be Lauri Markkanen, can create some cap flexibility to pursue the kind of point guard or small forward that can complement the new LaVine/Vučević duo. Lonzo Ball intrigued Chicago’s front office before the trade deadline, and acquiring Ball could be revisited again after the season. But the Bulls were banking on the Vučević deal giving the team the kind of bounce that would make that ’21 first-rounder less meaningful. So far, it has not.

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