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.
Nobody is going to feel bad for the Lakers. Not after blind exceptionalism seemingly landed them LeBron James. Not after Anthony Davis willed himself to Los Angeles after a dragged-out public saga. Not after they got their pick of veterans like Andre Drummond in the buyout market. And not after they just overcame a different set of obstacles en route to a championship in 2020. But watching the Lakers limp to the finish line of this oft-incomprehensible NBA season—and be in some danger of missing the playoffs due to the combo of injuries and the new play-in tournament—it’s hard to separate their struggles (as well as those of most of the conference finalists from last season) from the anomalous circumstances of this year, the consequences of which we may not understand for years to come.
The Lakers should absolutely be in panic mode right now. Entering Friday, they have the same record as the Trail Blazers (37–29) and are in only sixth place in the West by virtue of a tiebreaker. Los Angeles and Portland will face each other on Friday night in a massively important game, and the Lakers will be on the second night of a back-to-back (Editor's note: The Lakers lost to fall into the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference). They will also be playing with a hobbled Davis who both hasn’t looked the same since his return from an Achilles injury and then left the team’s most recent game with back spasms, and playing without LeBron, who lasted only 50 minutes on the court in two losses before feeling enough soreness in the right ankle that cost him more than a month of games to miss time once again. Phew.
Including Friday’s tilt with the Blazers, L.A. has only six games left this season, with tough matchups upcoming against the second-place Suns and red-hot Knicks. If the Lakers end up in the play-in, they could very likely be stuck in a matchup against Stephen Curry and the Warriors. And while Los Angeles would be favored to win in any and all play-in games, there’s no guarantee either of its stars would be close to 100% for those games.
The Lakers are obviously not the first team with title aspirations to deal with injuries. Golden State will have soon played two whole seasons without Klay Thompson. But unprecedented doesn’t even really begin to describe what teams like the Lakers, Heat, Celtics and Nuggets have gone through in 2021. How do you honestly compare the season a team like Los Angeles has had, when it had only 71 days off between Game 6 of the Finals and opening night, to a team like New York, whose players went more than nine months between playing competitively?
It’s not so much that I feel bad for the Lakers right now. And honestly, the prospect of seeing LeBron in a back-against-the-wall scenario like the play-in—the kind of scenario he avoided all of last postseason—actually sounds very fun! (A Game 7–like matchup between LeBron and Steph is the best the league could have hoped for when coming up with the play-in tournament.) It’s more so that the context of this NBA season can never be overstated. It’s been hammered into your head by now that this year was thrown together haphazardly so both the league and players could start approaching normal revenue numbers as soon as possible. But similar to the over-the-top blowouts that characterized the early part of the season, it remains difficult to watch the product now and figure out what’s real and what’s the result of the variables that have been thrown into the mix.
Maybe that makes all of this more exciting for people. The championship race is wide open. And as my colleague Chris Herring noted, there’s an unpredictability to the 2021 season we haven’t seen in a very long time. And ultimately, it would be very unfair of me to peg an untimely ankle injury to LeBron as a reason to say that this entire season lacked integrity.
More than anything, I hope the Lakers’ current predicament serves as a stark reminder of what every player in the league fought through to get the league back on track, particularly the ones who played deep into the bubble. We’ll never be able to draw a straight line from who was in (and out) of Orlando to what happened this season. But as the playoffs approach, it’s imperative that everyone remember nearly nothing about this NBA season has been normal.
Balling On You Like I’m Chris Paul
O.K., if there’s one thing that’s been normal this season, it’s Chris Paul elevating his team into something greater than the sum of its parts. CP3 turned 36 on Thursday, and now feels as good a time as any to appreciate the legacy he’s left in the NBA, though he clearly has plenty of great years left to add to it. Paul’s Suns, even with one of the best records in the league, won’t be title favorites this year, but even simply being in the conversation is a massive testament to Paul’s influence.
It’s not fair to give all the credit to CP for what’s happened in Phoenix this season. Obviously, the Suns’ resurgence began on some level during their 8–0 spurt in the bubble. But Paul, whose career has often been characterized by either playoff shortcomings or his, uh, competitive attitude, is finally seeing his reputation crystallize as something else: a winner.
Paul will not go down in the same category as the Stephs and LeBrons of the world. That’s rarefied air reserved for multiple-time champions who changed the game on their own. But how do you consider CP as anything other than a winner when you look at what he’s done at every stop of his career?
He took the New Orleans franchise further than Anthony Davis ever did. His arrival in Los Angeles made the Clippers legitimate and even laid the groundwork for the success they are having today. When he joined forces with James Harden, they pushed the Kevin Durant–led Warriors harder than anyone else when they were on the same page. He then pushed Harden with a Thunder team he was unceremoniously dumped on last season. And now, Paul’s the biggest catalyst for Phoenix’s first playoff berth in 11 years.
You may not love Chris Paul. But I can think of very few players in the history of the league with the competitive will to thrive in so many disparate situations and almost always be the biggest reason for his team’s success. Especially in the era of superteams, over time, I think Paul’s career will continue to stand out.