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 NBA will crown a new champion in 2021, as the Lakers’ reign came to an end Thursday in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of a hungry Suns team. For the first time since ’10, a LeBron James–led playoff team will not be appearing in the Finals. And by the end of their season, the Lakers looked battered, bruised and confused. So where does Los Angeles go from here?
The first step is simple: Don’t panic. While people are still sorting out what was “real” from the bubble, you could easily make the argument this season was even more clouded. From the wide range in offseasons—only 71 days off between the Finals and opening night for the Lakers and more than nine months for teams that didn’t go to Orlando—to the injury problems suffered during the regular season, it’s not a stretch for L.A.’s front office to basically throw its hands up at the 2021 campaign. To GM Rob Pelinka’s credit, he tried to reload instead of standing pat last fall, and the Lakers looked to be a juggernaut once again before injuries to Anthony Davis and LeBron essentially turned the season upside down. The Lakers were 21–6 before Davis got hurt, and neither he nor James looked fully right in the postseason. If there’s a silver lining from the early exit, it’s that L.A.’s two stars will get a full four-month break this offseason, as opposed to another quick turnaround if they had made a deeper run.
Even if James and Davis come back healthy, Pelinka still has some issues to address. Before Davis strained his calf Feb. 14, the Lakers had only the 10th-best offense in the NBA, and they were closer to the 20th-best offensive rating than the fifth-best. For two seasons with James and Davis, L.A. has been fairly pedestrian offensively. In 2020, the Lakers had the 11th-best offense. In ’21, they finished with the 24th-best. (With James and Davis on the floor, L.A. had a 113.4 offensive rating, which still would’ve only been good for 10th.)
Having a top 10 offense doesn’t sound bad on the surface, but it’s uncharacteristic for a LeBron-led team. From 2011–18, James’s Heat and Cavs squads never finished lower than sixth in offensive efficiency, and only finished lower than fourth one other time. With James and Davis as hubs, the Lakers have too much talent to not to be an offensive powerhouse. The obvious culprit is shooting. The Lakers were 24th in three-point attempts and 21st in three-point field goal percentage in ’21. That’s bafflingly low for a team whose stars should be generating wide-open looks for role players on a consistent basis. And this is a two-year trend—L.A. was 21st in three-point percentage in ’20.
Pelinka doesn’t have a ton of room to navigate this summer with LeBron and AD taking up so much of the salary cap, but he has to find better respected outside shooters. Kyle Kuzma’s $13 million contract is a prime trade candidate, while free-agent-to-be Dennis Schröder seems like he’ll be retained even if it’s so he doesn’t walk for nothing. Could some combo of the two help bring back a player or two who fit better with LeBron and AD? (Davis, by the way, can also alleviate this issue with a bounce-back shooting season of his own. It remains to be seen how consistent he can become as a three-point threat, and if that’s the best use of his talents.)
Another glaring issue? The center rotation. This is another two-year saga with the Lakers. Davis is the team’s best center, and yet clearly doesn’t want to play there full-time. L.A. was able to get away with that for the most part last season and in Orlando, but against Phoenix, the center rotation was an obvious sore spot. Andre Drummond was thoroughly outplayed. Montrezl Harrell could barely see the floor. And Marc Gasol, while providing some offense, was a liability defensively. Frank Vogel would probably love to commit to Davis at the five. If that’s not going to happen, though, putting another lumbering big on the floor doesn’t seem to be the solution. And Markieff Morris can’t be the only stretch-adjacent big option on the team, especially when he’s never actually been a consistent shooter. Finding someone who won’t clog the paint while also saving Davis from having to play the five full-time has to be near the top of the priority list.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. Every team would love to add more shooting, more versatile bigs and a third star. The Lakers will at least continue to be a prime destination for players who want to live in a great city and chase a ring. And if LeBron and Davis are healthy, the Lakers will remain in a great position to contend for a title no matter what tinkering happens with the roster. There are certainly areas with much room for improvement; however, and with young stars in the conference charging hard, Pelinka will need to be aggressive for the second straight offseason.
Put Some Respect on Nikola Jokić
I don’t know that the basketball world at large appreciates what Nikola Jokić has done during his brief playoff career. In 39 postseason games, the Joker is averaging 26 points, 11.1 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game while shooting 51.6% from the field, 41.8% from three and 85.5% from the free throw line. Nine of those 39 games have been either a Game 6 or 7, and in those contests Jokić’s averages are 28.9 points, 12.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists.
He’s only 26, but Jokić is quickly turning into one of the league’s premier playoff performers. And his teams aren’t bowing out early while he piles up stats. The Nuggets have made it to at least the second round in each of their three postseason runs with Joker running the show, and this year they have a solid chance at returning to the conference finals despite an injury to Jamal Murray. Beating a healthy Blazers team in the first round was already quite an accomplishment, especially once you consider Denver’s starting backcourt was made up of a 30-year-old rookie and a veteran journeyman who initially joined the team on a 10-day contract. And the Nuggets are doing all of this as every other conference finalist from the Orlando bubble was eliminated in the first round.
Jokić is going to win MVP this season, and rightfully so. There is going to be some annoying bad-faith chatter the next few weeks about what the playoffs will look like with some of the previous decade’s biggest stars (LeBron, Steph, possibly Kawhi) getting bounced before Round 2. That doesn’t mean the teams left lack talent. Jokić is becoming as much of a postseason killer as some of the aforementioned players. (He’s even outplayed Kawhi in a series.) Maybe because he’s foolishly not often discussed by many casual fans as a foundational superstar it’s easy to overlook Jokić’s playoff prowess. If anything, he’s played so well, the pressure on him to win a ring should be higher.