The Los Angeles Lakers were not going to sail through an NBA season as the defending champs during a COVID-19 global pandemic without a few hiccups.
Losers of three of their last four and playing without two starters in Anthony Davis and Dennis Schröder, the Lakers are facing a bit of adversity with six games left before the All-Star Break.
At 22-9 and in third place in the Western Conference, the Lakers host the NBA’s leading score in Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards on Monday at Staples Center, 7 p.m. local time. Los Angeles finished the first half of the regular season with four of their next six games at home.
The team’s top player in LeBron James is having an MVP-type season, but some of the complementary role players need to help fill the void with Davis and Schröder out.
Davis is expected to miss another four weeks due to a right calf strain, while Lakers head coach Frank Vogel remains hopeful Schröder will miss just two more games due to the league’s health and safety protocols.
“It’s a next-man-up mentality,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said. “We had that last year, and we’ve got to pick it up this year. Those two guys in AD (Davis) and Dennis (Schröder) are big keys to our offense, and to this organization. So, it’s just got to be the next man up.
“We can’t let that slack off. I feel like the last couple games, that’s been happening. We’re putting a lot on Bron (James). We already know what we’re going to get out of him. So, all the rest of us, we’ve just got to continue to play hard and play basketball. And not worry about anything else.”
James is doing his part. Coming off a short offseason, the 36-year-old, 18-year NBA veteran has not leaned into load management. Instead, James is averaging 25.6 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in about 35 minutes a night.
However, other players like Caldwell-Pope must take on more of the scoring load with Davis and Schröder not available. Caldwell-Pope, L.A.’s starting shooting guard, is averaging just 8.6 points per contest, down from his 11 points a game during L.A.’s championship postseason run last season.
Along with Caldwell-Pope, the Lakers’ bench needs more production, taking some of the weight off James’ shoulders. James was plus-14 in plus/minus in his team’s two-point loss to the Miami Heat on Saturday. No other player off the bench playing with the second unit reached the plus-side against the heat.
“That’s obviously a conscious thing,” Alex Caruso said, when asked about other picking up the slack. “LeBron’s the best player on our team, and night in and night out he gets the attention because he is. With the guys we’ve got out, teams are going to load up against him. He’s a great basketball mind and is going to do his part to get guys open and make the right plays. So, it’s just about us, especially in the second unit, finding our groove offensively.”
The Lakers also are missing another crucial player who can help take some pressure off James in Schroder, who handled point guard duties when James was on the floor, allowing him to play off the ball more. Schröder also defended the best perimeter scorer.
“He’s one of our downhill aggressors, even more so with that second unit,” Kyle Kuzma said about Schröder. “When Bron’s not on the court, we as players and coaches have to figure out how best we can get that pace going.”
For his part, James believes his teammates are doing enough to contribute to winning for the Lakers.
“They are doing their part and more,” James said about his teammates. “And every time we’re on the court, we’re trying to protect each other, and bring each other up on the floor every night. It doesn’t matter if you’re making shots or not, we’re going to hold each other accountable.”