NBA expert Mark Deeks looks at the challenges the Los Angeles Lakers will face throughout the season as they attempt to make their dreams of a championship become reality.
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At 17-2, the LA Lakers have the best record in the NBA thus far this season. And having won their last 10 games in a row, they are also cooking on gas right now - but I believe this record flatters them.
Of their 18 games so far, only ones against the Los Angeles Clippers and Toronto Raptors could be said to have come against truly title-competitive opposition. And, as it happens, those are the two games they lost. Wins have come against thoroughly decent opponents in the forms of the Utah Jazz, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat, confirming that these Lakers are good, but the record suggests greatness, and legitimate title contention demands that they are great. They may be, but we do not yet know that.
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However, we classify the level they have been playing at, it has indisputably been the case that the team has been doing it on both ends, more consistently than at any point in the recent past. The Lakers are ranked fifth in the league in offensive rating and, more impressively, are also second in defence. Having been 24th in the first of these categories last season, and a mere 12th in the latter, that represents a big improvement on both ends; having finished absolute last in defensive rating only two seasons ago, this really is a new Lakers team.
They have merited their 17-2 record by playing very well and - fuelled by a reinvigorated LeBron James - if they are to truly contend for the title this season, this defensive efficiency will of course have to continue, especially when the schedule gets tougher. As constructed, however, the Lakers might not have the legs and the personnel to do so.
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The Lakers have the second-oldest average age in the NBA this season at 29.1, second only to the 30.2 of the Houston Rockets. This number includes the three players at the very end of the roster; Zach Norvell (21), Talen Horton-Tucker (who only turns 19 this week) and Kostas Antetokounmpo (a raw and inexperienced 22). Among the playing rotation, then, the average age is even older; LeBron James is 35 next month, Dwight Howard is 34 next week, Jared Dudley is already 34, Rajon Rondo is 33, Danny Green is 32, and JaVale McGee is 31. The only rotation player below 25 years of age is reserve forward, Kyle Kuzma, and although only two Lakers (James and Anthony Davis) have what we might call a 1990s minute share, the 10 players sharing the rest of the time often already have plenty of miles on their clock.
That might prove to be a problem without mid-season reinforcements and some reshuffling of the rotation over the coming weeks. In their next 13 games, the Lakers will play the Clippers, the Milwaukee Bucks, the Toronto Raptors, the Jazz again, the Heat again, the Indiana Pacers, twice against the Denver Nuggets and this weekend against the Dallas Mavericks (again). Eight of those games will be on the road, including an eight-game Eastern Conference road trip coming almost immediately after a three-game west coast one.
This stretch will firmly test their legitimacy. If the Lakers go better than .500 through this stretch, we can feel a lot more confident about their quality going forwards. Regardless of how they come through it, though, there will still be reason to be concerned about their hardiness considering the construction of the roster.
In particular, the frontcourt is an old one. LeBron James was openly caught on camera a few games ago telling a referee he would be playing with better defensive commitment this season, and he has put in more effort on that end accordingly, yet he famously also walks more in game than any other player in the league due to the need to preserve his bursts of athleticism for the offensive end. Notwithstanding the long period of summertime rest he had since ending last season early, it would not be a good idea to use up those bursts before the All-Star break.
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The five spot alongside him has some creaking muscles as well. The centre duo of McGee and Howard are two of the oldest players on the roster, as above, and even if he were to return at some point - which he is considered very unlikely to do - DeMarcus Cousins has been so embattled with injuries in recent seasons that he is not the answer to longevity concerns.
Howard's strong play to begin this season has been a bright spot. After years of vague allusions to doing so, it appears as though this season, he finally has come to realise that all the touches down on the block are good neither for him nor his team. He instead is clearing the glass at a very high rate, as he has always done, and is better engaged with his rim-protecting role, keeping his offensive touches to a minimum and being strikingly efficient as a result of doing so.
He has been foul-prone all over the court, particularly away from the rim, somewhere he never has and never will be particularly effective, yet he has at least provided the insurance at the five spot that was so badly needed. And his impact has been a significant part of the team's defensive rating to date.
His inability to defend the perimeter, though, remains a concern at the centre spot, especially since McGee has the same one. Indeed, the reliance on particular individual defenders, often aged, and often only effective in short bursts at certain positions, will be what makes it difficult for the quality of defense to be sustained.
As individual defenders, the Lakers can boast Avery Bradley at both guard spots, Danny Green on the wing and the very shrewd Alex Caruso off the bench, plus the spottier yet useful contributions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the shot-blocking dominance of Davis. Bradley's injury of late however has shown up the shortage of depth options defensively in the backcourt, as the Rondo and Quinn Cook types do not have the nous and pressure defence that he does.
The defense has been very reliant on Davis' ability to defend all over the show and get blocks in any match-up in any area. Davis has been a phenomenal defensive player to begin this season, both as a helper and in man-to-man situations, both around the basket and against the pick-and-roll, both in the half-court and in transition. He has always had the potential to be a dominant defensive player, and has grown slowly but surely in recent seasons, none more so than this one. If a Lakers guard should let their man get by them, Davis can cover for the mistake.
However, he too has had injury concerns. Never in his career has he played more than 75 games, and while he has historically wanted to avoid playing center so as to not get so ground down, the fact that he is the only player on the roster who can play the position with both strength and mobility means he will have to at times. And that will require some management.
This is, as we know, the 'load management' methodology we've been hearing so much about. It is an on-trend term used to describe the newfangled concept of regular player rest, the pushback against the extreme volume of regular season games that teams play, and the counter-argument pushback fuelled by the perception that players are soft and coddled now. There is plenty that has been said on all sides of the argument about whether rest management is fair to the fans and to the overall product, and to whether it is even all that effective.
Let us for a moment here though assume that it is, and that greater regular season rest leads to better postseason play due to fresher legs. If you are a team like the LA Lakers, with what should be realistic immediate championship aspirations, an old team that needs its legs to cover ground on defence and a rotation full of guys with injuries in their recent past, why wouldn't you employ load management?
The Lakers are, it would appear, legitimate. After this upcoming tough stretch, we will know if we can say that with greater confidence. It is an opinion, with evidence. But the fact is that they are old, and, notwithstanding a good offseason in terms of both pairing the right players with LeBron and bringing in more quality, they are quite fragile. Pray that they are not overly concerned with regular-season win margins, then, and begin resting their players as soon as… well, now.