The defending champions will have to go back to the drawing board.
About seven months after lifting the 2020 NBA title in the Orlando bubble, the Los Angeles Lakers are out in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. LeBron James couldn’t pull off another signature elimination game performance to keep LA’s season alive and Anthony Davis suffered multiple injuries, leading to the Lakers flaming out.
Davis attempted to play Game 6 through a groin strain after missing half of Game 4 and all of Game 5, but appeared to aggravate the injury a little over five minutes into the contest. He’ll now have a full summer to recover and get back to star status. James, who has logged more than 61,000 career minutes, could also use an extended break after getting minimal rest in the 2020 offseason.
The Lakers will still be contenders as long as their stars are healthy, but the supporting cast is expected to be revamped. Los Angeles swapped Rajon Rondo, Danny Green and Avery Bradley for Dennis Schroder, Wes Matthews and Montrezl Harrell. The team also added Marc Gasol and Ben McLemore, but waived Quinn Cook.
As of this moment, James, Davis, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Gasol are the only players under contract for next year. Harrell has a player option. Schroder is the priority as a free agent but his performance in the playoffs might give the team pause before shelling out money for a long-term deal.
Alex Caruso, Talen Horton-Tucker and Ben McLemore represent low-cost rotation pieces and are likely to come back. Matthews showed improvement as a shooter as the season progressed and could come back as well at the right price.
Conventional wisdom says surrounding James with strong shooters is a recipe for success, but the Lakers didn’t shoot particularly well from deep in last year’s bubble. The team was second in offensive rating among postseason groups and sixth in defensive efficiency, but 12th in 3-point percentage. Los Angeles won by playing through its stars and moving the ball well. There’s reason to believe the Lakers will attempt to replicate that formula rather than pursue more perimeter shooters. If Davis and James had stayed healthy throughout the regular season and playoffs, the Lakers might still be playing. Let’s not forget they were up 2-1 on the Suns.
Free agents like Evan Fournier, Patty Mills and Lou Williams could be intriguing shooting options, but Los Angeles will probably pursue Kyle Lowry and Schroder first. Given the Lakers’ general lack of financial flexibility, they’ll likely be bringing back much of the same group from the past year and bank on better health.
Kuzma’s development as a playmaker is key for LA. He hasn’t built on his perimeter shooting from his rookie season, getting back to nearly the same mark this past season after two down years. His offensive efficiency has been below average and his defensive chops remain average. Kuzma was particular poor in the playoffs, shooting 29.2 percent from the floor and 17.4 percent from deep. His production was solid when he was on a rookie deal, but at $13 million year, he’ll have to show he can make a jump forward.
Expect the Lakers to bring back much of the same group unless Lowry expresses an interest in signing on. With James and Davis, the team will always been in contention but this early playoff exit showed having a healthy King is no longer an automatic trip to the Finals.