While the Lakers’ championship hopes likely depend on LeBron James and Anthony Davis, winning this season’s crazy playoffs could hang on the play of a surprise wild card like Kyle Kuzma, Dion Waiters, or DeMarcus Cousins.
The NBA has never had a wilder, more unpredictable playoffs in its history. Coronavirus has not only disrupted the regular season but also forced a new unorthodox playoff scheme with 22 teams playing in a bubble in Orlando. Initiating an unproven, expanded playoffs with three evenly matched teams and five top superstars playing in a pandemic under threat of suspension if testing positive could likely to lead to bizzare and unexpected outcomes.
With an 8-game regular season and extended playoffs that could last two and a half months, we could easily see scenarios where multiple players on contending teams tested positive for Covid-19 and had to be suspended. Teams could conceivably end up having to rely on key role players or even two-way players or unheralded subs from the ends of their benches to step up while waiting for stars to test negative and be allowed to return to play.
For the Lakers, here are three players who could end up being invaluable wild cards should LeBron James, Anthony Davis, or another starter or key role player test positive for Covid-19 and get suspended during the playoffs:
1. Small Forward Kyle Kuzma.
Kyle Kuzma has become the forgotten man on the Lakers. Most pundits have already traded him this offseason and nobody expects him to be a major factor in the Lakers and winning their 17th NBA championship.
Kuzma averaged 12.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.3 assists in 24.6 minutes per game vs. 18.7 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 33.1 minutes per game last season. He shot 42.3/29.7/73.8% vs. 45.6/30.3/75.2 last year. He only started 7 of 54 games this year vs. starting 68 of 70 games last year but did average 20.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.1 assists in 32.7 minutes in the game he started, making him a prime candidate to step up if needed.
Kyle Kuzma could be a wild card as a key contributor off the bench playing starter minutes or substitute starting small or power forward should LeBron James or Anthony Davis get injured or test positive during the playoffs.
2. Shooting Guard Dion Waiters.
The suspension of the NBA season because Rudy Gobert tested positive happened before Dion Waiters, who had signed with the team as a free agent, had an opportunity to show the Lakers what he could contribute.
The league’s three month hiatus hopefully gave Waiters valuable time to get his conditioning back and be ready to be a major contributor as a potential third scorer and second playmaker for the Lakers heading into the playoffs. While Dion only played 3 games for the Heat this season, he averaged 12.0 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 25.9 minutes last season and 14.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 3.8 assists in 30.6 minutes the previous season.
Finally given the time to get healthy, Dion Waiters has the scoring mentality and playmaking skills to be the wild card third scorer and second playmaker the Lakers need to fill the holes in their roster and win a championship.
3. Center DeMarcus Cousins.
Back in February, Lakers’ head coach Frank Vogel said there was a chance DeMarcus Cousins could return to play by June. Now with the playoffs not scheduled to start until mid-July, could Cousins’ return be an option?
While Boogie would have to be completely recovered, in playoff shape, and capable of playing at 70 to 80% of his preinjury level, his return could give the Lakers the stretch five center they need against the Bucks and Clippers. With the NBA relaxing rules to allow teams to sign free agents to replace players lost due to positive tests for Covid-19, Cousins could be a valuable wild card if McGee or Howard were to got injured or tested positive.
Boogie returning may be a long shot but there are real risks of players getting injured or infected with coronavirus during this year’s playoffs and the Lakers would be wise to have a good backup center ready and wating.