After a three and a half month hiatus, the Los Angeles Lakers will return to the hardwood in a pre-playoff tuneup consisting of three scrimmages and eight regular season seeding games at a neutral site in the Orlando bubble.
Having essentially clinched top seed in the Western Conference and facing an unprecedented season restart plus the unexpected loss of their starting and backup point guards, what should Lakers fans expect from their team? That’s the question we’re going to try to answer as Lebron James, Anthony Davis, and the Los Angeles Lakers get ready for tomorrow afternoon’s 4:00 pm PST first scrimmage against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.
A couple of early concerns have already been answered. First, the bubble seems to be working to keep the players safe from Covid-19 as the league announced yesterday all 346 NBA players in Orlando tested negative. Second, the league may have solved the challenge of broadcasting games without fans by smartly surrounding the court with video screens and banners and piping in NBA2K crowd noise to simulate game conditions.
After watching the first two scrimmages on NBA TV this afternoon, I’m confident the league is going to pull this off. I was surprised how easy it was to forget there were no fans in the seats and just enjoy watching the games. The players already are adjusting to life in the bubble and appear eager and ready to get back to playing the game they love. With that in mind, here’s what Lakers fans should expect in the upcoming scrimmages and games:
1. KCP will start for Avery Bradley.
With Avery Bradley opting not to join the team in Orlando due to family concerns, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will start at point guard for the Lakers, who went 17–3 earlier in the year when he replaced an injured Bradley. While KCP’s not as pesky a defender as Avery, he still plays quality defense and could potentially give LeBron James and Anthony Davis better spacing to attack the rim since he’s the team’s best 3-point shooter at 39.4%,
2. Waiters will come off bench for Rondo.
While the Lakers view the loss of Rajon Rondo for 6 to 8 weeks as a setback, the silver lining is it opens the door for newcomer Dion Waiters to earn a role and playing time as the team’s primary playmaker when LeBron rests. While Waiters is not a true point guard, his elite mix of shotmaking and playmaking could be exactly what the Lakers’ second unit needs and his 38.2% 3-point shooting the last two years is far better than Rondo’s 34.4%.
3. Load Management for LeBron and AD.
With the top seed in the West all but locked up, the Lakers will embrace load management and limit playing time for LeBron James and Anthony Davis to avoid injury and keep them fresh and healthy for the playoffs. Frank Vogel’s already said LeBron and AD won’t play in all the scrimmages and soon as they get their coordination, timing, and game conditioning back and the Lakers clinch the West, he may shut them down entirely.
4. Kuzma will be part of closing lineup.
Kyle Kuzma is finally fully healthy, has had three and a half months to get his head straight and work on his game, and understands how he plays the rest of this season and the playoffs will impact his future in the league. Word is Kuz has been one of the early standouts for the Lakers in Orlando, even dominating at times according to coach Vogel. It makes sense for the Lakers to find out if he can live up to the challenge of being a game closer.
5. Anthony Davis will play more center.
While Frank Vogel has said the Lakers will continue to rely on their regular season center tandem of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, the reality is matchups will require Anthony Davis to play more center in the playoffs. Preparing for AD at the five demands the Lakers figure out who’s going to be playing with him in those lineups. We’ll probably see the Lakers test different lineups with Kuzma or Morris at the four and AD the five.
6. Talen, Devontae, and Kostas will play.
While KCP and Waiters should be capable replacements for Bradley and Rondo, the loss of the latter hurt the Lakers depth so it makes sense that they give Horton-Tucker, Cacok, and Antetokounmpo get a chance to play. THT especially could see legitimate playing time in the scrimmages and seeding games since the Lakers have lost two key rotation guards while Devontae and Kostas could give the team needed front court reserves.
As much as Lakers fans are eager to see their team play, they need to realize it doesn’t matter who wins the 3 scrimmages and 8 seeding games. They’re simply pre-season games for what in the end is really a second NBA season. Without home court advantage, even finishing as the #1 seed in the West offers no advantage so the Lakers’ goal is to figure out who replaces Bradley and Rondo and make sure nobody gets injured after the long layoff.
While it will be fun watching the Lakers take on the Clippers on July 30th, the real games and drama won’t start until August 18th when the Lakers take on the team that wins the 8th spot in the Western Conference playoffs. So kick back, chillax, and whet your appetite for the real deal by watching 3 meaningless scrimmages and 8 semi-meaningless regular season seeding games because you still have almost a full month until the season begins.