L.A. has flaws — shooting, rim protection, wing depth — but it’s difficult to gauge how pernicious those will be when the games really count, as most of their struggles came without Anthony Davis.
Questions remain that only basketball will answer. Before the Lakers begin their second half against the Indiana Pacers at Staples Center on Friday, let’s highlight one key question for each Laker.
LeBron James: Will he chase the MVP?
To the surprise of many — and arguably to his own detriment — James has shown up to work on a mission in 2020-21. Emphasis on “shown up.”
Following an October trophy ceremony, the 36-year-old has decidedly not mailed in his 18th regular season. He has delivered.
The King is averaging 25.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 7.8 assists while carrying heavy minutes and ball-handling duties. Instead of managing his load, James played every game until the first-half finale and is seventh in minutes (not ideal). Consequently, tired legs plagued his shooting before the All-Star break.
James values the fifth ring over a fifth MVP, as Davis affirmed, and he’s capable of accomplishing both. On Thursday, he steadfastly rejected any plans to scale things back, despite a brutal second-half slate featuring eight back-to-backs in 35 games. Look out.
(Also: will LeBron keep taking their technical free throws?!)
Anthony Davis: How’s that calf?
The most important storyline for the Lakers is Davis’ health, full stop. AD has been out since Valentine’s Day with what was initially diagnosed as Achilles tendonosis before being downgraded to a less-worrisome calf strain.
The Lakers were oddly irresponsible the first time around. They don’t want to make the same mistake.
Dennis Schröder: Will he sign an extension?
I covered this already in more detail, so I won’t rehash too much. Considering the mutual interest to keep Schröder in L.A. and the limited wiggle room in what can be offered, it’s weird that an agreement hasn’t been reached.
Schröder could improve his shooting given he’s at 31.7 percent from 3, down from 38.5 percent in 2019-20. Besides that, Dennis the Menace has been a valuable spark plug, thanks to his energy, defense, and dribble-drives.
FLAT OUT INCREDIBLE!! That’s TUFF DENNIS THE MENACE! 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥 https://t.co/nQUUkTYuXr
— LeBron James (@KingJames) February 5, 2021
Kyle Kuzma: Can he score, if necessary?
Kuzma has been a dream role player in the wake of his extension.
In his fourth season, he’s happily embracing the dirty work. His scoring is down to 11.5 PPG, but his offensive rebounding, shot blocking, and hustle have made a noticeable impact.
Depending on Davis’ second-half workload, Kuzma may be asked to tap into his old “third scorer” gig on occasion. Can he do it?
Montrezl Harrell: Do the Lakers have faith in his defense?
The 2019-20 Sixth Man of the Year has given L.A.’s second-unit a boost, averaging 20.6 points and 9.6 rebounds per 36 minutes.
But a troubling trend recently emerged. Despite AD’s absence, Harrell’s minutes didn’t increase. He started once and played 18 minutes, forcing Vogel to face postgame questions about his confidence in Harrell’s D against big and small lineups. At a slowish 6-foot-8, he’s a tweener without natural defensive instincts.
Harrell then told Vogel that he feels “more comfortable” coming off the bench — an unselfish and honest admission, especially in a contract year. He knows the Lakers value his ability to feast on backups.
Trez can always drop 18 against the Sacramento Kings, but whether Vogel trusts him in high-stakes scenarios will be the major determinant in his role as things heat up.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope: Should he start?
After a sizzling start, Caldwell-Pope has gone cold. Since Feb. 1, he’s at just 31.7 percent from downtown.
Kuzma and Alex Caruso are better players than KCP. Caruso hits 3s at a similar rate, is a superior all-around defender (though KCP is solid), and can serve as lead ball handler. Kuzma is more versatile.
Talen Horton-Tucker is a year away from that promotion, and Wes Matthews has struggled more than Caldwell-Pope.
For now, KCP is worth keeping as the starter — especially if he finds his shooting stroke — so as not to mess with the rotations. Who finishes is more important than who starts, anyway.
Regardless, Rob Pelinka will try to improve on the wing. (P.J. Tucker? Trevor Ariza? George Hill?, Otto Porter Jr.?)
Marc Gasol: Do the Lakers believe in him?
On Thursday, The Athletic’s Sam Amick reported that the Lakers may not be completely thrilled with Gasol’s performance. Big Marc’s 3-point percentage is respectable (36.5 percent), but he bricks plenty of open looks.
His passing is fun in individual moments but not game-changing, and his lack of verticality and agility rears its head numerous times per game. If the Lakers pick up a big (more on that soon), will Gasol’s role take a hit?
Marc Gasol's got every pass in his bag 👀 pic.twitter.com/bDRdOmvBYV
— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) January 4, 2021
Either way, Davis can be the primary center in the postseason.
Alex Caruso: Will the 3-point shot return?
Like KCP, the Bald Eagle spent a month among the league’s 3-point shooting leaders only to sharply regress to the mean. He shot 52.8 percent from deep through January, compared to 26.5 percent since. If he’s going to get closing minutes, the Lakers will need him to nail clutch treys.
Talen Horton-Tucker: Can he do more than attack the rim?
THT seems to be ensconced in the rotation, and his proclivity for rim attacks aligns with the team’s offensive philosophy. But the 20-year-old is raw, and his defense, passing, and shooting are impressive in glimpses but far from polished.
— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) February 9, 2021
The Lakers would love him to become a secondary play maker, but he needs to prove that he can create for others as much as himself.
Markieef Morris/Wes Matthews: Will they be rotation pieces?
Vogel dropping both from the rotation in January, if temporary, was undeniably telling.
Matthews, 34, has shot under 34 percent from deep. Morris gets some buckets and adds toughness in spurts, but he has more value in the locker room at this stage (a great third-stringer, though).
Both will stay ready, and they have the Lakers’ trust. Don’t count out a few big Matthews shots at some point.
Damian Jones: Is he the only big they’ll add?
Jones is claiming one of the two roster spots the Lakers could presumably use for buyout candidates.
The 25-year-old has played decently (5-of-5 shooting, a few dunks, three blocks) in three appearances, and he made enough of an impression to earn a second 10-day deal.
He’s an athletic, 6-foot-11 lob threat who offers adequate frontcourt insurance. To expect anything more is overly optimistic. He’s not as good as JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard.
Pelinka will monitor the market for a vet. (Andre Drummond? DeMarcus Cousins? LaMarcus Aldridge?) Will he keep Jones and use both roster spots for frontcourt help? Or sacrifice one for a wing?
Jared Dudley/Alfonzo McKinnie/Kostas Antetokounmpo/Devontae Cacok: Will they be thrown into a trade?
Dudley is a beloved teammate. McKinnie and Cacok haven’t shown Vogel enough by now to threaten a bigger role (scarce practice time doesn’t help). Antetokounmpo is working on a second ring, which is cool.
The Lakers are hamstrung in trade talks (salary reasons, no picks), but if they pursue a roster tweak via trade, at least one of these guys could get tossed into a deal.