On the quest to repeat following an abbreviated offseason, the two interrelated priorities for the 2020-21 Los Angeles Lakers have been, understandably, since the first day of training camp, health and playoffs.
Yet, one month ago, the Lakers looked on their way to repeating as the Western Conference’s no. 1 seed, too. In late January, L.A. possessed the league’s best record, at 14-4.
Now, amid the dog days of February, the Lakers have lost three of four games and sit 3rd in the West, at 22-9, tied with the Los Angeles Clippers, who own the tiebreaker. The Utah Jazz, winners of 20 of 22, leads the pack by 2.5 games entering Monday.
Things won’t get smooth out in the short-term. With Anthony Davis (calf strain) out for weeks and Dennis Schröder (health and safety protocols) for at least two more games, the Lakers will be forced to navigate a challenging schedule until the All-Star break, and possibly beyond.
Following home losses to the Brooklyn Nets and Miami Heat, the Lakers will host the suddenly-hot Washington Wizards (four-straight Ws) on Monday. Next, they’ll face the Jazz (2/24) on the road, then head home for matchups against the Portland Trail Blazers (2/26), Golden State Warriors (2/28), and Phoenix Suns (3/2) before visiting the Sacramento Kings on the second-leg of a back-t0-back.
The short-landed Lakers will aim to tread water without wearing out LeBron James. Should they struggle in the wins column, though, Frank Vogel’s team could conceivably fall as far as three spots in the standings by early March.
James has encouraged Davis to take as long as he needs to recuperate, and that’s the right approach. Above all else, the Lakers care about their form in May and June more than February.
“For me, all I care about is his health. I want him to be healthy. Our team needs him to be healthy,” James told reporters last week. “He’s got to make sure that he takes all the precautions and does his due diligence on what’s going on with his injury, and be right when he comes back. So no rush, no timetable. We have no idea from that aspect, but we just want him to be healthy and back at full strength.”
Even if the mid-season swoon continues, the Lakers won’t lose their big-game confidence or sweat any individual loss. Obviously, the defending champions know they are not built to play sans Davis (and Schröder). However, a string of Ls could cause the Lakers to lose out on home-court advantage in the playoffs.
“We don’t look at it,” guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope said on the standings. “We know we want to be No. 1 in the West. We are defending champs. That’s our mindset and our motivation. We still want to be No. 1 in the West, but for us it’s just about winning, no matter what seed we are. We just want to win, make the playoffs, the postseason and just be ready to defend the title.”
Fortunately, there’s never been any other season in league history in which downplaying the impact of home-court advantage makes more sense than in 2020-21.
“It’s not as imperative as last year,” said Kuzma, referring to the Lakers efforts to earn home-court prior to the pandemic. “There’s not really a home-court advantage. And regardless, if you want to get to the Finals, you’re going to have to play the Clippers or you’re going to have to play the Jazz or you’re going to have to play somebody that’s up there. So it doesn’t really matter too much.”
Fair enough. For the record, the Lakers have played better ball on the road this season, just like they did last year. So far, L.A. has won 13 of 16 away from home, and gone 9-6 in home games. In 2019-20, the Lakers went 27-9 away, slightly better than their 25-10 home record.
But, above all else, the Lakers don’t care about their playoff positioning for one primary reason: they have James.
“Bron was a four-seed, I think, in his last year in Cleveland and then went to the Finals,” Kuzma said.
Of course, the Lakers are hoping to win the title, not just reach the Finals. But Kuzma, like the rest of the basketball world, knows that James will be expected to close out any tight playoff game, regardless of location.
In general, James has consistently elevated teams in the playoffs throughout his career, and he’s always had to win massive games away from home. In fact, only one of his titles prior to the bubble-fied 2020 has come after earning the no. 1 overall seed in the regular season (Miami, 2013).
From 1984-2019, “sleeping in your own bed” clearly proved an advantage in the postseason. NBA teams with home-court won 76 percent of playoff series, compared to 57% of regular-season games, per Deseret News.
This season, for the billionth time, will likely be different.
We don’t know what arenas will feel like in May and June. We don’t know when or where these games will take place. And, we don’t know how much home-court would have mattered in 2020, as the Lakers stormed through the playoffs at Disney World.
In the meantime, the best thing the Lakers can do is, as Kuzma says, establish winning habits, experiment with lineups, and stay as injury and COVID-free as possible. And do it all while making sure James has enough gas in the tank for another playoff run.
Ultimately, as long as the King is fresh in June, nobody is likely to dethrone him or the Lakers.