On Friday, in Game 63 of the 2020-21 NBA regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers, for the first time, took the floor with Dennis Schroder, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Andre Drummond together in the starting lineup.
L.A. fell in disappointing fashion to the Sacramento Kings, but at least they could be encouraged by the sight of their four best players (presumably) running plays together. After all, L.A. has less than two weeks to get everybody up to speed, in shape, and on the same wavelength before the playoffs.
Welp. That didn’t last long.
By the end of the weekend, the Lakers were already back down two of those four.
James exited Sunday’s loss to the Toronto Raptors early with ankle soreness and will miss the team’s matchup vs. the Denver Nuggets on Monday.
Earlier on Sunday, Schröder — roughly a week after seeming to reveal that he and James are yet to be vaccinated — was placed in the league’s health and safety protocols, and will reportedly miss 10-to-14 days.
It’s the second time Schröder has been placed in the league’s protocols, as he missed four games over a week in February for contact tracing. The Lakers went 0-4 as he quarantined. After Sunday’s underwhelming effort — in which they were roasted by Kyle Lowry, for whom the Lakers nearly traded Schröder in March — L.A. moved to 0-5 without their sparkplug point guard.
Seems like Kyle Lowry took the Lakers not pulling the trigger to trade for him personally.
Dude CAN'T MISS 🤯pic.twitter.com/ycN98BJkjw
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) May 3, 2021
During the six weeks without Davis and James, Schröder elevated his game. He’s averaged 16.8 points and 7.9 assists since James was hurt on March 20, and his two-way energy and competitiveness proved contagious. His drive-and-kick play-making and orchestration noticeably improved throughout April, and he effectively limited his turnovers over the past few weeks.
“He’s really growing, particularly with his ‘floor general’ mentality and running the team,” Vogel said last Monday. “10 assists, two turnovers, 21 points, seemed in control and comfortable in the pick-and-roll game, and getting everybody involved, And, obviously he’s an elite defender, too.”
Schröder set the tone as the short-handed Lakers scrappily hung tough. Ultimately, they’ll need him to be an aggressive third-scorer and secondary play-maker alongside James and Davis in order to repeat.
“We don’t want him to fall back when Bron comes back, even though Bron does have the ball a lot.” Davis said last week. “But we still want him to push the pace, and get in the paint, attacking, finding seams, finding guys for open shots … That’s what we’re gonna need from him in order for us to win a championship.”
Schroder's smooth dime to AD 😨 pic.twitter.com/PQrjdRDRxH
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 1, 2021
As Vogel noted after the Toronto loss, L.A. was hoping to ease the ball-handling burden on James as he ramps up his conditioning.
“We know what we’re gonna look like when we’re whole. It’s tough to lose Dennis when you’re trying to not overdo LeBron’s usage from a point guard standpoint,” Vogel said. ” … We just gotta sustain belief in what we can be when we get whole, and push through this stretch which we knew was going to be an adjustment period.”
Schröder’s last-minute removal clearly dejected the squad on Sunday, and his extended absence could not come at a worse moment. The Lakers need to win games now to avoid the play-in tournament, and they’ll have little to zero time to jell with their second most prominent ball-handler before the postseason.
In fact, it’s fair to wonder if the Lakers will commit to a new starting unit from now and into the playoffs, and use Schröder as a sixth man to run the second unit once he returns.
In the meantime, it’s “next man up” for the Lakers. In this case, the bulk of Schröder’s minutes and duties will predominately fall to Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker (and James, when he’s active). Both played relatively well on Sunday — combining for 21 points and 12 assists — and Caruso started Game 6 of the 2020 NBA Finals.
Caruso is the team’s best perimeter defender but doesn’t have the penetration nor scoring ability of Schröder. THT can slice through the paint off-the-dribble as well as anyone on the team not named LeBron and his passing has gone up a level, but he isn’t the same caliber pick and roll ball-handler, mid-range maestro, nor defensive agitator.
Dennis Schroder is up to 53% from mid range in the last 10 games. That's almost Chris Paul level efficiency. To the point where you can't drop back against him. Big time weapon once we get to some AD at the 5 lineups. pic.twitter.com/g8p1iXFlDf
— Raj C. (@UnwrittenRul3s) April 28, 2021
With a brutal upcoming schedule and the problems mounting, the defending champions are stuck in a rut while facing an uphill club. Unfortunately for LeBron, at this point, the “bumpy” road ahead may lead straight to the play-in tournament.
Schröder’s absence is another body blow. The Lakers might not be able to sustain too many more. They are short on bodies in early May. In past years, this would meant they would miss playoff games, but in this case, the Lake Show just needs to get to the playoffs — and past the play-in obstacle — first.