Lakers

Lakers Struggling in Bubble Despite Clinching Top Seed

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Heading into the Bubble, it was natural to feel positive about the Lakers’ chances. LeBron James and Anthony Davis looked sharp in the early games. Alex Caruso, Quinn Cook, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have looked ready for significant minutes on the perimeter. Kyle Kuzma has even confused us about his level of experience with his recent play on both ends.

 

Moreover, the twin towers of Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee appear motivated and ready to lock down the paint once the Lakers begin postseason play. The recent additions of J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters add some more bravado that could prove crucial in tight playoff moments. Lastly, the performances by Kostas Antetokounmpo, Devontae Cacok, and Talen Horton-Tucker give fans hope for a bright future.

The Lakers have been both successful and underwhelming in their performances in the Orlando bubble thus far. On one hand, it is true that the Lakers have clinched the top seed in the Western Conference (however much that matters in a mostly neutral environment). It is also true that the Lakers staved off the limited-roster Clippers in their season re-opener.

On the other hand, the Lakers wins have not eclipsed the significance of their three losses. In all three losses, some of the NBA’s elite guards showed how much they enjoyed playing the Lakers and exposed some potential vulnerabilities facing the backcourt:

  • James Harden (Rockets): 39 PTS, 8 REBS, 12 AST, +16 RPM
  • Chris Paul (Thunder): 21 PTS, 7 REBS, 6 AST, +25 RPM
  • Kyle Lowry (Raptors): 33 PTS, 14 REBS, 6 AST, 12/15 FT, +24 RPM

The Lakers defensive struggles against guards clearly will not send them home from the bubble. However, some potential weak spots may undermine any hopes for continual success within the bubble. Here are three things to watch as the Lakers prep for postseason play in Orlando:

1. LeBron’s Free Throw Shooting

LeBron is shooting just under 70 percent from the line this season. That is better than his first campaign with the Lakers (67 percent), but is among his five worst career marks. LeBron is capable of making nearly 80 percent of his free throws, which would significantly boost the Lakers’ chances in the postseason. In four restart games, LeBron is on his season pace of roughly 68 percent (13-19 from the line).

2. Secondary Playmaker?

The Lakers need to find consistent ways of creating offense when LeBron exits for rest. Rajon Rondo has been a reliable playmaker for the Lakers most of the year. His recent injury, however, creates a void that needs to be filled. Waiters showed some flashes that suggests he could help eliminate that gap. Caruso and Cook have also helped create offense throughout the season in select moments of play. The question remains whether a singular person or a committee approach, including Caruso-Cook-Waiters, would prove beneficial to the team.

3. Three-Point Shooting

LA has been an average three-point shooting team on the season. The squad does not rank above 15th in three-pointers made or three-point percentage. The recent additions of Smith and Waiters should give the Lakers more firepower from deep over time. In the five games since the regular season restart, the Lakers are shooting about 23 percent (37-158) from behind the arc. Anthony Davis, however, has notably been shooting fairly well from the perimeter in the bubble (roughly 37 percent) despite a cold shooting night against Oklahoma City. Moreover, veteran guard Danny Green showed some against-the-grain confidence in the group’s shooting ability.

While the Lakers can improve from deep, the team can take pride in how it defends the three-point line. The Lakers ranked fourth in opponent three-point percentage during the pre-bubble regular season. Since returning to play in Orlando, the Lakers are allowing opponents to shoot roughly 35 percent (68-194) from the three-point line. The recent performance has bumped the Lakers to fifth place in opponent three-point percentage indicating a possible decline.

Given the Lakers’ clinch of the first seed, it’s possible that many of these considerations will start factoring once postseason play begins. However, sluggish trends heading into the playoffs, if not urgently addressed, can potentially send the Lakers from the bubble to offseason fishing at the lake.

(All stats via Basketball-Reference and ESPN.com)

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About Tamba Mondeh

1st-year law student. Stillman College, The University of Alabama, and Duke University alum.

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