The Los Angeles Lakers braced for a season of strain after the shortest off-season in league history.
They did not anticipate this.
The Lakers did not envision long stretches without both LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and a regular-season slog that is testing them in new ways after the rigors of being confined within the N.B.A.’s restricted-access campus at Walt Disney World for three months last summer. James, Davis and Co. began the 2020-21 season as overwhelming title favorites, having emerged from bubble life as N.B.A. champions, but factors that raise the degree of difficulty on the Lakers’ repeat bid are starting to stack up:
Davis has missed the past 23 games because of persistent Achilles’ tendon discomfort and an adjacent calf strain. There is some hope within the organization that he will return to the lineup after the Lakers’ five-game Eastern Conference swing underway, but any injury that involves the Achilles’ tendon, no matter how purportedly mild, is going to spook people until Davis gets back on the floor. Achilles’ tendon injuries remain the most feared in the sport.
James has missed the past nine games after sustaining a high-ankle sprain during a game against Atlanta on March 20. The reflex assumption, because this is James, is that he will return by month’s end and duly return to elite form. Given that James is 36, and in his 18th season, we should probably also acknowledge the possibility that his recovery won’t be seamless.
Sunday’s 18-point loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, their Staples Center co-tenants, was the first in an 11-game stretch against teams in playoff or play-in positions. The Lakers were fifth in the Western Conference standings entering Tuesday, but there is mounting worry in Lakerland that a slip to sixth, seven or worse is getting more and more unavoidable. This is the first season that teams seeded seventh through 10th in each conference will be subjected to a new double-elimination playoff play-in round.
The roster moves that looked so good in November, winning raves for the Lakers’ front office, haven’t panned out. Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell have not proved capable of pinch-carrying the Lakers during the regular season when James and Davis are unavailable. I believed, as resolutely as the Lakers, that they would be, but Schröder and Harrell tend to be more concerned with their own scoring than anything else. When the Lakers explored the trade market for both last month, it seemed to confirm their own uncertainty about the fit.
The Lakers’ biggest triumph since Davis went down was signing the crown jewel of this season’s buyout market: Andre Drummond. Yet it must be noted that the Lakers were desperate to go all out for Drummond in part because of a sense that their frontline was lacking. Marc Gasol, signed as a free agent in November, hasn’t replaced Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee as convincingly as the front office had projected. Gasol has since publicly acknowledged his disappointment that the Lakers felt a need to bring in Drummond.
Whether it’s the injuries, or the team’s middling 10-12 record since Davis last played on Feb. 14, or mounting pressure stemming from the Lakers’ woeful 3-point shooting (24th in the league), or other factors, this group does not appear to have the same chemistry as the Lakers did in the N.B.A. bubble. Maybe these Lakers can still get there, but there is clearly much to fix in the final 22 games of the regular season.
Coach Frank Vogel insisted on Monday that the Lakers were “not looking at the standings at all,” but that is easier to say than uphold when the competition looks tougher than it did last season:
— The Utah Jazz readily acknowledge that they can’t hush naysayers until the playoffs, but they have also won 22 consecutive home games and remain on pace to become the first team in league history to average 17 made 3-pointers per game.
— The Denver Nuggets made a clear win-now upgrade at the trade deadline by adding Aaron Gordon to their core of Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. and, as of this Newsletter Tuesday, would have home-court advantage over the Lakers in a first-round series as the fourth seed.
— Also: One of the most important players from the Lakers’ championship run — Rajon Rondo — is suddenly a member of the Clippers via trade. After his ineffectual stint as an Atlanta Hawk, skepticism persists that Rondo, at 35, will provide the offensive organization and playmaking that the Clippers badly need. Yet he has delivered often enough in the postseason that the Lakers are respectfully wary of his becoming Playoff Rondo one more time for the Los Angeles franchise still chasing its first championship.
That assessment of the competition didn’t even mention the Phoenix Suns, who missed the playoffs for the past 10 seasons but have risen to No. 2 in the West by pairing Chris Paul in the backcourt with Devin Booker, or the three powerhouses in the East: Philadelphia, Milwaukee and a superstar-laden Nets squad coping with its own serious injury issues.
James and Davis remain so feared as a duo that, for all the other legitimate concerns about these Lakers that we’ve listed, getting both back in coming weeks and keeping them upright throughout the playoffs would surely fix so much. I am likewise bullish on Drummond’s potential impact when he gets the chance to finally play with the two stars and, for the first time in his N.B.A. career, focus on a complementary role that emphasizes his rebounding and defense.
My issue is assuming that James and Davis will heal in linear fashion that makes everything fine once they return. Ill-advised as it is to write off James in particular, after he led his teams to the N.B.A. finals in nine of the past 10 seasons, that’s a bold leap to make given the gravity of these injuries.
When I published N.B.A. power rankings every Monday during the regular season for 15 years at ESPN, I occasionally sparred with angry readers who blamed The Committee of One, as I had dubbed myself, for jinxing their team with a ranking too lofty. Perhaps I should consider, along the same lines, some responsibility for the Lakers’ woes over the past two months, because Davis started missing games shortly after I devoted my Feb. 2 weekly dispatch to his partnership with James and how flawlessly they’ve meshed as teammates.
Far more likely, though, than the Lakers getting derailed by a supposed newsletter jinx is the like-it-or-not reality that ill health threatens to be the Lakers’ undoing for the second time in James’s three seasons in Hollywood.
You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be lightly edited or condensed for clarity.)
Q: I am a lifelong Nets fan. I’m 61 now and I clearly remember the team’s pre-N.B.A. years. Julius Erving was the greatest player to ever play for the Nets, and without him the franchise would not exist. But he sometimes seems to be forgotten in Brooklyn — and so is the A.B.A.
The Nets recently posted a tweet indicating that James Harden was only the second Net in team history to record a triple-double that included 40 points, along with Vince Carter, but I was sure that had to be incorrect. I looked it up online and found that Erving did this twice in the A.B.A.
My question: Does the N.B.A. count A.B.A. statistics? And if so, why don’t the Nets refer to them? Looking forward to your coverage soon of the first Nets championship in 45 years! — Dave Lederer (Sharon, Mass.)
Stein: Love the enthusiasm for the A.B.A., Dave. But A.B.A. statistics were not (and most likely will never be) officially combined with N.B.A. statistics, so the Nets refer to their history only since 1976-77 when they make such announcements about milestones.
This wonderful page maintained by Basketball Reference with multiple career scoring lists shows how Dr. J would be No. 8 and Dan Issel would be No. 11 if A.B.A. points were added to the damage they did in the N.B.A. Yet the list posted there is purely for discussion purposes, because the N.B.A. established its policy long ago, leaving Erving at No. 72 among N.B.A. scorers and Issel at No. 148. The four A.B.A. franchises that joined the league for the 1976-77 season (Denver, Indiana, San Antonio and the Nets) were treated more like expansion teams than merging teams.
The A.B.A., of course, was way ahead of its time with the early adoption of the 3-pointer and the introduction of a slam dunk contest eight years before the N.B.A., and faster-paced play in general that I sadly didn’t get to see for myself. The merger season was the first that I could call myself a truly aware N.B.A. fan; 1977 Topps basketball cards with the electric green backs still weaken me when I come across them as does the Buffalo Braves set from that season that I keep on my desk.
The recent death of Elgin Baylor had me venting anew about what a shame it is that Baylor’s offensive brilliance isn’t as appreciated as it should be because television footage from the 1960s and 1970s was not as widely distributed as it should have been, compared with, say, baseball footage from past eras. When I started covering the Los Angeles Clippers in February 1994, Baylor was the general manager and I told him that, to that point, I had scarcely seen five minutes of his playing career. This was years before the advent of NBA TV, of course, so the Clippers called N.B.A. Entertainment in Secaucus, N.J., to assemble a Baylor highlight reel on VHS tape for my edification.
A.B.A. footage, as you can imagine, was even more scarce, though thankfully there’s a smattering on YouTube now. I can’t remember seeing any in my formative years as a basketball fan. The red, white and blue ball was all I knew.
Q: More watchable than the Larry Johnson-Alonzo Mourning-Muggsy Bogues Hornets of the early 1990s? — @BBH821510 from Twitter
Stein: I got a few responses like this on Saturday when I tweeted about the Hornets losing Gordon Hayward for at least four weeks to a sprained right foot.
Just for some fun, and perhaps in a bow to the hyperbolic nature of social media, I have been referring to Charlotte this season as the Most Watchable Hornets Ever. It’s my go-to hat tip to these Hornets given how entertaining they’ve been since drafting LaMelo Ball in November, signing Hayward in free agency and combining those two with Terry Rozier, whose player efficiency rating is at a career-best 17.7.
The Hornets teams that featured Johnson, Mourning and Bogues are remembered with great fondness by Charlotte’s fans and duly respected here. Charlotte also had some strong teams in the back half of the 1990s, after trading away both Johnson and Mourning — but I think it actually helps my case if you have to rewind that far, to a time long before the N.B.A. League Pass era, to come up with a counter.
Q: What happens when a team forfeits a draft pick as the Milwaukee Bucks did in the Bogdan Bogdanovic case? Will there still be 60 players selected in that draft? — Yul Bessori (Israel)
Stein: No. The 2022 draft will have only 59 picks after the Bucks were docked their second-rounder for that year as punishment for what the league deemed impermissible contact with Bogdanovic before free agency began in November.
Not long after Milwaukee reached an agreement with New Orleans on a trade for Jrue Holiday in November, ESPN reported that the Bucks would also acquire Bogdanovic, who was a restricted free agent, from Sacramento via sign-and-trade, with the Kings poised to land Donte DiVincenzo as part of the exchange. But free agency was still more than three days away at that point, prompting the N.B.A. to investigate how the Bucks had agreed on terms. Milwaukee was essentially forced to abandon its pursuit of Bogdanovic or risk more severe penalties.
Bogdanovic ultimately signed a four-year, $72 million offer sheet from Atlanta, which Sacramento declined to match, causing the Kings to lose the restricted free agent without compensation. The Bucks, though, have rebounded from their missteps about as well as they could have hoped, persuading Giannis Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year contract extension worth $228 million in December even without landing Bogdanovic. Then on Sunday they announced that they had signed Holiday to an extension, reported to be for four years and worth up to $160 million.
They also made a useful addition last month by acquiring P.J. Tucker in a trade with Houston, but questions persist about the dependability of the Bucks’ bench. Milwaukee’s other problem is the competition — at least at the top of the East. The Bucks have to be wondering, even after all of their moves, if they really have enough to beat out the Nets and Philadelphia for a spot in the N.B.A. finals.
Updated entering Tuesday’s games.
League officials can only hope that the basketball public was too focused on the Final Four in men’s and women’s college basketball to pay close attention to the N.B.A. on Saturday, when a league-record three teams lost by at least 44 points on the same day: Oklahoma City (48 points to Portland), Orlando (46 points to Utah) and Detroit (44 points to the Knicks). This was just one day after Golden State trailed by as many as 61 points in a 53-point loss to Toronto.
The Raptors had won just one of their previous 14 games before blasting the Stephen Curry-less Warriors. Curry has missed six of Golden State’s past nine games with a tailbone contusion.
Curry needs 130 points to surpass Wilt Chamberlain (17,783) as the Warriors’ career-scoring leader. Getting there will make Curry the 10th player in league history to rank as a franchise leader in points and assists, joining Mike Conley (Grizzlies), Alex English (Nuggets), Kevin Garnett (Timberwolves), Michael Jordan (Bulls), LeBron James (Cavaliers), Oscar Robertson (Kings), Reggie Miller (Pacers), Isiah Thomas (Pistons), Dwyane Wade (Heat).
The Houston Rockets’ recent 20-game losing streak was twice as long as its worst stretch during the 14-68 season in 1982-83 that led to the drafting of Ralph Sampson. Those Rockets started 0-10 and never had a longer winless run after that. Houston’s 20 consecutive defeats this season marked the N.B.A.’s fifth such streak since 2000, according to Stathead. Philadelphia lost 28 consecutive games from the end of the 2014-15 season through the start of the 2015-16 season and 26 games in a row during the 2013-14 season; Cleveland lost 26 consecutive games in 2010-11 in its first season after LeBron James’s free-agent departure to Miami; and Charlotte lost 23 consecutive games in 2011-12.
Utah is a spotless 22-0 at home in 2021 after losing its first two home games of the season in December.