It is official: the Lakers are playing the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs. The massive Western Conference showdown features two superstars and close friends going at it for the first time in LeBron James vs. Chris Paul. LeBron and Paul are both 36 years old with a ton of mileage on their bodies, and it will be arguably the most exciting first-round matchup this year.
As good as Phoenix have been, they are unlucky to be facing the Lakers in the first round. Los Angeles fell to the play-in spots after LeBron and Davis missed significant time this year, and the reigning NBA champions will likely defeat the Suns. There are 10 reasons why that will happen, and it is hard to argue against any of them.
10. Lakers Depth
The Lakers have a lot of big names on the roster, but their depth is truly a big advantage for them. The roster is stacked with scorers including Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and even Talen Horton-Tucker. Harrell and Kuzma averaged 13.5 PPG and 12.9 PPG each this season and can score in isolation when needed. Horton-Tucker can create his own offense at times as well, which will come in handy when LeBron and Davis are double-teamed.
Not to mention, guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Wesley Matthews are sharpshooters. They space the floor well, while Dennis Schroder can slice and dice to the basket when he has space. Big guys like Marc Gasol and Andre Drummond also play well in the paint (more on Drummond later). The Lakers have a ton of depth and that plays into their hands when James and Davis are resting.
9. Championship Experience
Once a team wins an NBA title, they are always ready for another one. They made quick work of teams in the postseason last year and their confidence going into this year's playoffs stems from that. Even with the Lakers falling to the 7th seed, they know they are the team to beat.
That kind of confidence is known as championship experience. The Lakers know they have LeBron James, the most talented and successful player in the game today, and the rest of the team will follow suit. The team went through the hype and expectation last year and they will be more than ready to take care of the Suns in the first round this year.
8. Play-In Momentum
The Lakers defeated a Golden State Warriors team that played to their best level in the play-in. Even with Davis having an off night and LeBron not at his best, the Lakers still fought off a rampant Stephen Curry to proceed to the first round of the playoffs. Getting the job done when Golden State were at their best will give the Lakers the most momentum heading into the first-round matchup with the Suns.
Phoenix have been terrific all year but the Lakers have shown they have big-time players to make big-time plays when needed. The play-in game might have actually helped the Lakers prepare for Phoenix, who have their own dominant guards as well. The Lakers don't have rust to shake off at the moment and that gives them an advantage.
7. Frank Vogel Experience
Monty Williams could very well win Coach of the Year, but Frank Vogel has championship experience on his side. It helps a ton to have LeBron James on the roster as well, but Vogel is a terrific defensive coach who has mastered his rotations. He knows when Alex Caruso can provide the most impact, especially in crunch time, and when to go deep in his bench to find shooters.
The Lakers will go as far as LeBron and Anthony Davis take them, but Vogel's experience in playoff situations will be a major factor then the possessions get tighter. We have yet to see if Monty Williams can draw up the best plays in crunch time, while Vogel has shown that already.
6. Acquisition of Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond is not an All-Star anymore, but his defensive intangibles will be critical for the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. Deandre Ayton has come into his own as a player and he could be an All-Star very soon. He has a solid post-game and can hit the mid-range shot, so Andre Drummond must stick to him to allow Anthony Davis to focus on offense.
The Lakers are relatively top-heavy meaning their system revolves around LeBron and Davis, so the impact of Drummond on defense will be critical in managing the threat of Ayton. The Lakers are much better with the acquisition of 4-time rebounding champion Andre Drummond and that will show in the first round.
5. Chris Paul's Attrition Could Be A Factor
Chris Paul is one of the greatest floor generals in the history of basketball. He reads the floor perfectly and averages a career 9.4 APG which ranks 4th all-time. We have seen how Paul's greatness transforms his team's championship aspirations, but we have also seen how attrition plays a role in Chris Paul's career.
Especially as he has aged, Paul has dealt with injury problems. The most telling example was in games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals, where he missed both games as a member of the Rockets. Chris Paul is 36 years and old and he is at risk of getting a knock which could sideline him. The Suns need Paul at full health and if he isn't, it's a big advantage for the Lakers.
4. Deandre Ayton Struggles With Foul Trouble
Deandre Ayton is becoming a star before our very eyes. He averaged 14.4 PPG and 10.5 RPG this season on a scintillating 62.6% from the field. Ayton is a massive factor that helped Phoenix grab the second seed in the West, and his presence in the paint will be important in the series. But Ayton has also struggled in foul trouble against top-tier big men.
Ayton ranks 22nd in the NBA with 2.84 fouls per game, and his inability to be a dominant defender at this stage of his career could be a factor against the Lakers. Ayton could have trouble protecting the paint against LeBron and Davis, who are both a handful when near the basket. If Ayton gets into foul trouble, which is likely, the Lakers have another massive advantage.
3. Anthony Davis Can Be Unstoppable
Anthony Davis is the best big man in the NBA regardless of the MVP caliber seasons of Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid. Davis has a mix of mid-range and outside scoring, but brings a different level of athleticism to the table. Davis cannot be guarded by anyone on the Suns and if he decides to dominate, the Lakers will make quick work of Phoenix.
Davis barely played this year but he will find his groove as the series goes on. He doesn't need much to get going on offense and playing with LeBron opens up his game even more. In the play-in game against the Warriors, Davis put up 25 points and 12 rebounds in 42 minutes so he is clearly ready for the playoffs.
2. Lakers Will Close Games Better Than Phoenix
Many will immediately think that Phoenix have better closers in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, but the Lakers will close games better. James and Davis have terrific chemistry on the court together and LeBron has already shown he is in his bag with a deep three-pointer over Stephen Curry to seal the deal two nights ago. With James running the point, the Lakers are deadly in the clutch.
Los Angeles also have the luxury of letting Davis go one on one because neither Jae Crowder nor Deandre Ayton can match up with him. When double-teamed, guys like Caldwell-Pope can make their shots because they will be ready for the big moments thanks to their experience in last year's Finals. Paul and Booker can take over at any point, but The King will be the difference.
1. LeBron James Has An Advantage Over Chris Paul
The biggest stars on both teams are LeBron James and Chris Paul. They will steal the headlines and will have the biggest impact in the series. With both players at the ripe age of 36 years old, they have plenty of playing experience to bring to the table. But when comparing the two stars, there is only one player who has the edge. And that is LeBron James, the best player in the game.
Chris Paul and LeBron bring terrific playmaking and leadership to the table, but James has a mismatch. He is arguably the most unguardable player in NBA history because of his size and talent, and that means no one in Phoenix will have a chance. Chris Paul usurps Dennis Schroder, but LeBron James usurps everyone in Phoenix. If LeBron is healthy, the Lakers win the series and closeout Phoenix before a Game 7.