The Lakers are 24-27 in 2021-22, good for ninth in the Western Conference. As things stand at the beginning of February, the Purple and Gold are only guaranteed a play-in tournament game against the 10th seed hoping to win the rights to face the loser of the 7/8 matchup on the road for a spot in the real postseason.
The Lakers have struggled with injuries and coronavirus absences to nearly every player on the team, including LeBron James (15 games missed), Anthony Davis (21 games missed), and Kendrick Nunn (51 games missed). The entire NBA world expects Los Angeles to pick things up as their core players get back on the court and build chemistry with each other.
As the second half of the season picks up steam, it’s hard to imagine a Lakers team with LeBron James and Anthony Davis floating below .500. If the Lakers finished outside the top-8 in the Western Conference at the end of the regular season, missing out on the 2021-22 postseason, it would send shock waves through the association.
In this exercise, we’ll make three general assumptions:
The Lakers will make the 2021-22 postseason.
They won’t find a trade partner willing to take on Westbrook and his massive contract.
They’ll enter the postseason with no significant injuries, and the teams they face will also be fully manned.
Below are the Lakers’ three nightmare first-round playoff matchups.
3. The Lakers Face The Young Grizzlies
The Lakers have already squared off against the Memphis Grizzlies four times in 2021-22, going 1-3, picking up their only victory at the end of October, three games into the season.
The Memphis Grizzlies feature one of the most talented backcourts in the NBA, with new All-Star Ja Morant and Desmond Bane. At the same time, the Lakers have mainly vacillated between three ho-hum defenders in the starting lineup at the guard positions, Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, and Malik Monk.
Across the Grizzlies’ four games against the Lakers, Morant and Bane have double-handedly destroyed the Purple and Gold.
Here’s a breakdown:
Ja Morant: 32.3 PPG, 6.3 AP, 5.7 RPG, 68.8 3P%, and 10.7 +/-
Desmond Bane: 20.8 PPG, 3.0 APG, 4.0 RPG, 41.7 3P%, and 7.3 +/-
The Lakers can’t win a series against any squad giving up more than a combined 50 points per game to their starting backcourt.
Here’s the Lakers’ major problem in this series: They have no easy fixes to the Morant/Bane conundrum. Russell Westbrook has been a subpar defender the entire season. He’s allowing his assignments to shoot 3.2% over their average field goal percentage, and he’s contesting only 2.0 three-point shots per contest. Overall, his defensive speed has dropped to 3.63 MPH, worse than lumbering big men Dwight Howard (3.88 MPH) and DeAndre Jordan (3.82 MPH).
The Lakers have nowhere to hide Russell Westbrook. His combination of declining agility and closeout speed on three-point shots makes it impossible for him to stay in front of Ja Morant, perhaps the most athletic guard in the NBA and a guy who constantly attacks the rim, pressuring opposing defenders. He also can’t cover Desmond Bane, another explosive scorer who’s averaging 18.1 points per game and has more physicality getting to the rack than Westbrook can handle at this stage of his career.
Avery Bradley goes 110% on defense, but at 6-3, 180 pounds, he doesn’t have the size to genuinely bother All-Star point guards. Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has consistently tasked Bradley with taking on the opposing squad’s best backcourt player throughout the season, and he’s mostly failed, allowing his men to shoot 8.2% over their normal average.
Frank Vogel could turn to Malik Monk instead of Avery Bradley, but he’s more of an offensive-minded player instead of a lockdown defensive specialist.
The Lakers really miss Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, two players from last year’s squad who had the size, speed, and defensive acumen to at least slow down the Grizzlies backcourt.
Lakers fans will undoubtedly scream out, “We have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, one of the best duos in the league.”
Still, Memphis forward Jaren Jackson Jr. can’t stop LBJ, but he matches up well with him and has bothered LBJ this season, helping hold him to 27.8 PPG, a figure that is below his season average. Steven Adams can’t stick with Anthony Davis on the perimeter, but the Lakers forward is shooting a measly 18.0% from deep this season, which has allowed Adams to take a step back when he guards Davis out by the arc, taking away some of his speed advantage.
The Grizzlies also have a stable of solid wing defenders—Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke, and Tyus Jones—they can throw at LBJ if they want to go small and put Jackson Jr. on Davis.
Ja Morant gives the Grizzlies the biggest mismatch in this series. Perhaps LBJ and company could take advantage of Memphis’s youth and pull out a tough first-round series win, but that task seems unlikely at this point.
2. The Lakers Square Off Against The Phoenix Suns In The First-Round Again
The Lakers have played the Phoenix Suns twice this season, getting blown out in both contests.
You already know Chris Paul and Devin Booker are All-Stars, and together they form one of the best guard duos in the league.
You can also surmise, if Ja Morant and Desmond Bane pose a problem for the Lakers in a seven-game series, then CP3 and Book, with their talent and veteran savvy, create a hurricane of complications for a Purple and Gold squad lacking a true ballhawk at either of the guard positions.
So, instead of waxing on about Paul and Booker’s greatness, let’s focus on Phoenix’s defense.
Phoenix features three of the best wing defenders in the league this season.
Mikal Bridges might be the best defensive wing in the NBA this season. Suns head coach Monty Williams described Bridges value on the less fun end earlier this season,
“Of course, I’m biased. I think he’s a first team All-Defense guy... He guards the toughest guy every night. He doesn’t take a break. I could be wrong, but I don’t see that from the guys rated ahead of him. I don’t do a good enough job of promoting him... He defends on every level. Now he’s gotten much better at guarding post-ups... Can guard 94 feet, can guard on screens, can guard on pin downs. He’s a great off-ball defender. There’s not much he can’t do on the defensive end... That’s why we feel as if he’s in so many ways the glue of our team.”
Jae Crowder is a beast on D. He has a 44.0 DFG%, averages 2.4 deflections per game, and contests a team-high 3.2 three-point shots nightly. Crowder’s got a bit of Dennis Rodman or Metta World Peace in him. He doesn’t shy away from anyone, and he’s a borderline villain. You love him when he suits up for your squad and hate him when he’s on the opposing team.
Cameron Johnson is a 6-8, 210-pound forward with the size to hold his own on the block and the foot-speed to cover smaller players out by the arc. Overall, he has a 45.0 DFG% against 9.4 attempts per game.
Simply put: The Suns are especially well prepared to slow down LeBron James in a playoff series. They can hound LBJ with Jae Crowder, switch Mikal Bridges onto him, and bring Cameron Johnson off the bench to continue wearing down the Lakers 37-year-old MVP candidate.
Deandre Ayton has morphed into one of the best defensive centers in the NBA. He’s holding his men to 4.7% under their normal average and contests 11.7 shots per game, good for 4th in the league. Only a handful of players in the world can contend with Anthony Davis’s blend of height, foot-speed, and athleticism. Ayton is one of them. The Phoenix Suns center moves his feet surprisingly well for a 6-11, 250-pound center, and he can handle AD on the block with his size and on the perimeter with his quick feet.
Chris Paul and Devin Booker are far superior two-way players than the Lakers starting backcourt of Russell Westbrook and Avery Bradley. They would win that matchup handily in a playoff series. And while LBJ and AD are better than any two Suns frontcourt players, Phoenix has a stable of elite defenders to throw at them.
It would be easy to see CP3 and Book going off for 50-plus points nightly in a seven-game first-round series while LeBron and Anthony Davis struggle to get going against Phoenix’s smothering defense.
1. The Lakers Head To San Francisco In An Attempt To Beat The Warriors
This is getting repetitive, but if the Lakers can’t slow down Ja Morant and Desmond Bane or Chris Paul and Devin Booker, they have absolutely no shot in hell of stopping Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Over the past two seasons, the Lakers corralled MVP candidate Stephen Curry by sending multiple defenders his way every time he touched the ball on the perimeter. That strategy is over.
KLAY THOMPSON IS BACK!!!
If the Lakers double-team Curry in the 2022 playoffs, he’ll make the easy pass to Thompson for an open, death-in-a-can triple. The Purple and Gold will have to resort to typical man coverage.
Stephen Curry is one of the best-conditioned athletes in the world. He runs 1.45 miles on offense nightly (11th in the NBA), sprinting around screens, cutting toward the basket, and driving down the lane. Russell Westbrook can’t keep up with him, so the Lakers will have to put Avery Bradley (53.2 DFG%) on Curry in an attempt to slow him down. That leaves Brodie, a player who once again is only contesting 2.0 three-point shots per game, to stop one of the best long-distance marksmen in the NBA’s history, Klay Thompson.
The Warriors’ backcourt duo is a nightmare matchup for any team. Curry and Thompson reached five consecutive NBA finals, winning three together, and it’s hard to see a combination of Westbrook, Bradley, and Monk not getting ruined on the court against them.
Of course, the Lakers have their own championship twosome in LBJ and AD, but the Warriors have the top D in the league (103.1) by a country mile, and like the Suns, Golden State has an excess of wings they can throw at LeBron to slow him down.
Have a look at the Warriors’ top four wings 2021-22 defensive statistics:
Andrew Wiggins: 6-7, 197 pounds, 0.4 DBPM, 41.8 DFG%, 8.0 contested shots per game
Draymond Green: 6-6, 230 pounds, 4.7 DBPM, 41.5 DFG%, 8.9 contested shots per game
Andre Iguodala: 6-6, 215 pounds, 3.6 DBPM, 38.5 DFG%, 3.0 contested shots per game
Otto Porter Jr.: 6-8, 198 pounds, 2.7DBPM, 46.4 DFG%, 3.5 contested shots per game
Andrew Wiggins has morphed into one of the best defenders in the league. Draymond Green is the Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner. Andre Iguodala is a two-time All-Defensive Team member, and he’s up to his old tricks again this season. And Otto Porter Jr. is an oversized wing who’s going 110% in 2021-22.
The Warriors have James Wiseman and Kevon Looney, two massive centers who can handle AD in the post and out on the perimeter, but Draymond Green is their defensive trump card. He’s one of the few players in the world who can legitimately take away Davis’s combination of size and speed. Green is a smallish 6-6, which helps increase his agility on the perimeter, but he also has a 7-1 wingspan that he can use to bother AD in the mid-range and on the block. Draymond Green is also the fiercest competitor in the NBA, a player who wants to lose his temper when his assignment scores one bucket on him.
Real Talk: It’s easy to envision Draymond Green using his blend of basketball IQ, intensity, and physical attributes to stifle Anthony Davis into something like 14 PPG off 35% from the field in the playoffs.
In the end, we don’t see this version of the Lakers being able to score enough points over the Warriors’ top-rated D to win a first-round series against the combination of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
The First-Round Scenario, The Lakers Must Hope For
The Lakers have their work cut out for them during the second half of the 2021-22 season. They’re currently five games back of the fifth-seeded Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference, which is what they need to aim for to avoid facing the Grizzlies, Suns, or Warriors in the first round of the playoffs.
The Lakers would love to land in fifth or even fourth place, securing a date with the Nuggets, Jazz, or Mavericks, three teams that don’t have the frontcourt defenders to match up with the physical dominance of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.