Why the Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA’s greatest mystery
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
A total of seven games remain before the end of the Los Angeles Lakers’ regular season, meaning there are seven opportunities to figure out some of the key questions surrounding the team before the real business of defending their NBA championship begins.
Hovering around a pack that occupies the fifth to seventh spots in the Western Conference, with LeBron James and Anthony Davis back from injury but evaluated nightly, the Lakers are a weird, old conundrum.
Looking for holes in their title-toting armor? They’re everywhere. Seeking hopeful reasons the playoffs might breathe positive purple-and-gold energy into a campaign of flux? There’s no shortage of evidence there, too.
The Lakers are a mystery – and good luck figuring out what to expect from them.
If LeBron & Co. stand a chance of getting what they want out of the season, there are challenges in their path. If another run to the Finals is within them, they’ll need to answer some core truths.
They’ll need to rack up some Ws, and they’ll need to find the solution to some Ws as well, as in their "Who, What, Where, When and Why."
"The "who" centers on who will step forward and lead the surge. All eyes naturally focus toward James and Davis as the two primary stars on the squad, and it is difficult to see L.A. getting very far without at least one of them at his best.
That’s where more questions lurk, however. James is coming off a 20-game, six-week layoff due to a high ankle sprain, the longest injury-themed absence of his career. Davis has just returned from sitting out for nine weeks and 30 games because of calf and Achilles issues. Neither is in sparkling form yet, though it’s also fair to assume they’re both holding a little in reserve.
"This is the lowest we’ve been," Davis said last week. "But the only way is up."
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The "where" centers on the surrounding pieces in the Lakers' group. Namely, where is the requisite amount of help going to come from?
There will be no "playoff Rajon Rondo" this time because there is no Rondo at all, with the veteran energizer having been moved to the LA Clippers, who are shaping up as potential first-round opponents.
Dennis Schroder did a solid job of holding things together when James and Davis were out, but now he is set to miss up to two weeks through health and safety protocols, amid some confusion as to whether he received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Andre Drummond was the big prize in free agency, but he has work to do to prove that his presence can be transformative, while Montrezl Harrell’s addition hasn’t been what the organization hoped for when it brought him in last offseason.
All of which leads into the "what." What is the Lakers' identity? Are they James and Davis plus a few dudes along for the ride who can chime in when necessary? That works only if you have a unified core and some pieces knit together well.
That’s what they had last season in the bubble, and it’s what they don’t have now. Having lost six of seven games before Monday night’s impressive win over the surging Denver Nuggets (without James), the Lakers had little cohesion to speak of, a point not lost on forward Kyle Kuzma.
"I just don’t think we’re connected right now," Kuzma told reporters. "I just think we’re unhealthy and not good enough. We just got to get back onto it, try to find out some way, somehow to get it clicking again."
The Lakers find themselves with a playoff route that is almost certain to be tricky. Going into Tuesday’s games, they sit in fifth in the Western Conference, marginally ahead of the Dallas Mavericks and Portland Trail Blazers. Fifth or sixth would virtually guarantee an opening-round meeting with the Nuggets or the Clippers, with neither a particularly appetizing prospect.
A drop to seventh, and the dreaded play-in tournament comes into focus, an innovation about which James made his feelings clear. "Whoever came up with that s--- needs to be fired," he said.
To avoid such a fate, the Lakers must at some point burst into life. But … when?
Is it reasonable to expect such a shift of energy and form to come about the moment the postseason begins?
"I still believe in ‘Playoff LeBron,’ but I am concerned because I also believe in Father Time," FOX Sports NBA analyst Chris Broussard said on "First Things First." "A few years ago, LeBron would have come through this injury with flying colors. Now, at age 36, it lingers. Will he be able to carry the Lakers? It is just tougher as you get older."
How about the "why?" Why can the Lakers do it all again? FOX Bet has them at +400 (second favorite), and the bookies are in little mood to doubt James, who has been to the Finals on 10 occasions and has won four of them.
The Lakers did it last year, but last year, L.A. didn’t have the Brooklyn Nets to contend with, with their three-headed superstar collection currently barreling through the East.
Back then, there were questions, too, but they were all about the other teams and whether they could conjure enough force and form to stop James and the crew surrounding him.
Now the mirror is turned back around. The Lakers are still the Lakers, they’re still the reigning champs, but they need to answer their crucial queries to get it done this time.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider Newsletter. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.