ORLANDO, Florida – The player who could be the difference between LeBron James winning a historic title with a third team, or fail this season and never get another chance like this again is ending a career that can be described as average.
He’s 29, was cut by the Grizzlies last summer, came off the bench this season for the Lakers, and makes less team money than Luol Deng (who took a buyout and retired he three years ago).
The player in question, Avery Bradley, is also not with the Lakers at the moment, as he disabled restart for family reasons.
His absence is already being felt in just one playoff game, where the Lakers miss the two things Bradley brings: 3-point shooting and quickness to bore opposing high-scoring guards.
As it turns out, the title-vying Lakers are appalling either way right now, and that’s why they’re trailing the No.8 Portland Trail Blazers 1-0. in their first round series.
Is a programming reshuffle already coming? That would likely mean raising Kyle Kuzma from Sixth Man, if only to put a shooter to the ground with LeBron and Anthony Davis for long minutes and set the tone from the start.
“If they ask me to start, you’ve seen what I’m doing,” Kuzma said. “Try to come in and be myself, have fun, play freely.”
There is a simpler method, he conceded.
“It’s a plan and simple: we have to strike some punches. “
No doubt, the Lakers are hardly in trouble against Portland, not the best of seven. They bring in LeBron and Davis, a pair of superstars who serve as deodorant for almost every basketball scent. LeBron opened his first playoffs with the Lakers with an impressive triple-double. Davis was brilliant – at least for half – before falling back considerably as the Lakers were outnumbered by 20 when he was on the ground.
But this season for the Lakers has big ambitions that go far beyond a rejuvenated Blazers side. It’s supposed to be LeBron’s year. It was his chance to team up with the most talented great man he ever had, win a title, and bring the Lakers franchise back to life. How can they do that when the Lakers cannot do deep shots and defensively must face guards galore, starting with Lillard and potentially continuing against Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul or Jamal Murray in subsequent playoff rounds?
Or, imagine if they get killed by Lillard, are ruined by their own shooting issues, and are sent back to LA next week, contrite and confused?
It would be seismic. In addition to the grief Davis would bring to his reputation – Davis didn’t take a team anywhere special – and the missed opportunity for LeBron at 35, the ripple effect would go beyond the Lakers. They’re easily the main draw in this playoffs, and ratings could plummet along with the vibe in Los Angeles if the Lakers can’t make it in September.
Lillard is a problem. He’s on a career roll, a proud veteran and a feared goalscorer looking to boost his basketball credit by taking a scalp as big as the Lakers. He’s also hungry to win that elusive championship. Lillard’s only spot in Orlando happened when he missed free throws in the last seconds of a classification game against the LA Clippers. Since then, he has taken his game to another stratosphere.
His expandable shooting range and ability to slice through the paint for layups or find open teammates disrupt the Lakers’ defense. The Blazers also bring the carbon copy of Lillard to CJ McCollum, who is able to throw dozens of shots himself and create some for his teammates.
The problem for LA is a lack of worthy defenders for these two (and especially Lillard). This could be alleviated somewhat when Rajon Rondo returns for Game 2 following an injury… except Rondo hasn’t played any meaningful basketball since March and is nowhere near the defender he was at. the days of the Boston Celtics.
Additionally, Rondo isn’t effective at depth, which brings us to the Lakers’ other bigger issue, the inability to get teams to respect their outside shooters.
Lakers ranked last in 3-point shooting when restarting (30.3%) and are 15.6% depth after a playoff game. The defenses start to double on LeBron and Davis without fearing any price to pay for it. The Lakers were five for 32 as of Monday and their stars, LeBron and Davis, aren’t natural 3-point shooters (they got a combined 0 for 10 from depth).
If Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and many more can’t take advantage of open shots, or even create their own 3-point opportunities, when will the Lakers pay the ultimate price for this failure? Next round? The conference finals? The finals?
They haven’t looked like potential champions since before the reboot. At the time, they were arguably just downsizing their two biggest threats, the Clippers and Bucks, and arrived in Orlando feeling dashing. Yet they also came to Orlando without Bradley and it was only a matter of time before everyone noticed.
The effect of Bradley’s loss is confined to two areas, which are the Lakers’ two weak spots. Therefore, its absence is magnified beyond its real value. Bradley was a reasonably decent 3-point shooter (36.4% this season) and gave the Lakers another option in case any of their other shooters got cold.
A two-time former All-Defensive squad, Bradley has a long-standing reputation for defense. With LeBron unable to stick to smaller, faster guards and Rondo arriving in this rusty streak, Bradley was a favorite option whenever the Lakers saw Lillard types.
In addition to changing the role of Kuzma, Lakers coach Frank Vogel will now seek reinforcements. That likely means more playing time for JR Smith and Dion Waiters, a pair of late-season pickups that weren’t in demand.
“In any series with any team, that’s something I’m going to consider and assess,” said Vogel.
Yes, just days into the playoffs everything is already set for the Lakers, who cannot allow the Blazers’ confidence to spread much more.
“It’s a game,” said Vogel. “We are very confident with our group. We didn’t (just) take any pictures, you know what I mean? I think we can shoot better than we did.
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