The Golden State Warriors are the hottest team in the NBA, as they are currently riding a three-game winning streak, which I’m fairly certain no other team has done all season long.
Today we’re eschewing the traditional preview, and instead checking in on the Warriors opponent, the Los Angeles Lakers.
You know all about the Lakers: they have LeBron James, they’re the defending champions, Anthony Davis is hurt, and the Warriors beat them earlier this year. But to tell you even more about the team that every Dubs fan loves to hate, I sat down with my colleague Harrison Faigen, known affectionately at SB Nation as the “Spike Lee of the Lakers.”
In addition to carrying three vials of Lakers exceptionalism in every brightly-colored Lakers outfit, Harrison is the guy in charge at our Lakers sister site, Silver Screen and Roll.
So I picked his brain to see how the Lakers are doing ahead of tonight’s matchup, which takes place at 5:00 p.m. PT on ESPN.
Q: The Lakers have been good, but not dominant. Are they saving a gear for the playoffs, or is there growth needed if they want to repeat?
Harrison: I think it’s definitely fair to say that the Lakers are saving something for the playoffs, but maybe not in the way most would associate with defending champs. This team was actually pretty much beating all comers earlier in the season despite appearing to only try for about 18 minutes or so each game, and despite their recent struggles and much panic about their “lack of a rim protector” have still — as of this writing — posted the best defensive efficiency in the league.
That said, I think it’s also fair to say they have a little bit of room to grow, too, and that whatever issues they’ve had haven’t been solely attributable to effort or injuries. They’ve been the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA for half the season at this point, and their overall offense ranks in the bottom half of the league. Some of that will get better in the playoffs. They went into last year’s postseason shooting the second-worst percentage from deep in the league over their last 15 games, so they run hot and cold, and when LeBron James and Anthony Davis kick things up a level and start creating even more open shots — and the coaching staff gets to specifically game plan for each opponent more than the more vanilla strategies they’ve stuck to at this point — things will be better.
How much better will depend on health, and if they can find some ways to get this roster to fit a bit better than it has so far. The talent is there to repeat, but weirdly for a team featuring LeBron, they have some offensive stuff to figure out.
Q: How have the Lakers looked in Anthony Davis’ absence?
Harrison: Bad. Sorry, did you want more than that? (Editor’s note: honestly, no. We can happily just leave it at ‘the Lakers are bad.’)
In all seriousness, Davis’ value has been on full display while he’s out. For all the talk of the Lakers being better by the advanced numbers when he sat than when he played last season, his absence has shown that the eye test is more accurate in showing what he gives this team.
It’s not just Davis’ defense, though. Without him and Dennis Schröder, the Lakers were at a severe shot-creation deficit. During the bubble, Davis showed that he can be one of the most lethal isolation scorers in the league, tall enough to shoot over smaller players like folding chairs, and quick enough to beat traditional bigs off the dribble with ease. They’ll need that guy back if they want to go anywhere this year (duh), and that’s why they’ll surely continue to take it slow as he recovers from his Achilles and calf injuries.
Q: How do you think a playoff matchup between these two teams would play out?
Harrison: Presuming both sides are healthy? Lakers in five. Stephen Curry is dangerous enough to win the Warriors one game (Editor’s note: Harrison struggles with counting, I’m pretty sure he meant ‘four’) and Draymond Green will figure out some shenanigans to throw the Lakers off their game at times, but this team is a juggernaut when they’re firing on all cylinders, and I’m just not sure that the Warriors have enough guys to slow them down. I know the Warriors have been better than expected defensively, but I just have faith that the Lakers will find personnel-related holes to poke, and they have enough guys to pester Steph to at least make the game challenging on him, even if he averages 30.
Q: Should LeBron James be considered the frontrunner for MVP?
Harrison: My answer would have been “yes” had you asked me this at the time of the first Lakers/Warriors matchup, but right now I’d definitely say no. This stretch without Davis and Schröder, fair or not, is going to be used as a blight on his resume at the end of the season, and with how poorly the Lakers have played for the last 10 games or so overall, I’d imagine Joel Embiid (at the very least) has passed him for now.
Does that mean I don’t think LeBron can win? Absolutely not. His production has (mostly) been great this season on balance, and if he continues apace he’ll have the box score stats necessary to be in the conversation. The Lakers will probably have to bump up in the seeding if he really wants to win, but I do think that if those things are in place, there does seem to be a pretty good chunk of the media that wanted to preemptively declare him MVP this year because of the narrative about him not winning the last several, and especially after how the postseason went last year for him and Giannis Antetokounmpo. LeBron knew who his real audience was when he spoke about how annoyed he was that so few media voted for him, I’ll tell you that much.
If the Lakers don’t get it together that won’t be enough, but I do think there is a desire from some voters to appreciate him on the way out, judging by a lot of the public takes I saw from the insiders that vote on this stuff.
Q: Should the NBA be doing more to create competitive balance, or are you at peace with the idea that you’ll never be able to stack up to a large market behemoth like the Utah Jazz?
Harrison: It’s gonna be tough. The small, mom-and-pop shop Lakers were picked against and overlooked at every turn last year. Charles Barkley guaranteed they’d lose in the first round. Multiple experts thought the Rockets would beat them in the second. The trend continued in the Western Conference Finals, but the plucky underdog Lakers persisted again. After their recent loss to the juggernaut Jazz, people are ruling them out again at their own peril. Nevertheless, #WeBelieve
(Editor’s note: this section was never cleared with me and I invite you to shame Harrison relentlessly in the comment section)
Q: Who do you have winning this matchup?
Harrison: As you noted in our Slack chat, it would be peak SB Nation for us to drop 1,000 words on these two teams and not actually preview the game. In the interest of full disclosure, I initially picked the Warriors to win this game, citing the Lakers’ recent lackluster play and lethargy without Anthony Davis and Dennis Schröder. Then… Well, then Friday’s night’s dominant win over the Blazers happened in Schröder’s return to the lineup, and while I expected the Lakers to look better with him back, I didn’t expect how much better. So go ahead, get your “bandwagon Lakers fan” jokes off, but I’m flipping my pick, and going with the Lakers in this one. The Warriors’ little win streak has to end at some point, right? (Editor’s note: Technically, no. It doesn’t.)
Many thanks to Harrison for filling us all in how those lovable underdogs from the smallest market in the NBA are doing. If you want to stay up with the Lakers during the game, or just find a second platform on which to harass him for posting that graphic, be sure to give him a follow (@hmfaigen).
And for those of you looking for my pregame keys to victory, you can find them on our Twitter before tipoff.