The Los Angeles Lakers will be hungry for a championship repeat, but how wide open is their championship window in a resurgent Western Conference?
The Lakers should bask in this title. The road to this one through the Bubble, the death of Kobe Bryant, and playing through extraordinary national turmoil challenged them more than nearly any champion the NBA has ever had, even if the competition they actually faced was not top-tier. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and every other player on this roster thoroughly earned their title.
That said, after James missed the playoffs for the first time in years as a first-year Laker, the team’s luck was reversed in 2020 and they caught the Western Conference in a weird spot. After five straight NBA Finals appearances, the Warriors now sit at No. 2 in the lottery, having finally been bitten by the injury bug. Many young squads are on the verge of the breakthrough but didn’t quite get there in 2020, so the bottom of the conference was quite weak. In 2021, though, the Lakers’ pathway to a championship could be even more difficult.
Davis puzzlingly said he had “no idea” what he would do in free agency even in the afterglow of a title, but let’s assume he re-signs for at least one season, which would align with what could be the final season of James’ deal. That leaves the Lakers with likely the best top-two in the NBA, but their depth could be challenged in free agency.
If we imagine how long the Lakers’ championship window will be, it all comes down to Davis. This summer, the makings of a Davis-led Laker team was already in full view. James does not look like he will lose his brilliance any time soon, even if his body becomes less overpowering over the next half-decade. Keeping Davis and continuing to build around his versatile, do-it-all skill set will give the Lakers their best shot to repeat but also their best shot at prolonging this window.
With his unprecedented ability to cover ground and stay impactful as a big man in the modern spread NBA and the fact that he is close to unguardable so long as he continues to improve as a passer, Davis will be a top-five player for a long time. There’s no reason the Lakers can’t keep him, and that’s the main factor for anyone looking for Lakers’ optimism this decade.
Still, winning will get harder right away. They first will need to address their own roster. Aside from Davis, who can opt-out of his $29 million for next season if he so chooses, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley, three core perimeter contributors, could opt-out. Retaining them on reasonable salaries will be vital for the Lakers to maintain the brilliant chemistry and overwhelming defensive identity that helped them capture a title. Los Angeles will not have much wiggle room to replace them if they opt-out. However, the Lakers have a real shot at repeating in 2021 and that could be enough for some of these guys to stick around rather than testing the market for a big payday, especially with this year’s market in flux as a result of the economic recession.
On the interior, McGee is likely to return but the Lakers will have to re-evaluate their priorities when it comes to Dwight Howard, who could levy his nice playoff run into a raise. Either way, center is quite a replaceable position these days, especially when Davis is an ace in the hole when they size down.
Who could challenge the Lakers in the Western Conference next year?
Assuming the Lakers have a relatively stable group heading into 2021, they will likely start the season as the favorites and a strong candidate to defend their crown and repeat as champs. But alongside them out West, the Warriors and Clippers have to be considered among that top group as well.
Predicting the next 12 months for Golden State is difficult. With the No. 2 overall pick, a huge trade exception about to expire and the sizable contract of Andrew Wiggins at their disposal, it’s likely they continue to upgrade around their Big Three and make a playoff run in 2021. Some seem to have concerns about Draymond Green and how he’ll hold up physically over the next few years, but he repeatedly has been at his best in the postseason and I’m not ready to count him out yet. Though it’s been a while since we saw them, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are still the most difficult backcourt to guard in the NBA. The Warriors’ infrastructure has earned the benefit of the doubt.
The Clippers will hope that reshuffling the roster and finding a new head coach will make 2021 different than 2020. With star power that can match the Lakers and Warriors, it’s hard to argue with that logic. Yet the Clippers also have to level with themselves and determine just how deep the problems go. Can they be dominant if their best player continues to rest for a third of every regular season? Do they have the pieces to play the type of isolation offense that Kawhi Leonard prefers? Who besides Leonard and Paul George are consistently great team defenders that can get stops deep in the playoffs? I’d put the Clippers behind the Lakers and Warriors heading into next year, but that’s a fearsome top three.
It won’t challenge the Lakers should they capture a top seed again in 2021, but the bottom of the conference figures to be solid as well. There will likely be nobody outright tanking in the West, which hasn’t been the case in years. The Suns, Pelicans and Timberwolves should all be better. That will make the regular season more of a grind for everyone in the conference.
Of course, what can’t be forgotten about this year’s NBA postseason is the failure of Milwaukee. There is no Cinderella Heat if the Bucks take care of business the way they should have. If Milwaukee replaces Eric Bledsoe with a more competent playoff play-maker and Giannis Antetokounmpo comes back even better, the Bucks would represent a truly tough Finals opponent for whoever comes out of the West. The same would be true if the Kevin Durant/Kyrie Irving Nets make good on their promise or if the young Celtics and Sixers break out.
Again, nothing can be taken away from these Lakers. But playing Portland, Houston, Utah and Miami en route to a championship was certainly not the expectation when this season began. Imagine a path that includes Luka Doncic’s Mavericks and the Clippers and the Bucks next year. Much will change between now and then, but it’s hard to imagine things breaking as well next year for Los Angeles as it did in 2020.
What should give Lakers fans the most excitement is the identity this group has formed. The reason they played just 21 games this postseason is that other teams encountered these Lakers and had nothing to fall back on. This is not a team of incredible shooting, outrageous athleticism and size, or even all that much depth. Instead, it was a team that had seven or eight guys who developed awesome chemistry, played gutsy and relentless defense, and knew how to empower its two stars.
That stuff will remain intact no matter what comes of 2021. The situation around them will not be so amenable to a title as it was this summer, but that identity will be hard for anyone to overcome. Nobody outside of perhaps Denver and Milwaukee will head into next season with the benefit of continuity and know-how the way these Lakers will.
Trying to count out how many more years James will perform at a superstar level is a fool’s errand, but Davis should be great for many more seasons. Those two clearly love to play together and should stay in Los Angeles for a while. It may not quite be the wide-open “not three, not four, not five” window James imagined in Miami, but still, the Lakers are set up to defend their title in 2021 and for several years after.