5x5 NBA Season Preview: Pacific Division

Five teams, five questions. Can all five teams from the Pacific seriously make the playoffs?

The NBA season is quickly enclosing us. After two strange and unprecedented seasons, this summer provided anything but relaxation. No, star players like Damian Lillard and Ben Simmons became engulfed in trade rumors, several teams shook up their coaching staffs, player movement was furious in free agency and the Eastern Conference took several steps forward towards being better than the last several years.

Now, it’s time to look backward at what has happened to inform what might happen moving forward. We’ll tackle each team through the lens of the five most important questions they face this year. Some questions are about timeline and process, while others ponder the fit of the roster. At the very least, this serves as a great launching pad into the 2021-22 NBA season.

Our last stop in the Western Conference is with the deepest division in that league. The Pacific features four legitimate title contenders with the Lakers, Clippers, Warriors and Suns. The Kings are no slouch, with a dynamic offense and plenty of young talent. Will the Lakers be dominant with Russ? Can the Warriors bounce back to elite status? Are the Clippers done thanks to the Kawhi injury? Can the Suns repeat their magic from last year? There’s plenty to investigate out on the best coast.

Sacramento Kings

Head coach: Luke Walton, 3rd year (62-82 record)
2020-21 Record: 31-41
Vegas Line: 36.5 wins
Our Projection: 32-50, 13th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 16th
Def. Rating: 30th

Last year’s Sacramento Kings were a bit of an outlier on both ends of the floor. On one side, their offensive potency showed incredible forethought in terms of roster construction and thorough playbooks, showing the aptitude of head coach Luke Walton on offense. They got some great performances from under-the-radar guys like De’Aaron Fox (a legitimate All-Star who doesn’t get his due), Buddy Hield (one of the greatest shooters of all-time based on the resume) and Harrison Barnes (a ho-hum 16.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists on almost a 50-40-80 season).

The other end of the floor was an absolute trainwreck. The Kings set NBA futility records for their defensive ratings, made even worse by the fact their gameplans appeared nonexistent and the effort on that end was abysmal. Drafting rookie Davion Mitchell, affectionately nicknamed “off night”, should help inch the defense in the right direction. But the meat and potatoes of the roster returns without much adjustment, and pinning the hopes on resurrecting an all-time bad defense on a rookie who is behind Fox and Tyrese Haliburton on the depth chart isn’t a great proposition.

  1. Does Walton make it through the season?

The odds-on favorite to be the first head coach relieved of his duties, Walton is skating on thin ice. His offensive playbook and acumen is on a high level, but the defense brings that down. It isn’t just the on-court performance that has brought Walton under fire. His interpersonal skills have publicly come up short, including issues with Marvin Bagley III and Buddy Hield, both of whom are open to playing elsewhere.

We’re always pretty patient with coaches and don’t advocate for many to be removed from their position — and we aren’t advocating for that here. It just seems like the internal and external pressures are mounting to the point where the only saving grace would be a great deal of success to plow through the West and get into the playoffs. The first moment that is out of the realm of possibility or seems threatened by Walton’s presence, we do expect to see him relieved.

  1. How do the minutes balance between Fox, Haliburton, Hield and Mitchell?

Two parts of this equation are very clear. First, De’Aaron Fox is the team’s best player and deserves to play upwards of 34 minutes a night. Second, there is no way the Kings can play all four alongside each other.

How Walton constructs rotations 1 thru 3 is going to be a challenge. To us, Fox, Haliburton and Hield start at those spots, with Mitchell filling in when either Fox or Haliburton sit. The best version of the Kings have two of them on the floor at all times and three in closing moments. An offense-for-defense substitution pattern late in games between Hield and Mitchell wouldn’t shock us, either.

  1. Does Marvin Bagley finish the year with the Kings?

Luke Walton isn’t the only member of this roster on the fritz. Bagley (through his father on social media) has been fairly vocal about his desire for a fresh start. The former 2nd overall pick is a talented scorer for a big; he’s a solid shooter and has three consecutive years averaging 14 and 7.

But Bagley consistently falls short defensively. He’s not quick or agile enough to guard the 4 and has little discipline or physicality to do what’s asked at the 5. Perhaps it’s time he gets a new spot, and if the Kings know he’s on his way out of town and won’t be a good fit long-term, it would be in everyone’s best interest if he gets dealt before the trade deadline passes.

  1. How can the defense climb out of the NBA’s basement?

A defensive rating of 117.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s… not good. We’re growth-oriented here at The Box and One, so let’s try to figure out how the Kings get out of being the defensive doormat.

First step is organization and commitment, top to bottom, to find and stick to a strategy that they can use night in and out. With Richaun Holmes at the 5 and a smaller lineup 1 thru 3, we think an aggressive amount of perimeter pressure with ice coverage on the sidelines and drop in the middle-third of the floor are consistent ways to get the Kings to stop ball screens.

Step two is knowing what not to do: switch. Switching seems a bit complex to us right now, with far too many weak links waiting to get exposed and far too many lineup equations that change the positions they’d switch across. Let’s play it simple and avoid the grey area… the Kings need an identity.

Lastly, let’s talk about pressure. Perimeter pressure will help cover up some of their flaws, and with Mitchell in the equation, the Kings now have a premier athlete who can pick up and pester the ball far from the hoop. The Kings were 19th in turnover rate in the half-court last year; an increase of that number alone should loft the defensive unit at least higher per 100 possessions to cut into that number.

You could point to any area on defense and say the Kings need to be better. Finishing possessions was a major flaw for them last year, a putrid defensive rebounding team. That’s the danger of playing small, and with the Kings drafting another point guard who they expect to play right away, it’s hard to envision the rebounding changing.

  1. Is this the year Fox makes an All-Star team?

The Western Conference is chocked full of great guards. Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Devin Booker, Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Donovan Mitchell… it’s really hard to cut through that group and prove your worth. As a small market point guard, Fox doesn’t have the large fan base or league-wide popularity to swing his vote in with that collection of All-Stars.

That doesn’t mean Fox isn’t deserving. Last year he averaged 25 points and 7 assists while jumping up to 32.2% from 3 on more than five attempts a night. That shooting increase not only popped his scoring numbers but eliminated one of the biggest shortcomings in his game. Another gradual climb in effectiveness there would make it pretty damn hard to deny him an All-Star nod.

Los Angeles Clippers

Head coach: Tyronn Lue, 2nd year (47-25 record)
2020-21 Record: 47-25
Vegas Line: 45.5 wins
Our Projection: 43-39, 7th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 21st
Def. Rating: 14th

Everybody seems to be writing the Clippers off when it comes to title contention. The Kawhi Leonard injury is a real backbreaker. Perhaps that’s overlooking a team that made the Western Conference Finals before, a coach in Ty Lue who has never failed to make the conference finals as a head coach, or a superstar in Paul George who once dragged the Indiana Pacers to back-to-back conference Finals without a co-star.

The Clippers are one of the more confusing teams out there, though. They’ve assembled a great deal of veteran depth, possess the same role players that would resemble a title contender and have enough pieces and mid-tier contracts to even swing a trade for another star. They’ve also made a conscious effort to acquire some young, long-term threats this summer who could take advantage of some minutes if the Clippers are out of the title picture. Quite frankly, there seems to be too much overall talent to get out of the playoff race but not enough to win a series. For one year, while Kawhi Leonard gets healthy after tearing his ACL, that isn’t the worst spot to be in.

  1. Is Reggie Jackson’s postseason play sustainable long-term?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…

We’ve seen contract year Reggie Jackson before. We were suckers for that level of production before. Now, in Los Angeles with a huge opportunity for a scoring guard to step up, Jackson has clear runway to take off following a great 2021 Playoffs. He averaged 17.4 points, 3.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds while making 40.8% of his treys on 7.5 attempts per game.

Somehow, Jackson is already 31. He still feels younger, but the version of him we saw in the postseason is the version the Clippers will need this year. Ty Lue seems to understand how to utilize Jackson best and let him be him. That should mesh well enough with this version of the Clippers to at least average 15 points a game.

  1. Does Paul George go supernova and push himself into the MVP race?

Now entering his twelfth season, PG-13 still seems a bit underrated from a career standpoint. A seven-time All-Star, George has averaged almost 24-7-4-2 over the last six seasons while shooting 39% from 3. The last two in Los Angeles have resulted in consecutive seasons sniping 40% beyond the arc, and last year’s total of 5.2 assists per game was a career high.

George finished third in MVP voting back in 2018-19 with Oklahoma City. This is the first time since then that he’ll be the pure focal point of an offense. If the Clippers remain in contention and a solid playoff team out West, it will be in large part due to Paul’s heroics. Somehow, someway, we continually underestimate how good he is — on both ends of the floor.

  1. Who is the next Clipper to experience a veteran rebirth?

The phenomenon with Reggie Jackson over the last year isn’t an isolated incident. Nic Batum went from veteran minimum outcast with little external expectations to starter on a Western Conference finalist.

Two such candidates stand out as potential revivalists. One is Eric Bledsoe, the former Clipper who returns after being shipped all around the league. His athleticism is starting to wane, and the inability to shoot from deep or reliably create for others has made him a poor fit both in Milwaukee and New Orleans. Turning him into a good spot-up shooter or surrounding him with shooters (both viable options for the Clippers) could rehabilitate his image around the league.

The other is Justise Winslow, a tough guy to bet on at this point. Winslow was once thought of as a hyper-impressive defender, a stat-sheet stuffer on offense who wasn’t a great shooter but always did a great job making plays for others. Injuries robbed Winslow of his tenure with the Heat, and similarly brought him to the outskirts of the rotation in Memphis. Winslow turned himself into a workable shooter with the Heat: 37.7% on three attempts per game from 2017-2019. Since then, it’s been all downhill: 19.8% shooting from deep, 36.6% from the field overall and horrid mechanics on his jumper.

If Lue can work his magic to resurrect one of the two, the Clippers will either have a solid trade asset or the piece that rounds out their rotation to keep them in the playoff chase. If we had to pick one guy, our money would be on Bledsoe.

  1. How does Serge Ibaka slot into the fold?

When healthy, Ibaka can still be an impactful player. The combination of rim protection, mobility on defense and pick & pop impact (51.1% on pick & pop jumpers last year) makes him a guy the Clippers must have in the rotation. There are limitations for starting big Ivica Zubac, and Ibaka’s presence gives Lue another late-game option to call upon.

Ibaka is coming off a serious back injury, and that’s a pretty scary ailment for an aging big. Reports out of camp are hopeful he’ll rejoin the fold not too far into the season. If Serge can be an impressive rotation piece once again, it will be a huge boon for the organization.

  1. With all these veterans, how much priority do the coaches give to developing young players on an NBA court?

The Clips built their roster to win now. Flanking Kawhi and Paul George are Marcus Morris, Batum, Jackson, Ibaka, Bledsoe and dependable role players Luke Kennard and Ivica Zubac. Even without Kawhi, that’s an eight-man rotation of guys who are ready to help now. That doesn’t include Justise Winslow, either!

The Clippers also have an intriguing slew of young talent on the roster, most of which they’ve acquired this year. Terance Mann had a strong emergence in the postseason and stands to be the one long-term player to gain the most from Leonard’s absence. After Kawhi got hurt, Mann was on a roll: in eight games, he averaged 12.8 points while shooting 44.8% from 3. That shooting ability makes him an ideal pair next to Paul George if he can keep that momentum up.

Los Angeles also took three rookies this year to invest in. Perhaps that was a way to cheaply fill out the roster, or it was a way to take this season as a trial period where they’d play these young guys enough to see if they can contribute next year with Leonard back. Either way, the Clippers are already down to two rookies, as point guard Jason Preston will miss significant time due to a foot injury.

Keon Johnson, whom the Clippers traded up to acquire, was a top-ten player on our board. We recognize how raw Johnson is and how he needs to improve from 3-point range. If there are NBA minutes to be had for a youngster, they should go to him, and the amount of 3-point shooters and veterans to carry him in those minutes is ideal. The other guy, second round pick BJ Boston, has a ton of long-term upside but needs plenty of G-League seasoning.

Phoenix Suns

Head coach: Monty Williams, 3rd year (85-60 record)
2020-21 Record: 51-21
Vegas Line: 51.5 wins
Our Projection: 50-32, 5th in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 5th
Def. Rating: 8th

What a run last year’s trip to the NBA Finals was for the Phoenix Suns. Everyone knew they were on the precipice of a major improvement after their impressive showing in the Disney Bubble. A 50-win season and trip to the NBA Finals? Nobody really saw that coming, right?

Now, the bar is lofty for the Suns, a team built so smartly top to bottom. Chris Paul and Devin Booker win games with their one-two punch and ability to make the shots defenses give them in the mid-range. DeAndre Ayton is peaking at the right time and could be in store for a monster season. Mikal Bridges, Jae Crowder, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne are the perfect role players for this team and can all play together.

  1. How much of their NBA Finals run was luck?

On some level, there’s the reality that injuries helped pave the path for them to ascend atop the West. LeBron’s Lakers and Steph’s Warriors limped through the regular season and couldn’t muster enough come playoff time. The Clippers’ best player tore his ACL just before the Western Conference Finals. Jamal Murray of the Nuggets was dispatched with the same injury. That makes the Suns a little tricky to peg. They’ll still be fantastic and win a lot of games, but are they actually better than so many of the great teams in the West?

Not to be facetious, but who cares? Never apologize for a result, and if the Nuggets and Clippers are going to be limited in 2022 by those aforementioned injuries, that doesn’t invalidate the Suns being one of the top teams in the West.

Here’s where the rubber meets the road: the Suns aren’t going to sneak up on anybody. They’re the perfectly constructed roster to win in ways that other teams dare them to — mid-range jumpers, namely. But what happens when they aren’t dared to as much? Are they still the superior team? We’re really fascinated to see (in the playoffs) how many teams comfortably sit back in Drop coverage and bank on CP3 and Booker not making enough mid-ranges to win.

  1. Do we get a full season of playoff Ayton?

The big man came out of his shell in the postseason, averaging 15.8 points, 11.8 boards and 1.1 blocks while shooting 65.8% from the field. If he does that again, as a double-double machine and one of the league leaders in rebounds while making two of every three shots, he’ll be a force.

Of course, Ayton, who needed a full 36 minutes to achieve those stats, will likely have his minutes trimmed slightly throughout the regular season. Expecting 15 and 10 is reasonable, and incredibly solid production.

But how good and irreplaceable is that production really? Andre Drummond averaged 17.7 points, 15.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks just two years ago; now he’s a backup for the Philadelphia 76ers. Perhaps the right question to ask isn’t “will we get playoff Ayton”, but “how good actually is playoff Ayton?” The narrative may have gotten a bit out of control.

This leads us to…

  1. How do the Suns and Ayton proceed contractually?

Surprisingly to some, the two sides have yet to come to terms on an extension as of this writing. Ayton, who was one of the darlings of the postseason, was still third fiddle behind Paul and Booker on the offensive end. Defensively, he’s progressed towards becoming a top-15 rim protector, but has less value in a vacuum within the modern NBA than a guy like Mikal Bridges.

As such, we aren’t necessarily surprised that Ayton has been seen as a little less than a max guy by James Jones and the front office. Most first instincts are to overpay a guy after a championship run, but Jones isn’t taking the bait. As the team’s architect, he’s cautious about the longevity of a team sinking a great deal of money into Chris Paul. Most teams who overpay for mundane or slightly better-than-average production at the 5 regret those choices later.

At this point in time, Ayton is no better than seventh or eighth among centers in terms of value. Embiid, Jokic, Gobert, Towns, and Adebayo are a pretty clear-cut top five. Guys like Nikola Vucevic and Domantas Sabonis are wildly different, while a guy like Anthony Davis could easily be considered a center. The point being: it’s not difficult to justify the take that Ayton is closer in production to a Jarrett Allen, Clint Capela or Myles Turner than he is a Towns or Adebayo. A max contract shouldn’t be a shoo-in. Yet here we are, after a fantastic NBA playoffs and darling run up the West, where all the momentum points in that direction.

We’ll see if the Suns play hardball or capitulate and try to avoid the distinct possibility of letting Ayton walk.

  1. How much do the Suns miss Dario Saric?

One of the most underrated players on the Phoenix run last year, Saric will likely miss the entire season with a torn Achilles. The Suns went out and signed veteran JaVale McGee to a contract this summer, and JaVale will come in and likely be the top backup, a role he’s well-equipped for. Even second-year pro Jalen Smith could be more of a factor now that he’s better adjusted to NBA speed and physicality. Smith, a stretch-5 by definition, was a guy we were super high on only a year ago.

Smith and McGee are like ying and yang, two separate pieces to the same puzzle. Saric, with his perimeter offense and understanding of angles on D, was the right balance between the two. Now, it’ll be on coach Monty Williams to push the right buttons and feel out the backup big man spots.

Of course, all that depends on McGee actually fitting into the framework and buying his role in Phoenix. Likewise, Smith has to actually progress to do what he’s capable of on an NBA court, not just in preseason or Summer League. Saric will be one of the most unheralded absences around the league, and one that has a big impact on the Suns’ depth.

  1. Does Chris Paul eventually start to slow down?

With a mind as sharp as Paul’s and the ability to out-competitor anyone around him, it’s straight up dumb to bet against CP3. Now 36, he was only a few buckets away from a 50-40-90 effort last year, a fact seldom seen for someone at that age or on that high of volume. Add to it the fact he had nine assists a night and he seems to get better with age.

Still, there will come a day when one of the greatest point guards of all time starts to slow down. When that day arrives, it seems likely he’ll be a member of the Phoenix Suns, as he’s under contract until 2024-25, when he’d be 39 years old. Like the sun, at some point he’ll fizzle out, explode and the ecosystem around him will cease to exist. There’s a tense waiting game at play, where the Suns are simply crossing their fingers and hoping this process is delayed as much as possible.

So are we…

Golden State Warriors

Head coach: Steve Kerr, 8th year (376-171 record)
2020-21 Record: 39-33
Vegas Line: 48.5 wins
Our Projection: 51-31, 3rd in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 8th
Def. Rating: 5th

What a strange two years it’s been.

Since Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson both went down with debilitating injuries in the 2019 NBA Finals, a lot has changed. Durant left for Brooklyn, sending D’Angelo Russell to Golden State for a short period. Russell was flipped for Andrew Wiggins, who has quietly revitalized himself with the Warriors. A small scrap of young role players emerged from two years of shortcomings, but the main fruit of their labors of futility: three young lottery talents in James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody.

The Warriors are walking a highwire on a delicate balancing act, trying to simultaneously develop those youngsters into the stars they can become while fighting to keep open the title window while future Hall of Famers Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson are still in their primes. That’s a tall task for any coach or organization, but we’re optimistic these Warriors can feel their way through it.

  1. What the hell should anyone expect out of Klay Thompson?

First off, the when: as of now, Klay seems to be on track to return to game action sometime around the holidays. Those dates cannot come soon enough for a Warriors team somewhat starved of offense outside of Curry. A torn ACL and a torn Achilles derailed Thompson while he was playing the best basketball of his career. Now at 31 (and turning 32 during the season), he’s attempting to regain that form after two years off.

The bar for Thompson’s return shouldn’t be overly ambitious, but these are the Warriors we’re talking about. The moment he steps on the court, championship expectations will arise both internally and externally. As a movement shooter, the strength and trust in his lower half is vital. Klay has never been a player overly dependent on his athleticism, so a little less speed doesn’t necessarily alter his impact.

What continually surprises me is how big the Warriors went with their offseason acquisitions. Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter, Nemanja Bjelicia on top of a roster already featuring the likes of Wiggins, Draymond and Juan Toscano-Anderson. If Klay’s quickness is zapped even by a half step, wouldn’t it make sense to load up a bit more on some smaller guards or wings so that Thompson can bump up to the 3?

Wiggins is athletic enough to guard the 2, and it all comes out in the wash within Golden State’s switching scheme. Still, the contingency plan if Klay doesn’t move the way he used to lies squarely on the shoulders of Jordan Poole.

  1. How much do we trust Jordan Poole?

In his second pro season, Poole averaged 22.3 points per 36 minutes, showing off the sniper and confident pull-up qualities that caused the Dubs to draft him out of Michigan. But Poole’s success was a byproduct of constant improvement throughout the year. By the end of the year, he was the team’s clear-cut third option. The final nine games of the 2020-21 season saw him average 17.8 points on 49% shooting.

Poole adds very little value other than through his scoring. While Thompson is out, that’s wildly influential, giving the Warriors a third offensive option next to Curry and Wiggins, while the shooting ability lets Draymond run the offense in a way he likes. Long-term, once Klay is back, Poole’s ability to score is vital when Curry rests. Kerr will want to keep Steph and Draymond together as much as possible. In order to justify loading up those minutes, he’ll need confidence in Poole to run the second unit.

A trendy pick for Sixth Man of the Year, we aren’t quite that high on Poole. But he’ll get his moment to carry the offense when Steph sits, and that’s really important for this group.

  1. Do we get a sophomore surge out of James Wiseman?

By all accounts out of Warriors training camp, Wiseman looks phenomenal. His natural talent has never been a worry, and bigs always take a long time to adjust to the rigors of NBA basketball. Instead, the timeline between Wiseman’s ascent and the need for instant impact of the current Warriors group has lead to unrealistic expectations for Wiseman to live up to.

The question isn’t if, but when Wiseman figures the game out. A young second-year player with only 50 games above the high school level under his belt, it’s not a high possibility that he moves into the starting lineup. Second unit minutes should regularly be his, perhaps supplanting Kevon Looney for some burn with the first group. The nice part about the way the Warriors have constructed their frontcourt is that Wiseman isn’t needed for the Warriors to succeed. Looney can log 18-24 minutes on a great team while Green plays the crunch time minutes. What he gives is gravy this year, but there’s need to develop him now so that he improves by the time he is needed.

  1. What’s the plan for Jonathan Kuminga?

The Warriors can’t simply hand their bench minutes to all the youngsters, right?

If Wiseman is ahead in the pecking order and Moses Moody is more of the position type to blend in easier, that leaves seventh pick Jonathan Kuminga as the odd man out. We could see a good amount of Kuminga in the G-League, where he’d likely dominate — it’s the level of competition he went up against last year and was pretty damn good.

This year, Kuminga is caught in a tough spot. The roadblocks to minutes ahead of him aren’t ideal, but he’s likely too good to get pushed with lots of G-League time. Of all the rookies in this class, Kuminga is the one who is most fascinating to me, both in terms of figuring out his ceiling and how he gets close to reach there.

  1. How much longer will Steph and Dray be in their primes?

Curry is a legitimate MVP candidate annually. The amount of volume he can withstand offensively is miraculous, especially considering the range he shoots from. Green is a similarly impressive defender; he brought the Warriors to a top-five defense last year all by himself.

Both players have logged plenty of minutes in their careers. Curry will be 34, Green 32 and Klay 32 by the end of the season. It’s getting close to that time where these guys start to slow down a bit.

The short-term ceiling is indelibly tied to the heights Curry and Green (and Klay) can produce at. Wiggins is the supporting cast member who has a steady hand but provides enough youth and juice to let them rest their legs, and the future is in place with Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody. The short term is the goal with this caliber of a group, and we’re betting on this year being a reminder to the entire league just what Curry and Green can be when at their best.

Los Angeles Lakers

Head coach: Frank Vogel, 3rd year (94-49 record)
2020-21 Record: 42-30
Vegas Line: 52.5 wins
Our Projection: 59-23, 1st in Western Conference
Off. Rating: 14th
Def. Rating: 2nd

The Russell Westbrook hot potato sweepstakes have shuffled him off the Los Angeles, where he joins the talented duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The trio of veterans are so explosive that the mere notion of betting against the Lakers seems foolish, no matter what the logistical fit of the roster becomes. Without a doubt, Westbrook is here to ease the playmaking burden on LeBron during the regular season, allowing him to rest a little more in preparation for a deep playoff run.

Surrounding the trio is a talented roster. There are the veterans — Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, DeAndre Jordan, Rajon Rondo and Kent Bazemore — who are all prime role players at this point in their career. There’s the young guys with goals of proving themselves on a contender: Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn. Together, they give the Lakers ten guys to choose from to flank their Big Three. What a deep team that, at the end of the day, has to gel together quickly to make a run for an NBA Title.

  1. Where does spacing come from in the half-court?

In transition, look out. Westbrook is a heat-seeking missile, LeBron is one of the greatest open floor players of all time and Anthony Davis is among the more mobile big men in the league. For such a strong defensive unit, the rebound-and-run, as well as hit-ahead potential with these three, makes them a juggernaut in transition.

The half-court is where the questions come in. Westbrook has become Mr. Pull-Up, a shot nobody in the league seems bothered by him taking. His lack of 3-point shooting, and reluctance to play an off-ball role through his career, will place LeBron in a unique position. The Lakers have to figure out how to manufacture spacing when LeBron has the ball. That’s especially true whenever the Lakers play with a legitimate 5-man like Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan.

Part of this is on Frank Vogel to figure out. Movement and playbook-designed screening naturally creates spacing by occupying the help defense. He also must balance rotations in a way that keeps a couple of shooters on the floor. Wayne Ellington and Malik Monk are prime candidates to start. The Lakers can generate an offense simply on their ability to overpower folks at the rim. They’re best served making sure the floor spacing is always present.

  1. Is this the year Davis embraces playing the 5?

A season ago, DeAndre Jordan was benched within the Brooklyn Nets rotation and couldn’t see the floor in the postseason. Dwight Howard, a backup to Joel Embiid, hasn’t played more than 25 minutes a game since 2018. There aren’t really any options at center on this roster to be effective 5-men if Davis refuses to jump into his destiny.

Lineups with AD at the 5 have always been successful, and the Lake Show went to them during the 2020 NBA Finals to clinch games. Despite that success, Davis spent a career-low 10% of his minutes at the 5 in 2021, according to basketball-reference. The counterintuitive nature of limiting where he’s most successful has always been a head-scratcher, and a narrative driven by AD’s reluctance to be more an interior defender.

If the Lakers want spacing on offense as well as proper use of the way this roster is built, Davis almost needs to be a full-time 5. Limiting Jordan’s minutes and only relying on Howard for 18-24 a night seems wise for the Lakers. It’s time for AD to pick up the slack.

  1. How much rest does LeBron get during the regular season?

By the end of the season, LeBron should comfortably sit third all-time on the minutes played list for the regular season. Combine those minutes with the over 11,000 he’s logged in the playoffs and he’s already second ever, trailing only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As he enters a season in which he’ll turn 37, championship aspirations dictate that resting LeBron a bit more through the regular season is a noble goal.

That’s the value of having an energizer bunny like Westbrook: help get the Lakers to the dance with a high seed without over-extending James. A few injuries the last couple of seasons have limited his availability, so managing his minutes is paramount. LeBron has long been in opposition to load management, wanting to put on a show for fans who pay to come see him play for the first time. At this stage in his career, and with this much on the line for the Lakers, don’t be shocked to see his stance change.

  1. How does Vogel cut through his bench to sort out rotations?

Honestly, we have no idea how the Lakers rotations are going to play out. Influenced by the decisions to put Davis at the 4 or the 5, the sheer amount of big wings (Ariza, Anthony, Bazemore) complicates whether the Lakers go big or small. Their youngest, most talented guys in Nunn and Monk don’t really strike me as guys who should play together very much. The need for 3-point shooting in every lineup around Westbrook and LeBron is a logistical nightmare to constructing rotations.

Our best guess: start Ellington and Ariza with Westbrook, LeBron and Davis. Have Dwight Howard stand as the backup 5, while Malik Monk, Rajon Rondo and Carmelo Anthony round out the 9-man group. From there, plug-and-play options based on opponent take the stage. Kendrick Nunn helps when the Lakers want to play smaller, three-guard lineups with more shooting. One of Horton-Tucker or Bazemore come in when it’s time to be more wing-heavy.

  1. Will the Lakers once again be a dominant defensive team?

What carries the Lakers towards NBA success is the great tactical musings of Vogel’s defensive schemes. A long-time defense-first coach, the Lakers have been top-three in defensive rating each of the last two years. That’s no accident, and with a unique frontcourt talent like Davis, Vogel can weaponize his attack with different strategies as he sees fit.

Westbrook is the ultimate “all flash, no substance” defender. Monk and Nunn are below-average for young players, and the rest of the veterans are all closer to empty than full in their tanks. Due to the offensive challenges, the Lakers better be a dominant defensive group once again. We’re betting on it, and think the rim protection, certain defensive rebounding and focus from a coach like Vogel will get them back atop the West before season’s end.