Ranking Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest First-Round Threats in 2020 NBA Playoffs

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 7, 2020

Ranking Los Angeles Lakers' Biggest First-Round Threats in 2020 NBA Playoffs

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    It's far from time for the Los Angeles Lakers to panic, but following a 113-97 loss to the Houston Rockets on Thursday, they're now 2-3 in the NBA's reboot.

    Of course, LeBron James didn't play in the latest defeat, but that may have done more to underscore some concerns than it did to provide an excuse.

    This season, the Lakers are plus-9.2 points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor and minus-0.5 with him off.

    Their inability to perform without their leading man isn't alarming enough to doubt them in the first round, but that in concert with general offensive problems might have fans wondering which teams could push them to five or six games.

    Following Thursday's action, the squads still in the hunt for a first matchup against LeBron and Anthony Davis were broken down by FiveThirtyEight's projection system as follows:

    • Portland Trail Blazers (68 percent)
    • Memphis Grizzlies (14 percent)
    • New Orleans Pelicans (13 percent)
    • Phoenix Suns (4 percent)
    • Sacramento Kings (1 percent)
    • San Antonio Spurs (less than 1 percent)

    This article isn't an endeavor to predict which of those teams will actually get the final playoff spot. Rather, it's an examination of which teams have enough to win a game or two (or three?).

    All six will be ranked from least challenging to the Lakers to most.

6. Sacramento Kings

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    De'Aaron Fox and the Sacramento Kings looked good in their first win in the bubble, a 140-125 romp over the New Orleans Pelicans, but they lack the interior defenders necessary to bother AD.

    Sacramento is dead last in opponents' shooting percentage at the rim. The Kings are giving up a whopping 66.8 percent in there. Davis and LeBron would surely take advantage of that lack of rim protection.

    Lack of playoff experience would be another issue. Sacramento's top two scorers, Fox and Buddy Hield, have combined for zero total postseason minutes.

    Both of those guards can get hot, though. And with Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo out, the Lakers' perimeter D might be a little softer than it was earlier in the season.

    If Fox is getting to the paint with ease and Hield is hitting from the outside, things might open up for a supporting cast that includes Harrison Barnes and Bogdan Bogdanovic.

    But the "if everything breaks right" scenario in a Kings-Lakers series would result in maybe one win for Sacramento.

    The Kings just aren't ready for playoff LeBron.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    The Memphis Grizzlies entered the bubble in eighth place. On July 30, FiveThirtyEight's projection gave them a 31 percent chance to make the playoffs. After a week of action, they're 0-4 in Orlando and down to 14 percent in that system.

    The hiatus seems to have squashed the momentum they had from January 1 till the shutdown, when they were 19-12 (the eighth-best record in the league over that stretch).

    What's worse, they also lost Jaren Jackson Jr. to a torn meniscus. In his three games since play resumed, the 20-year-old big averaged 25.3 points, 3.3 threes and 1.7 blocks. Without him stretching the floor, it'll be more difficult for Ja Morant to make his way through driving lanes.

    Still, the Grizzlies are talented. Morant can take advantage of the Lakers' perimeter defense the same way Fox might. Brandon Clarke is an excellent finisher and about as savvy as rookies get. Jonas Valanciunas will make L.A.'s bigs work on defense. And even Grayson Allen has shown some promise as a spacer in Orlando.

    But the Grizzlies would have more problems than answers against the Lakers. They're 19th in the league in effective field-goal percentage, and shots will only get tougher in the playoffs. With AD, LeBron and Danny Green locked in on defense, it's hard to imagine the inexperienced Grizzlies scoring enough to avoid a sweep.

4. San Antonio Spurs

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    This placement is, in part, a nod to Gregg Popovich's unparalleled playoff experience. He trails only Pat Riley and Phil Jackson in playoff wins. And Jackson and Red Auerbach are the only coaches with more championships.

    If the San Antonio Spurs manage to secure the final playoff spot in the West, you can be pretty sure his guys will be as well prepared as possible.

    Preparation can't bridge a talent gap this wide, though.

    The Spurs defense is awful this season. There is individual talent on that end in Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray, but entire lineups have failed to jell. Rotations break down too often, they allow too many threes and they don't force enough turnovers. All of that has led to the 24th-ranked defense in the league.

    Against one of the best two-man games, that weakness would almost certainly be exposed.

    It'd be a fun series, though. With LaMarcus Aldridge out, Popovich has finally embraced the youth movement led by Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV. Since the restart, the Spurs are fifth in pace. And those three guards are being allowed to take plenty of responsibility on offense and play through mistakes.

    DeMar DeRozan would almost certainly go off in a game or two, as well. He's averaging 22.3 points (on 57.4 percent shooting) and 7.3 assists in the bubble as the de facto 4. Maybe point forward is late-career DeRozan's destiny.

3. Phoenix Suns

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    You may not expect it when looking at their season-long record, but the Phoenix Suns have one of the better three-man lineups in the league.

    When Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton and Ricky Rubio are all on the floor, Phoenix is plus-6.9 points per 100 possessions (88th percentile).

    With Ayton operating in the low-to-mid post, Booker attacking from the perimeter and Rubio steadily guiding the whole operation, the Suns are scoring like an elite offense.

    With all three healthy and the nature of the playoffs tightening rotations, that group would likely get more time together in a series against the Lakers. That probably doesn't mean they'd threaten L.A., but there's enough talent here for a win or two.

    That's especially true if Booker remains the white-hot scorer he's been since entering the Wide World of Sports Complex.

    After beating the Indiana Pacers on Thursday, Phoenix is now 4-0 in the bubble. In those games, Booker has averaged 28.0 points, 6.5 assists and 2.5 threes. He's shooting 47.4 percent from the field, 40.0 percent from three and 90.3 percent from the line.

    Against the Los Angeles Clippers on Tuesday, he took over down the stretch and outshined Kawhi Leonard and Paul George before hitting a game-winning buzzer-beater over both. It felt like a preview of what playoff basketball might be like for Booker.

    He's not the only bright spot, though. The Suns have been comfortably better with Ayton on the floor this season, and he looks sharp in the reboot. In just 32.1 minutes per game, he's averaging 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the bubble.

    This top two certainly isn't on the level of LeBron and AD, but they're playing like they want a chance to test their mettle against the best.

2. New Orleans Pelicans

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Pelicans' chances to make the playoffs have plummeted since play resumed. On July 30, the forecast had them at 49 percent, tops among the teams in this race. After their 1-3 start in the bubble, that mark is down to 13 percent.

    They close against the Washington Wizards, Spurs, Kings and Orlando Magic, though. All four of those teams are below .500. They still have a chance to make the play-in tournament. And among the teams the Lakers might face in the first round, the Pelicans probably have the most depth.

    Brandon Ingram is an All-Star who can go off for 30 in any given game. Lonzo Ball seems to have found his niche with the Pelicans, especially when he has Zion Williamson to pass to. And the two former Lakers (make it three with Josh Hart) would surely drive plenty of revenge narratives.

    The veteran talent on this roster has plenty of playoff experience too. Jrue Holiday can be trusted to at least make LeBron work on offense. Derrick Favors is a solid defensive anchor. And JJ Redick remains one of the game's top floor-spacers.

    The biggest, most explosive, rim-rattling wild card, though, is Zion.

    This season, the Pelicans play like a 59-win team when he's on the floor (compared to a 36-win team when he's off). The attention he commands from defenders gives precious extra room to everyone else in the lineup. His finishing and offensive rebounding made him one of the game's most powerful interior forces as a teenager (he just turned 20 last month).

    If New Orleans has taken the minutes training wheels off by the time the playoffs roll around, Zion could very well lead the Pelicans to...a couple of wins in the first round.

    As is the case with every other team detailed so far, it's tough to imagine the Lakers losing this hypothetical series.

1. Portland Trail Blazers

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    Kevin C. Cox/Associated Press

    The Lakers would obviously be the betting favorite, but Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers pulling off the exceptionally rare 8-over-1 upset wouldn't be stunning.

    Lillard has an ability to seize command of entire games in a manner rivaled only by a healthy Stephen Curry. If you give him even a hint of space coming off a ball screen, whether right at the three-point line or five feet behind it, he's likely to make you pay.

    On Thursday, he torched the Denver Nuggets for 45 points on 13-of-21 shooting. He also dished out 12 assists and was an outrageous 11-of-18 from deep.

    According to StatMuse, he became just the second player in league history to have a game with at least 10 threes and 10 assists (James Harden is the other).

    Dame looks determined to get his team to the postseason. Once there, he has the ability to push the Lakers in a way no other individual player identified here can.

    He's not alone, though. After a season in which the Blazers were decimated by injuries, the hiatus helped a couple of contributors get back to full health.

    Zach Collins has stretches in which he looks like a legitimate 3-and-D pest who is willing to do a lot of the dirty work a guard-heavy team needs.

    Jusuf Nurkic is the more important return, though. Last season, Portland was plus-10.1 points per 100 possessions when he shared the floor with Lillard and CJ McCollum. His steady positional defense, low-post game and point-center abilities made him one of the most impactful players in the league in 2018-19.

    After missing most of this season recovering from a broken leg, Nurkic hasn't missed a beat since returning. In four bubble games, he's averaging 22.0 points (second to Lillard's 31.3), 11.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.0 blocks.

    Gary Trent Jr. has been a revelation as well. For much of the last two years, Anfernee Simons was seen as the more promising young Blazer. Trent, a gritty, multipositional defender and deadeye shooter, has definitely usurped him. After hitting seven threes against the Nuggets, he's averaging 20.3 points and 5.5 threes in Orlando.

    Then, of course, there's McCollum. On the rare nights Lillard doesn't have it going, the Blazers still have a chance to steal games thanks to McCollum's elite mid-range game.

    Altogether, the Trail Blazers are looking more and more like the team that made it to the Western Conference Finals last season.

    Again, they probably wouldn't beat the Lakers in a seven-game series. Few duos in NBA history had as much raw talent as LeBron and AD. But the Blazers can introduce some chaos with Lillard's captivating hot streaks and a rejuvenated supporting cast.