Questions Lakers Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 22, 2021

Questions Lakers Must Answer Before 2021 NBA Playoffs

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers are the defending NBA champions.

    Protecting their throne won't be easy.

    A recent spell of inconsistency, spurred by injuries to All-Stars Anthony Davis (calf strain) and LeBron James (high ankle sprain), has left this club looking mortal—if not vulnerable.

    There is time to turn things around still, but they'll need to answer the following three questions if they hope to repeat.

When Will LeBron James Be Ready to Return?

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    L.A.'s championship hopes revolve around a healthy James, so all eyes are on the four-time MVP's right ankle that has kept him sidelined since March 20.

    While Davis is nearing his return, James is "still believed to be weeks away from getting back into game action," sources told ESPN's Dave McMenamin.

    Considering the campaign closes in less than a month, the King finds himself in a race against time.

    Getting back on the hardwood is simply the first step. Then, James needs to work his way back into game condition, knock off any rust and hit the ground running at track-star speed. If anyone can make the transition appear seamless, it's probably him, but he'll have to create chemistry on the fly with a roster that has changed a good deal over the past calendar year and includes a starting center who debuted after James' injury (Andre Drummond).

    It's tempting—and defensible—to expect James to figure this out, but as a 36-year-old with tons of NBA mileage on his odometer, this won't be as simple as getting back on a bicycle.

What's the Rotation at Center?

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The Lakers aren't short on viable options at the center spot, which gives head coach Frank Vogel a good deal of flexibility with his lineups. But it also creates a puzzle for the skipper to solve on a near-nightly basis.

    Marc Gasol tipped off the season as the Lakers' starting center. Montrezl Harrell was their priciest addition in 2020 free agency. Drummond, who arrived via the buyout market, has started all seven of his games with the Purple and Gold. Davis and Markieff Morris have both logged minutes as small-ball bigs.

    Davis at center feels like the ace up the Lakers' sleeve, but Vogel might be careful how often he exposes his star big man to the wear and tear of life in the NBA paint. So, which of the three traditional centers should get the most minutes? Well, that might depend on the matchup and could change from one night to the next.

    "I think we saw the flexibility we have as a coaching staff from playoff series to playoff series," Vogel told reporters in late March. "Get different guy's skill sets to match different opponents. I really believe we're going to need all three of those guys and I expect to use all three of them."

    Gasol paces the group in basketball IQ and long-distance shooting. Drummond offers the best blend of size and athleticism. Harrell does the most damage as a scorer.

    If handled correctly, the Lakers could have a center for any situation. But Vogel will be facing a tricky balancing act of distributing minutes and managing egos, and there will be tough decisions to make every time out.

Does the Supporting Cast Have Enough Scoring?

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    After struggling at times with half-court offense in the bubble, the Lakers looked to put some extra scoring pep in their step this offseason. The results have been something of a mixed bag.

    On one hand, three of their top six players in points per game are newcomers (Schroder, Harrell and Drummond). On the other, even with the extra firepower, the Lakers still rank just 20th in offensive efficiency.

    L.A. can only count on so much production from James and Davis. They'll do the heavy lifting, but the Lakers will still need to look elsewhere for scoring.

    There aren't a lot of shot-creators on this team, and L.A. lacks volume (25th in makes) and efficiency (21st in percentage) with its three-point attack.

    The Lakers are built to win with defense first and star power second, and so long as James gets healthy ahead of the playoffs, those ingredients are fine. But a nightly search for supplemental offense could make this postseason trek tricky to navigate.