Lakers X-Factors That Will Decide LA's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 6, 2021

Lakers X-Factors That Will Decide LA's Fate Amid 2021 NBA Playoff Race

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA champions until proved otherwise.

    Put a healthy LeBron James next to a healthy Anthony Davis, and you have just constructed one of the most powerful forces in basketball.

    But it takes more than a two-man tandem to win the title. Just ask James and Davis. They know they wouldn't have a championship banner to raise from last season without timely contributions from their supporting cast, especially Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo, aka Playoff Rondo.

    It will take another team effort to defend their crown, but the following three X-Factors will have a major say in their postseason success.

Andre Drummond

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Andre Drummond's per-game marks paint him as something close to a difference-maker. They've even helped him book a pair of All-Star trips.

    As big as the numbers often are—15.6 points and 12.1 rebounds this season—his impact typically struggles to measure up.

    He is basically a break-even player for his career. Through eight-plus NBA campaigns, his floor presence has meant the difference of 0.1 points per 100 possessions. It's the same story in L.A., as the Lakers have fared 0.1 points better per 100 possessions without him.

    Maybe this is wishful thinking, but his size, athleticism and interior activity should matter more. This is his chance to change the narrative. The Lakers don't have a perfect option at center—well, not when Davis mans the middle—and Drummond has an opportunity to take hold of that position. It's not just about piling up points and boards, it's the substance beneath them.

    If that light bulb happens to click during his third-ever playoff run—and first with a chance at a title—he could really elevate this club.

Kyle Kuzma

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Kyle Kuzma won't win the Most Improved Player award and probably won't even show up on any ballot. That award often reflects statistical growth, and his counting categories have either stagnated or declined.

    Watch the Lakers, though, and you'll see the subtle, but significant strides he has made. He's more reliable than ever defensively, which could be huge when the Lakers need a big-forward defender and don't want to drain James' fuel. Kuzma has also made his three-ball razor sharp (2.1 makes at a 36.5 percent clip), which should make it easier for him to share the floor with James and Davis.

    Kuzma remains an imperfect fit with the Lakers' stars, in part because a lot of his best work comes with the ball in his hands. He's getting better at rounding out the other areas of his game, but that one-on-one ability could be a secret weapon for the Purple and Gold.

    L.A.'s offense isn't great (23rd in efficiency), and it can really get bogged down in the half-court. That's where Kuzma's craft and creativity could come into play. If he can improvise his way to relatively consistent isolation buckets, it would go a long way toward alleviating one of this club's primary concerns.

Talen Horton-Tucker

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Maybe the Hollywood spotlight magnifies it, but Talen Horton-Tucker has quietly ranked as one of basketball's better stories this season.

    Last season, he wasn't even a blip on the radar as a second-round pick who couldn't crack the regular rotation. Now, he's a nightly contributor who often pilots the champs' second unit and perks it up with off-the-dribble attacks and creative dimes.

    Expectations have changed, though. He no longer surprises when he puts up points in bunches. He disappoints when he doesn't deliver. The playoff stage will only increase the scrutiny, especially after The Athletic's Jovan Buha and Bill Oram reported Horton-Tucker was the sticking point that derailed a possible trade deadline deal for Kyle Lowry.

    Horton-Tucker has to make good on that trust and not look at all rattled by basketball's brightest lights—all well before his 21st birthday, which isn't coming until November. It's a daunting task, but if Horton-Tucker aces it, the Lakers could be planning another ring ceremony.