The Los Angeles Lakers' path to a second consecutive NBA championship is blocked by at least one significant obstacle in the second-seeded Phoenix Suns. And after a season where the 36-year-old LeBron James missed 27 games due to injury and Anthony Davis sat 36 games with myriad maladies, the playoffs are putting Los Angeles' blueprint to the ultimate test.
Of course, the Lakers won the title in last year's bubble and—now more than ever—that means everything in this business of basketball. Yet, the 2020-21 campaign has offered a glimpse of these Lakers' true fragility. Injuries and uneven performance landed them in the play-in tournament, where they were a James heave away from an elimination game just to claim the eighth seed.
"They were built to be in the Finals," said one assistant general manager. "If they don't meet the criteria this year, they will definitely look in the mirror."
How this postseason unfolds could bring an offseason of reflection for the Lakers' roster around James and his co-star moving forward. Losing Davis to a left groin strain in Game 4's loss to Phoenix served as a two-part reminder: Davis' injury history, and the gamble that comes with building around high-priced megastars dominating a team's salary cap sheet.
"If you build your team around two or three players, even if they have complicated injury histories, you take your chances," said one longtime cap expert.
But if you poll executives around the league, the margin for failure becomes a lot more palatable when teams add a third All-Star to their roster.
Brooklyn, for example, saw Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving play only eight games together during the regular season. Yet the Nets managed to stock a roster deep enough to maintain a hold on the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The notion of a third star may drive the Lakers' summer if Los Angeles is unable to weather this playoff storm, no matter how long Davis remains sidelined with this current day-to-day injury. The Lakers, after all, coveted Kawhi Leonard before he chose to sign with the Clippers in 2019.
It appears Lakers brass are monitoring Dennis Schroder's postseason performance as closely as any member of their roster—the 27-year-old guard reaches free agency this offseason. After he earned Sixth Man of the Year consideration with Oklahoma City in 2020, Schroder was acquired to serve as a second creator in Frank Vogel's best lineups, while also filling Rajon Rondo's lead ball-handling role when James rests.
The Lakers were willing to commit four years and $84 million to keep Schroder in that position, as ESPN's Brian Windhorst first reported. Los Angeles offered the extension when it first traded for Schroder, sources said, framing it as an "extend-and-trade" max, but Schroder declined.
That leaves a potential pivot point for Los Angeles' front office this summer. Schroder has only played significant minutes during one postseason run, which came during Atlanta's trip to the Eastern Conference finals back in 2014-15. The guard's free agency does present the Lakers' greatest opportunity to upgrade at the position, should that be the front office's objective.
"The easiest way for them to acquire more talent is to sign-and-trade Dennis Schroder," the cap expert said.
A natural target could be the player the Lakers already chased by dangling Schroder's name: Kyle Lowry. Considering the Lakers' salary-cap situation, though, the only cap gymnastics they could use to obtain Lowry would be a sign-and-trade.
Of course, any sign-and-trade would require Schroder's cooperation. He would have to be interested in joining Los Angeles' trade partner. And several sources with knowledge of the point guard's thinking have suggested Schroder desires a lucrative opportunity to serve as a primary playmaker in a big market.
New York could present that chance. There's believed to be mutual interest, sources said. The Knicks are one of only seven teams with significant cap space this summer, but a sign-and-trade would permit Schroder and the Lakers far more creative possibilities.
Outside of Schroder's free agency, the Lakers are limited in trade capital. They will keep their No. 22 pick in July's draft, but owe New Orleans an unprotected first in 2022 as part of the deal that brought Davis to L.A. The Pelicans also hold swap rights for the Lakers' 2023 and 2025 first-round picks, plus Los Angeles' unprotected first in 2024.
Los Angeles did engage teams with packages involving Kyle Kuzma before March's trade deadline, sources said. Kuzma begins a three-year, $39 million contract next season.
"They made a bunch of calls," one assistant general manager told B/R. "They were very active."
In addition to their pursuit of Lowry, the Lakers were canvassing the league for opportunities to acquire a rookie-scale player who could perhaps bridge this James-Davis chapter and the inevitable post-James future. Before Spencer Dinwiddie's injury, Los Angeles even inquired about adding Brooklyn's reserve ball handler in exchange for Kuzma.
"I think they've been trying to move Kuzma for a long time," added another assistant general manager. "His defense has always been questionable, and I think his early success has become a bit of fool's gold."
Kuzma is among the glut of big men behind James and Davis on the Lakers' depth chart—a group that will be tested should Davis miss further time against Phoenix.
It seems Los Angeles has prioritized rostering a surplus of centers, both as a means to save their All-Stars from battling against bigger foes on defense, but also to appease James and Davis' preference of playing down positions. The formula clearly worked in the bubble, where Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee both soared.
"They were monsters in the bubble. Monsters," said one assistant general manager. "Then they add [Marc] Gasol and [Montrezl] Harrell and there's been stretches where they haven't played those guys."
The Lakers did try to retain Howard before he departed for Philadelphia, although Los Angeles prioritized upgrading from McGee, sources said. And it seems Lakers officials placed a greater emphasis on skilled big men than longer, athletic rim rollers. "They won the championship and then decided to change their identity," said another longtime executive.
Markieff Morris presents another frontcourt body for Frank Vogel to juggle, not to mention the midseason addition of Andre Drummond, who chose Los Angeles under the pretext of playing a large offensive role, sources said. It seems part of the Lakers' big-man calculus also factored a potential rematch with the Denver Nuggets following last year's Western Conference finals, where Los Angeles could surely benefit from throwing a bevy of different defenders at presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic.
Yet only Gasol and Kuzma remain under contract for next season. After determining Schroder's outcome, the Lakers will have to address depth across a roster where the only other players locked into guaranteed money are James, Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Drummond sought this spotlighted role with Los Angeles ahead of his own free agency, where the Knicks and Hornets already expressed strong interest in the center during his buyout negotiations. Harrell will have a $9.7 million player option after joining the Lakers from the Clippers, and the Lakers are prepared for him to test the open market as his role has fluctuated throughout the season. Harrell did not play in Game 2 or Game 3 against Phoenix.
Alex Caruso will also become an unrestricted free agent this summer. League executives polled by B/R suggested the point guard could command upwards of $12 million in average annual value, a similar number that restricted free agent Talen Horton-Tucker may also command for an offer sheet. Although there is a sense among Lakers officials that Caruso has relished supporting James and has an interest in staying in Los Angeles to compete alongside the four-time MVP.
Additionally, assistant coach Jason Kidd has been a name increasingly mentioned in coaching conversations for potential openings around the league.
A strong postseason push could also render this entire conversation moot. Winning, as always, cures everything. For every flash of James' mortality this season, he has exhibited quite a bit of runway still remaining for his powerful career.
"He's just gonna become point-forward, play good defense, pick his spots, be a play-maker," said the cap expert. "Imagine if his jump shot continues to improve. I would not bet against him."
Few around the league are truly wagering against the Lakers. Davis may very well return to action and help them outlast the Suns. If Los Angeles' two stars can fully find their footing, and find a greater rhythm the deeper they wade into the playoffs, the Lakers will remain an overwhelming favorite against any opponent in the Western Conference bracket. It was less than eight months ago that a two-headed monster of James and Davis captured the crown.
"If those guys are healthy, I'm always careful to bet against LeBron and any team that has two of the top 10 players in the league," said an assistant general manager.
Now we wait for the status of Davis, and head to Phoenix for Game 5.