Lakers Bold Predictions Ahead of 2021-22 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistSeptember 2, 2021

Lakers Bold Predictions Ahead of 2021-22 NBA Season

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    Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

    After a hyperactive offseason, it's full steam ahead for the Los Angeles Lakers with the 2021-22 NBA season arriving faster than you think.

    The mighty Purple and Gold turned over the majority of their roster this summer, returning just four players from last season's group. And one of them, Marc Gasol, isn't a lock to stick around, according to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein.

    While the Lakers will still go as far as LeBron James and Anthony Davis can take them, the wealth of adjustments around them make things tricky for professional prognosticators. But we'll take on the challenge of making three bold predictions about what lies ahead in L.A.

Dwight Howard Plays More Games Than Anthony Davis

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Back for a third go-round in L.A., Dwight Howard will turn 36 years old before the midpoint of the upcoming campaign. He hasn't started 10 games or averaged 20 minutes in either of the past two seasons.

    At this stage of his career, he is a role-playing reserve. But he's still reliable in making it to the hardwood, having missed fewer than 10 games in four of the past five seasons.

    While Davis will have a much larger role, he doesn't offer that same reliability. He missed 26 games in 2018-19, nine more in 2019-20 and exactly half of the 72-game 2020-21 season.

    Since the Lakers plan to be playing in June, they will be extra cautious about wearing out Davis too early. That means rest games could be in the works, plus whatever ailments he encounters along the way. L.A. won't feel the need to put Howard in that same kind of bubble, meaning the backup big man should be in line for more appearances than the star starter.

Talen Horton-Tucker Gets Most Improved Player Votes

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The Most Improved Player award has no set criteria, but it often lands with a player who delivers dramatic statistical growth.

    Talen Horton-Tucker has already made a massive leap once in his two-year career, climbing from the back end of the bench (and mostly the G League) as a rookie to the NBA rotation as a sophomore. The Lakers weren't nearly as invested in him and were deeper on the wings then.

    Now, L.A. already signaled a significant role could be incoming after re-signing him to a three-year, $32 million pact. With players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso out of the picture, Horton-Tucker could have a clear path to major minutes on the perimeter.

    If Horton-Tucker improves as a shooter—connecting on 77.5 percent of his free throws last season was a promising start—he could see his playing time and his stats soar. He's already a plucky defender and smooth shot-creator, and if his role jumps the way it could, he might double his averages in points (9.0) and assists (2.8). MIP voters will certainly take notice if he does.

Lakers Finish Outside of West's Top 3

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    It feels a little funny to say the Lakers are playing the long game when they're overloaded with 30-somethings. On a macro level, no team is living for the present more than this one.

    Through the micro lens of the upcoming campaign, though, they'll never lose sight of the fact it's a marathon, not a sprint.

    That means finding rest days for James and Davis, and extending them as much recovery time as needed should injuries pop up—which recent history suggests is more probable than not. They might want to monitor Russell Westbrook's regular-season minutes to make sure the always-full-throttle floor general doesn't overheat. Their aging supporting cast could have a smaller margin for error on the injury front.

    L.A. knows it doesn't need to dominate the regular season to dominate the playoffs. This club won't chase home-court advantage or a top seed the way younger, less proven clubs will. The goal is to get this group to the postseason as fresh as possible, which will cost the team enough games to deny it a top-three seed in the West. But if the big-picture plan works, no one will gripe about the regular season record.