Every sport around the world stopped for a time during the pandemic. Stopping a season and starting it up again brings many struggles for top athletes. Looking across the Atlantic to the EPL, it is clear that a three-month lay-off can make a return to playing a challenge. With no meaningful pre-season, the players have been sluggish and the performances disjointed and cautious. Therefore, it is likely that we see the same when the NBA returns in Orlando. Many of the teams will struggle out of the gate. What is good about this is that all the teams enter this playoff period with the same problem – each team will have to carefully manage the fitness of players in an intense period of games.
The Lakers have not played together as a team since March 10th. When the season ended for the pandemic, the Lakers were enjoying the best record in the Western Conference. Even though they are technically on top of the pile, James and Davis will need to work hard to lead the team back to winning ways.
After so many years of failure, the journey to a world championship was always going to be a challenge. However, a gap of over four months in the season is going to require some sort of heroic effort to get that form back. The playoffs are approaching and there will be only eight more games to find a solution to some serious problems
Problem 1: Holes in the Roster
So, if Lakers hold a 49-14 record, the second-best in the entire NBA, why are we increasing fans anxiety levels with talk of problems. Well, the reason is that these problems are real and cannot be ignored – most notably some significant holes in the roster that have not been filled and could be problematic during the playoffs.
First, the Lakers need a backup ball-handler. Sure, Ranjo Rondo has been doing his best all season as a back-up but he has really struggled in this role. Caruso is a better backup guard but he is now used more as an off-ball defensive guard when LeBron is on the court. Therefore, there is a distinct gap in this role, even if we want to hope that Rondo will step up in the playoffs as he has always done before. There are no obvious replacements in the free-agent options, so it will be up to Rondo to up his game in this position.
Second, there is a definite lack of shot makers, those who can create their own shot. There was hope that Kuzma would fill this role but since Davis was signed he has struggled to fulfil his potential. There is the option of signing Dion Waiters, who could also help address the problems created by Avery Bradley’s departure.
Problem 2: The length of the break
If you know little about sports, you would be forgiven for believing that time off equals fresh players. All good, right? Wrong. It takes time to become match fit and sharp enough to play at the highest levels. Therefore, this time off will lead to many concerns about fitness levels and understanding of the plays that the team will want to coordinate. There has been no practice even for three months and for some players no access to a gym. Therefore, there is genuine concern about fitness levels and the chance that injury could result if players go full-tilt into a season game.
The problem of fitness will be exacerbated by the lack of fans in the arena. When you are not at your peak, you rely on the adrenalin created by the atmosphere created by those who are watching. The Lakers always up their game in front of the Staples Center crowd.
Obviously, the Lakers will not be the only team facing this challenge. All 21 teams selected to play in the Orlando bubble are going to have to adjust to the same issues.
Problem 3: Will players sit it out?
Avery Bradley signalled another potential problem for the Lakers – that players will opt to sit out the remaining games and the play-offs. Before you go crazy and start a Twitter storm of criticism, you cannot blame players for being cautious. Minority players specifically have to consider the negative outcomes of contracting COVID-19, as they are more likely to die or require extensive hospital treatment. These players not only have themselves to consider, as they could bring the virus into their homes and impact family members. Therefore, before we judge too harshly their loyalty to the Lakers, let’s consider their loyalty to their health and that of their family.
Entering the Orlando Bubble is no joke. The players will have to adhere to strict rules imposed by the NBA. These rules are intended to keep players and coaches safe but it will also keep them out of circulation for a long time. At a time when basketball players might want to join the battle to fight racial injustices, which have become more prescient, they will be unable to play their part. There is also thought that by continuing the season while these racial issues are so heightened that it could act as an unwelcome distraction or a reason for tensions to rise even more. As well as Bradley, Howard has been vocal in expressing personal concerns. There is a long time to go until the playoffs and more players could choose to sit out.