When Frank Vogel became the head coach of the Lakers over a year ago, he knew there would be plenty of challenges, and plenty of pressure.
But there’s no way he could have predicted a truly unprecedented 2019-20 season including the events surrounding the team’s preseason trip to China, the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the racial and social justice movement that continues to evolve.
Amidst all of that, Vogel is trying to lead his players and staff through never-traveled terrain as the team’s first game in the Walt Disney World bubble is exactly one month away.
As players continue individual workouts at the UCLA Health Training Center, ramping up towards the planned departure of the team charter on July 9, Vogel acknowledged that JR Smith would replace Avery Bradley on the roster, though it would take a team effort to replace Bradley’s role.
The other question mark on the roster is about Dwight Howard, who’s dealing with a unique family situation that he described to us in May, in addition to his focus on social justice.
Vogel offered an update on Howard’s status.
“We’ve been in communication with Dwight the whole way,” he said. “We don’t know what the level of participation is yet. He wants to play. We’re hopeful he’s able to join us. We’re hopeful and optimistic that he’ll be able to join us in Orlando.”
Howard is one of 10 Lakers to average at least 16.8 minutes per game this season: LeBron James (34.9); Anthony Davis (34.3); Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (25.4); Danny Green (25.1); Kyle Kuzma (24.6); Bradley (24.2); Rajon Rondo (20.5); Howard (19.2), Alex Caruso (17.8); and JaVale McGee (16.8). Markieff Morris had also entered the rotation, earning 14.8 minutes in his eight appearances.
Meanwhile, Quinn Cook and Jared Dudley got spot minutes and filled in admirably when needed, and Vogel said repeatedly that he’d trust them in any game situation. One could surmise that both Smith and playoff-roster-deadline acquisition Dion Waiters would fit in with Cook and Dudley as veterans who could be called upon for specific reasons and matchups, i.e., the need for a guy who can get his own bucket off the bench (Waiters) or floor spacing (Smith, who’s a 37.3 percent 3-point shooter who ranks 9th all-time in postseason 3’s made, and 4th in the NBA Finals).
Vogel has yet to work with Smith on the court, but he did have a welcome-to-the-team chat with the 34-year-old veteran.
“The experience factor,” said Vogel about what Smith brings. “This guy’s a big-time player, he’s proven it over the course of his career. We know he can help us. We almost added him earlier in the year when we added Dion Waiters, and now we have the luxury of having both. We’re not going to ask him to come in and be Avery Bradley, he’s going to come in and be JR Smith.”
And while Smith provides depth on the wing, the bulk of Bradley’s 24.2 minutes could be split amongst KCP, Caruso and Rondo, depending upon the game situation.
“Avery’s loss is obviously a huge loss for us, but we’re a next-man-up team,” Vogel continued. “Alex is an elite defender in his own right in a different way than Avery, as is KCP. Offensively, clearly we wouldn’t run plays that Avery uses for Alex, we’d run plays that put Alex in the best position to succeed.”
On his own Zoom call with reporters earlier on Wednesday, Caruso offered a similar sentiment.
“It might not be with one person (filling Bradley’s role), but this team has done a great job this year when guys have been out, of stepping up and filling a role or a need,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll be the sole provider of everything that Avery did, that’s a lot to ask for because of how good he is at what he does, but I’m definitely going to be ready to fill part of that gap and that need.”
Caruso mentioned Bradley’s skills as a supplementary ballhandler and defender who took open threes as things he thinks he replicate. On the other hand, Caruso acknowledged Bradley’s strength with mid-range pullups and floaters out of the sets Vogel was asked about as things with which he is less comfortable. Fortunately, those are sets that KCP can replicate.
In fact, KCP started all 18 games for Bradley from Nov. 15 – Dec. 22 after Bradley suffered a hairline fracture in November. The Lakers went 15-1 before back-to-back losses at Indiana and Milwaukee at the end of a difficult road stretch. LAL also won games at Chicago (Nov. 5) and at OKC (Jan. 11) with KCP starting for Bradley, bringing the total mark to 17-3.
One benefit to those KCP lineups is the increased floor spacing he provides. Caldwell-Pope has hit 87 3’s this season on an impressive 39.4 percent from the field, compared to Bradley’s 63 makes on 36.4 percent. With LeBron as the primary ballhandler with the starters, Rondo could remain in his playmaking role off the bench.
Fortunately for Vogel, his squad has a 5.5 game lead in the West, meaning he can use the eight seeding games to iron out such rotation questions ahead of the start of the playoffs. Vogel was asked how having that lead might impact his approach in Orlando.
“We do have a different type of perspective from some teams that are playing for their playoff lives, but it doesn’t mean we’re not going to go out and - like we always would if these were the last eight games of the regular season - we would compete to win,” said Vogel. “That’s how your habits are built the best … Does that mean we’re going to play certain guys 47 minutes? Obviously no.
“We’ll be intelligent with the whole process of trying to find the right pace to bring our group along from a conditioning standpoint and evaluating on a daily basis what we feel they can handle and what they’re ready for without compromising their bodies and putting them at risk to injury. We will be cautious with those eight games, but we will compete to win.”
Then it’s time for the playoffs, a unique challenge given the circumstances, and one for which Caruso is ready.
“This is something personally that I relish,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of lasting, of being the team that can be the mentally toughest, the mentally strongest and saying ‘Yeah, we may be on this isolated campus for three months, but we have a goal, we have a mission and it’s not going to affect us trying to get to that end goal and finish the job.’”
It’s that mental side of the game where Caruso thinks the Lakers will have an edge, with everybody dealing with a similar physical challenge.
“The hardest part for us is getting back to doing physically what we were able to do, as far as being early on assignments, being physically ready to box out, to play as physically as it takes to beat teams like the Clippers, Bucks, Rockets and Nuggets, all the good teams that are competing for championships and are going to be in the playoffs,” he explained. “Just getting back to that physical form of being able to do it night in, take a day off, night out, keep going and going and going for a month and a half. The mental part I feel like for our team is going to be easier just because we have such a heady and basketball-smart team, basketball-IQ led team and coaching staff.”