Anthony Davis and LeBron James pregame high 5

2020-21 Lakers Season Summary

by Mike Trudell
Lakers Reporter

Coming off the 17th title in franchise history, won on Oct. 11, 2020 in the NBA finals against Miami, the Lakers entered the 2020-21 season with a clear goal of defending their crown, a mission that fell victim to injuries and the resulting lack of cohesion.

With LeBron James and Anthony Davis combining to miss over half the pandemic-shortened 72-game season, L.A. wound up with the No. 7 seed, before falling 4-2 to No. 2 Phoenix in Round 1. The Lakers took home court from the Suns and led 2-1 before AD went down with a groin injury just ahead of halftime of Game 4, and Phoenix capitalized with three straight wins.

It’s hard to separate the physical and mental toll the longest season in NBA history took on the Lakers, who had only 60 days between Game 6 and their first preseason game, on Dec. 11.

Some might call it the Bubble Tax. Miami (0-4 to MIL) and Boston (1-4 to BKN), the two Eastern Conference finalists in the Bubble, both lost in Round 1 in 2021, while LAL’s 2020 WCF opponent, Denver, managed to beat a banged up Portland team in Round 1 before being swept by Phoenix in Round 2.

The Lakers do have a trophy to show for it, at least.

Injuries happen to every NBA team, every season, but when those injuries are to star players like LeBron James and AD, they come to define the season. On Media Day leading into the season, Davis hinted at the difficulty of the short offseason, especially for him and LeBron.

“Both of us, we want to play, but it is a quick turnaround,” he said, days after signing a maximum extension with the Lakers. “We have to make sure we’re able to have our bodies healthy enough to make sure we can repeat … hopefully it all ends well where we’re able to get our rest but still get out there and compete.”

When the season started, the Lakers were in a better rhythm than most teams, which was the positive side of the shortened offseason. By February 14, they were 21-6, second only to Utah’s 21-5 at that point, for the NBA’s best record. They found ways to win games even when they didn’t play well, like during a 5-0 home winning streak in which they went to OT three straight times. Offseason acquisitions Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell offered new energy and were more than carrying their weight, while Marc Gasol was fitting nicely into the starting lineup, providing spacing at the five spot that was absent the previous year.

However, Feb. 14 was also when Davis injured his calf/Achilles area against Denver, on the same leg where some issues kept him out the previous week. He wouldn’t return until April 22, and the All-NBA First Teamer started only 36 of 72 games.

Compounding AD’s absence, Schroder missed four straight games between Feb. 16-26 due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, and L.A. lost all four. Gasol then missed most of the month of March due to protocols, leaving LeBron James with a constantly rotating cast of teammates.

And yet, LeBron led the Lakers to a 4-0 start out of the All-Star break, bringing their record to 28-13, LAL still in good position for home court advantage in the first round, and with Davis nearing a return. Still just 20, 2nd-year guard Talen Horton-Tucker continued to flash his potential, posting individual highs of 26 points and 11 assists in different games to help shoulder some of the burden. But then, on March 20, Atlanta’s Solomon Hill crashed recklessly into LeBron’s ankle, resulting in a high ankle sprain that kept LeBron out of all but four regular season games, and less than 100 percent for the Suns series.

With all the absences, Andre Drummond – acquired at the trade deadline after he agreed to a buyout with Cleveland – had very few games to integrate into a lineup with both LeBron and AD. Meanwhile, most of the Lakers that had played the full length of the Bubble – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma and Markieff Morris – all dealt with varying nagging injuries.

So, despite closing the season with five straight wins to finish 42-30, the Lakers had to beat Golden State in a difficult play-in matchup, with the NBA having instituted a mini tournament for the rights to the No.'s 7 and 8 seeds. With a 103-100 victory clinched by a deep LeBron 3, LAL locked in that 7 seed.

The Lakers drew Phoenix, the NBA’s healthiest team in the regular season. Indeed, Chris Paul played 70 games for Phoenix, and Devin Booker 67, while Mikal Bridges didn’t miss a game, and Deandre Ayton started the first 69 until resting for the final three ahead of Round 1.

The Suns won Game 1 convincingly, but it was the presence of Davis that Phoenix couldn’t handle in Games 2 and 3, as he went for 34 points in each win.

Then his groin injury tilted the balance of the series.

“Game 4, we had supreme confidence that we had taken control of the series,” said Coach Frank Vogel. “Then Anthony goes down, and I think there was a bigger deflating effect.”

Credit has to go to the Suns, who played excellent basketball. And yet, LAL are left to think what might have happened were they to have had a traditional offseason, even while accepting the necessary business elements that had to come first.

“It was different,” said Davis. “All around the league, guy’s bodies didn’t handle that very well … but now we have the opportunity to take advantage of this longer offseason … to prepare for next season … I think health played a big part in why we’re in the position we’re in. We just wasn’t healthy. We were very healthy last year. Not this year.”

“It was a bit of a struggle, added Caruso. “KCP playing on one leg. AD couldn’t go. That was just kind of the storyline of the year, taking away from the potential that this team had.”

All in all, the Lakers missed 94 games to rotation players with injuries, including 73 to starters, plus 23 games due to NBA health and safety protocols.

The injuries also made it difficult for the players to develop cohesion with one another on the floor.

“A lot of that is repetitions that we couldn’t have,” explained Wesley Matthews, who played some of his best basketball in the postseason after struggling to lock down a rotation spot due to L.A.'s depth. “Live practice situations that we couldn’t do. Condensed season, with travel, which doesn’t leave you much time to practice, go hard and compete in practice, and play so that you can see those live looks because you have to preserve your legs (for games). So with lineups changes, superstars are in and out of the lineups, games were almost practices for us. We played I don’t know how many rotations that were on the court for the first time.”

Even with all the missed time, LeBron still earned a spot on the All-NBA Second Team, his record 17th All-NBA appearance (13 First Teams). He was the leading MVP candidate before his injury, continuing to refuse to show any signs of showing down in his 18th NBA season, at age 36.

In averaging 25.0 points per game to lead the Lakers, LeBron secured his 17th consecutive season, adding to his standing NBA record, with the next closest players reaching 12 seasons (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Karl Malone). LeBron closed the gap on Malone for second on the All-Time scoring list (36,928 to 35,367). And, oh yeah, he also ranks 8th on the NBA’s All-Time assist list after leading LAL with 7.8 per game, trailing No. 7 Oscar Robertson 9,887 to 9,696, with Magic Johnson (10,141) also in view.

Drummond’s 10.2 boards per game led the way in his 21 appearances, while AD led the team in blocks (1.64) and steals (1.25), with KCP tossing in the 10th best 3-point percentage season in franchise history (41.0 percent). KCP also ranks 5th on LAL’s all-time 3-point FG’s made list (522), with teammate Kyle Kuzma currently ranking 6th (510).

AD, Caruso*, KCP and Schroder all received All-Defensive Team votes in recognition of the team that finished the year ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency despite all of the injury absences, and Frank Vogel deserves considerable credit for that.
*Caruso finished third in the NBA in defensive rating.

Vogel was able to keep whatever players were on the floor in their defensive shape, and draw out the type of energy it takes to be good on that end most every night, but the offense struggled without LeBron most of all, and certainly AD as well. The Lakers finished the season ranked 24th on that end.

Now, here’s the good news for the Lakers: they have a full offseason to get their bodies back on track for the 2021-22 season. After a 71-day offseason last year, they’ll get all of June, July, August and September to get right mentally and physically before training camp starts in October.

And then, once again, the goal of a team built around LeBron and AD will be simple, in Rob Pelinka’s words: “We have an insatiable desire to bring banner No. 18 here.”

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