ORLANDO, Fla. — The player who might be the difference between LeBron James winning a historic title with a third team, or falling short this season and never having another chance like this again is winding down a career that can be described as average.
He’s 29, was cut by the Grizzlies last summer, came off the bench this season for the Lakers and earns less money from the team than Luol Deng (who took a buyout and retired three years ago).
The player in question, Avery Bradley, isn’t with the Lakers right now either, as he opted out of the restart because of family reasons.
His absence is already being felt just one game into the playoffs, where the Lakers are missing the two elements that Bradley brings: 3-point shooting and the quickness to annoy high-scoring opposing guards.
It just so happens that the title-contending Lakers are abysmal at both right now, and that’s why they trail the No. 8-seeded Portland Trail Blazers 1-0 in their first-round series.
Is a lineup shuffling coming already? It would likely mean elevating Kyle Kuzma from sixth man if only to put a shooter on the floor with LeBron and Anthony Davis for extended minutes and set the tone from the beginning.
“If they call on me to start, you guys have seen what I do,” Kuzma said. “Try to come in and be myself, play fun, play free spirited.”
There is a simpler method, he conceded.
“It’s plan and simple: We got to hit shots.”
No question, the Lakers are hardly in serious trouble against Portland, not in a best-of-seven. They do bring LeBron and Davis, a pair of superstars who serve as deodorant to almost any basketball odor. LeBron opened his first playoffs with the Lakers with an impressive triple-double. Davis was brilliant — at least for a half — before tailing off considerably as the Lakers were outscored by 20 when he was on the floor.
But this season for the Lakers has high ambitions that go well beyond a rejuvenated Blazers team. This is supposed to be LeBron’s year. This was his chance to team with the most talented big man he’s ever had, win a title and restore the polish to the Lakers’ franchise. How can they do this when the Lakers can’t make shots from deep and defensively must deal with guards galore, starting with Lillard and potentially continuing against Russell Westbrook or Chris Paul or Jamal Murray in subsequent playoff rounds?
Or, imagine if they get slayed by Lillard, are ruined by their own shooting issues and get sent back to L.A. by next week, contrite and confused?
That would be seismic. In addition to the grief that Davis would take to his reputation — Davis hasn’t taken a team anywhere special — and the missed opportunity for LeBron at age 35, the ripple effect would go beyond the Lakers. They’re easily the main attraction in these playoffs and TV ratings could drop along with the mood in L.A. if the Lakers can’t make it to September.
Lillard is a problem. He’s on a career roll, a proud veteran and feared scorer looking to ramp up his basketball cred by taking a scalp as big as the Lakers. He’s also hungry to win that elusive championship. Lillard’s only smudge in Orlando happened when he missed free throws in the final seconds of a seeding game vs. the LA Clippers. Since then, he’s taken his game into another stratosphere.
His stretchy shooting range and ability to slice into the paint for layups or find open teammates is confusing the Lakers’ defense. The Blazers also bring Lillard’s carbon copy in CJ McCollum, who’s capable of dropping shots by the dozens himself and creating ones for teammates.
The problem for L.A. is a lack of worthy defenders for those two (and especially Lillard). This might be eased somewhat when Rajon Rondo returns for Game 2 from injury … except Rondo hasn’t played meaningful basketball since March and he’s far from the defender he was in his Boston Celtics days.
Also, Rondo’s not efficient from deep, which brings us to the Lakers’ other and more significant issue, an inability to get teams to respect their outside shooters.
The Lakers ranked last in 3-point shooting during the restart (30.3%) and are at 15.6% from deep after one playoff game. Defenses are starting to double-up on LeBron and Davis without fearing any price to be paid for that. The Lakers were five-for-32 from deep Monday and their stars, LeBron and Davis, aren’t natural 3-point shooters (they went a combined 0-for-10 from deep).
If Kuzma, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and assorted others can’t take advantage of open shots, or even create their own 3-point opportunities, when will the Lakers pay the ultimate price for this failure? Next round? The conference finals? The Finals?
They haven’t looked like potential champions since before the reboot. Back then, they had just chopped down arguably their two biggest threats, the Clippers and Bucks, and came to Orlando feeling frisky. Yet they also came to Orlando without Bradley and it was only a matter of time before everyone noticed.
The effect of Bradley’s loss is just limited to two areas, which happen to be the two areas of weakness for the Lakers. Therefore, his absence is magnified beyond his actual worth. Bradley was a reasonably decent 3-point shooter (36.4% this season) and gave the Lakers another option in case any of their other shooters turned chilly.
A former two-time All-Defensive team selection, Bradley has a long-earned reputation for defense. With LeBron unable to stick with smaller and quicker guards and Rondo coming to this series rusty, Bradley was a preferred option whenever the Lakers saw Lillard types.
Besides changing Kuzma’s role, Lakers coach Frank Vogel will now search for reinforcements. That likely means more playing time for JR Smith and Dion Waiters, a pair of late-season pickups who weren’t in demand.
“In any series with any team, it’s something I’ll consider and evaluate,” Vogel said.
Yes, just a few days into the playoffs, it’s already all hands on deck for the Lakers, who can’t allow the Blazers’ confidence to expand much larger.
“It’s one game,” Vogel said. “We’re very confident with our group. We (just) didn’t make shots, you know what I mean? I think we can shoot better than we did.”
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