The Team with the Most to Lose in the 2020 NBA Playoffs

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The Los Angeles Lakers have been one of the top squads in the NBA all season, as well they should be with LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a good array of support. But if they cannot win it all in this crazy COVID-ravaged year, they may lose in more ways than one. No matter the night and no matter the matchup the Lakers are consistently one of the best NBA picks for tonight, because this team has the talent to outshine any opponent. The ball is obviously in their court as they sit in the driver seat for the new reformatted NBA playoffs. 

With a fairly large group of older players, and a payroll way over the salary cap, Frank Vogel’s squad will be gunning for the Larry O’Brien Trophy. If they fail, the Lakers’ chances at holding on to Davis—and long-term success—could be jeopardized.

He may be the greatest basketball player of the 2000s, but even superstars have limits. If LeBron cannot win a title with AD, and AD skips town, what’s the next order of business for LA? Another rebuild? Key questions would arise, like which stars want to play with LeBron? Who can the Lakers afford? And how can they team-build without cap space or draft picks?

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Everything Seemed To Be Going So Well

Before the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything in the sports world to a screeching halt, the 2019-20 NBA season was cruising along perfectly for LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. They led the West by 5.5 games over their hometown rival Clippers, sitting comfortably at 49-14, the second-best record in the league behind reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. The Lakers have been the NBA public betting favorite to win the championship the entire season. The Lakers haven’t shown any quit in them so far this season. Even for a team that has a number of older veterans the team does not let up. The Lakers are even one of the best teams in the league in the second half with a +2.6 point margin in the second half. The Lakers often cover that 2nd half line which may be surprising to some NBA fans. 

But with the forced stoppage has come difficult contemplations for many teams, including the Lakers. First and foremost was “how will my team be impacted if this season is scrapped completely?” Now that the NBA has announced it will resume on July 31 at Disney World, the thought has become “what if all this time off, and playing in one central playing location, and playing in front of no fans in attendance hurts our squad and we go back to square one for 2020-21?”

For the Lakers, that scenario would be more disastrous than it would be for any other franchise in the league. They have a great shot to win it all, but the flip side to that coin is that they also have the most to lose in this crazy season’s playoffs.

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Too Many Eggs in AD’s Basket?

Nobody can blame GM Rob Pelinka and the Lakers for trading most of the farm for Davis, an unquestionably elite big man who dominates both ends of the floor. But there’s also no denying that the move—which Pelinka called a ‘history-shifting’ moment—could also backfire if Davis does not pick up his player option in 2020-21.

Take a look at all that it took to acquire the rights to the most famous Brow in sports history from the Pelicans: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, and the rights to De’Andre Hunter. Add to that a protected first-round pick in 2021, which would turn into an unprotected first-rounder in 2022 if LA’s pick falls between no. 8 and no. 30. And finally, the Pelicans’ choice to swap 2023 first-round picks with the Lakers, as well as the Pelicans’ option of the Lakers’ pick in either 2024 or 2025.

Is your head spinning yet? Well, imagine Pelinka’s and LeBron’s heads if the Lakers get eliminated from the 2020 Playoffs, and AD opts out of his player contract to become an unrestricted free agent, then becomes a different franchise’s ultimate Christmas present.

With or Without AD, Can LeBron Survive Yet Another Rebuild?

The Lakers would be ravaged in both the short-term and long-term if LeBron lost AD as his running mate. Suddenly the 35-year old would find himself a part of yet another rebuild. The squad would have irreplaceable production to try to replace offensively and defensively, with only approximately $25 million of projected cap space to work with and minimal first-round draft selections in the coming years.

Of course, even if Davis does re-sign with the Lakers on a max deal, the Lakers won’t be in an ideal situation. A max deal would guarantee him $35 million in 2020-21, and he and James alone would combine for over $76 million in salary the following season. With the league’s projected salary cap for the ’20-’21 season last estimated around the beginning of the hiatus at around $115 million, the Lakers would exceed the cap by over $10.72 million.

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That would be a tough spot to be in, considering seven current Lakers are over the age of 30 years old, and four are over 34. Also, the discount deals of key role players Dwight Howard, Jared Dudley, and Markief Morris expire at this season’s end, and Rajon Rondo will have a $2.61 million player option. LA will have to hope for some sweetheart deals from title-chasing vets, and even if that prospect comes to fruition, they will be deep in to the luxury tax with little to no room for error or injury.

Recent history has also proven that some stars may not want to play with the fiery and often-controlling James, opting instead to play with complementary talent that will let their stars shine, not steal their luster. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Jimmy Butler are among the many All-Stars who have turned down opportunities to team up with LeBron. This presents yet another challenge to the concept of a rebuild.

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No Time Like The Present

Of course, many of these stressors would be alleviated if LeBron, AD, and the Lakers win it all this Fall (wow, that sounds weird). It’s much easier to get the band back together than it is to recruit a new sidekick, never mind a full backing ensemble.

Pelinka was right that his move to unload a plethora of assets to acquire Davis was ‘history-shifting.’ By the end of 2020, we will have the power of hindsight to determine if that shift turned out to be a positive or negative one. One thing’s for sure—no team in the NBA has as much to lose this season as the Los Angeles Lakers. 

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