As we head deeper into a new year, NBA title contenders in each conference are clear. Here’s an assessment of the top-tier Western Conference teams and the big question facing each in 2020.
(Eastern Conference contenders)
Los Angeles Lakers (29-7)
THE BIG QUESTION: How good is the supporting cast around LeBron James?
Entering the season, it was natural to question whether James, who turned 35 on December 30, still was a dominant force. James has crushed any doubts that his prime is behind him by authoring one of the best seasons of his career (24.9 ppg., 7.9 rpg., 11 apg.). Thanks to his commitment to becoming an even better playmaker, he has lifted the Lakers back to prominence.
Led by Anthony Davis, L.A.’s supporting cast seems, on the surface, to be well suited for a title challenge. Veterans such as Dwight Howard have experienced a resurgence while youngsters such as Alex Caruso have become rotation staples. Glance up and down the roster and it seems like the club has built a deep, versatile roster to complement a superstar still at his peak powers. But if you pop open the hood, questions emerge about how finely tuned the Lakers’ engine actually is.
The on/off split from James is about as massive as you’ll find on a title contender in recent seasons. In the 1,229 minutes James has played, the Lakers have outscored opponents by 12.4 points per 48 minutes. When he sits, that number swings over 16 points in the wrong direction, to -4.1 per 48.
Even more troublesome is that even Davis doesn’t seem to be saving the non-James lineups. In the 360 minutes Davis has played without James, the Lakers have been outscored by 4.9 points per 48. Played out over a full season, that’s a mark of a team that winds up in the lottery, not the Finals.
There should be some expectation with any great player that his teams drop off when he’s out of the game. But these numbers, while certainly imperfect, still paint a picture of a team massively reliant on James. It seems obvious that his continued health is essential to the Lakers’ title hopes. Yet given the impact James seems to have on the success of this squad, there are deeper questions that emerge about how well the complementary pieces will do their jobs.