We have yet to officially resume the 2019-20 NBA season, but the Los Angeles Lakers are quickly becoming one of the league’s top stories heading into the Orlando bubble restart.
Yes, it is true that these are merely scrimmage games. And yes, it is also true that players across the league are rusty and out of shape after not playing in actual game competition for over four months. However, the Lakers’ bench unit — which was a concern just a week prior due to the absences of Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo — is quickly illustrating that it may be a strength of the team after all.
Over the Lakers’ last two games — convincing victories over the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — the bench unit has simply shined.
During the Lakers’ 119-112 victory over the Magic on Saturday, it was the much-maligned Kyle Kuzma who was the star of the game. Kuzma has been facing a plethora of questions surrounding his next contract — his current deal is up at the end of the 2020-21 season — but he silenced the critics for at least a few days with his dominant performance.
The 25-year-old Kuzma scored 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting, including 5-of-7 on three-point attempts in the victory— a major improvement over his 43.2 field goal percentage and 29.7 percent shooting from beyond the arc on the season. The Lakers’ young sixth man put his imprint on a game in which Los Angeles lost Anthony Davis early on due to an eye injury.
Head coach Frank Vogel explained Kuzma’s efficient shooting performance against the Magic despite his lackluster efficiency during the regular season.
Via Tania Ganguli of The Los Angeles Times:
“He just works,” Vogel said. “He works on his shot; all our guys work on their shot. Tried little different subtleties to improve. But it’s the repetition that he puts in. That’s the reason why he’s making shots at a higher rate, not any types of tweaks.”
That is notable because the Lakers will need Kuzma to step up in case of an injury to Davis or LeBron James in the playoffs. Even if Los Angeles is able to avoid the injury bug during the postseason, they’ll be matched up with Western Conference squads filled with star power in teams such as the Los Angeles Clippers and potential first-round playoff foe, the Portland Trail Blazers.
Let’s fast forward two days later during a scrimmage against the Washington Wizards with star players such as Kuzma, James, Davis and Dwight Howard all sitting out. Despite the absence of firepower, newcomers J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters rose to the occasion in the victory.
Smith led all Lakers with 20 points, including a dominant showing from long distance with his 6-of-7 shooting display from three-point range. Waiters contributed in a complementary effort with 18 points and six assists on a solid 8-of-17 shooting clip from the field.
Prior to the restart in Orlando, Waiters had signed with the Lakers back in March, but had yet to play in an actual game with his new team. As a matter of fact, the 28-year-old had appeared in just three games with the Miami Heat this season due to off-the-court matters. He was eventually traded to the Memphis Grizzlies before he was released without ever playing a game for the franchise.
In the case of Smith, he was unemployed during the entire season and hadn’t appeared in an NBA game since November of 2018. Smith literally signed with the Lakers at the beginning of July.
Despite all of that rust for each player, Smith and Waiters appear to be in better shape than a lot of players who actually played during the course of the 2019-20 season.
To top it all off, the strong play of backup point guard Alex Caruso is just icing on the cake for what now appears to be a stacked Lakers bench unit. Caruso posted 17 points and six assists with a team-leading plus-16 plus/minus rating in the win over the Wizards.
That’s notable because Caruso played over 24 minutes in the game; which is the amount of action per game he might often see moving forward due to the absences of Bradley and Rondo. The 26-year-old averaged just 17.8 minutes per game when both Bradley and Rondo were in the rotation.
Vogel went so far as to claim how important Caruso is to the team’s title aspirations.
While Bradley and Rondo will certainly be missed due to their familiarity with the Lakers’ system and the chemistry they already have with the team’s key players, neither of those veterans possess the offensive firepower that a Waiters or a Smith can provide.
Smith is a former Sixth Man of the Year winner and a proven three-point sharpshooter who once erupted for 45 points in a single game. Meanwhile, Waiters once won Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors after he scored 33 points in back-to-back wins, including one over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors in 2017 — all while hitting the game-winning three-pointer with 0.6 seconds remaining.
All things considered, the Lakers’ bench unit is proving to be a strength. Whether it’s Los Angeles’ young duo in Kuzma and Caruso or their more seasoned backcourt featuring Smith and Waiters, the team’s depth may prove to be the deciding factor in the Lakers’ quest for a championship.