The Los Angeles Lakers suffered a frustrating overtime defeat to the Golden State Warriors on Monday night, marking the second time this season they have had the opportunity to put away the defending champions at the buzzer in regulation but come up short.
The fact that it was on Kobe Bryant’s jersey retirement night didn’t do much to lessen the sting. Unfortunately, the game wasn’t the only thing the Lakers lost.
Starting center Brook Lopez badly sprained his right ankle, and reports out of the locker room after the game were that the big man was on crutches.
While X-rays were negative, an MRI confirmed the sprain, and Lopez is expected to miss a minimum of three weeks.
Let’s review the candidates who may be needed to help fill the void.
Kyle Kuzma: The Lakers snagged the steal of the draft when the selected Kuzma 27th overall. He’s a versatile player who can score the basketball at a high level, but his defense has been an issue. The effort is there, he just needs some fine tuning on that end.
Against the Warriors, Lakers head coach Luke Walton elected to swap Kuzma into the starting five once it was clear Lopez would not return. Though, that may have been a result of playing a Warriors team that likes to go small and spread the floor.
Running Kuzma in the starting five likely means Larry Nance Jr. slides into the starting center spot, leaving the Lakers extremely small and vulnerable on the boards and at the rim. However, their offensive spacing and perimeter defense would be improved.
Andrew Bogut: The veteran was brought in during the offseason to provide some toughness, and while he has proven himself to be an impressive defender and passer over the course of his NBA career, it’s hard to imagine him absorbing all of Lopez’s minutes at this juncture.
Walton does like to keep his rotations intact when possible, and starting Bogut in order to keep the Kuzma/Julius Randle pairing together off the bench would accomplish that goal, but it seems to be a long shot.
Julius Randle: After surprisingly becoming the Lakers go-to option at center off the bench after starting at power forward in his previous two years, Randle has emerged as the best five on the roster.
Statistically, Randle has outperformed Lopez, using his new-found fitness to become an adequate rim protector who excels at switching on defense. Randle isn’t able to provide the floor spacing the Lopez theoretically can, but Lopez is only hitting from downtown at a 30-percent clip, which lessens his impact there.
It’s not a coincidence that the Lakers’ top four rotations in terms of Net Rating feature Randle at center, but there are legitimate questions regarding how well he can handle going up against the behemoths some teams have at the five.
With a new contract coming next summer, this may be the perfect opportunity to throw Randle into the deep end and find out whether or not he can hold his own as a starting center in the league.
Ivica Zubac: The dark horse in the race. Last season, Zubac was everyone’s darling, showing a soft touch at the rim, a variety of moves, and a decent ability to block shots that had many comparing him to a young Marc Gasol.
This season, Zubac surprisingly has rarely seen the floor, though he has played well in the G League with averages of 21.5 points, 2.8 blocks and 9.5 rebounds in four games. If Walton decides to go with a traditional big man, Lopez’s injury could be just the opportunity that Zubac needs to prove that last season was no fluke.
Thomas Bryant: The man who could play spoiler for Zubac, Bryant has been playing just as well if not better for the South Bay Lakers. In 12 games, he is averaging 22.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.
But the most impressive number is Bryant’s 46 percent shooting from three on 6.2 attempts per game. Bryant probably isn’t ready for prime time just yet, but on a Lakers team badly in need of shooting, his ability to hit from outside while still protecting the paint is going to have to earn him some looks sooner rather than later.
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