In his three years with the Los Angeles Lakers, LeBron James has had three very different rosters surrounding him, all with varying levels of success. Year One featured playmakers and the Lakers’ young core where injury caused them to miss the playoffs. Year Two saw much of that young core shipped off for Anthony Davis, while the roster was filled out with veterans; despite the pandemic, this culminated in the Lakers winning the championship. Year Three seemed to build off of the prior year, get valuable offensive upgrades but once more, injury riddled the team, causing LeBron to lose in the first round for the first time in his career
Now heading into year four of the LeBron era, the Lakers have now put together a roster that would go 82-0 in the early 2010s. This is undoubtedly a superteam – anyone who says otherwise is simply wrong – but one of the weirdest fitting superteams you will ever come by. Rob Pelinka has not gotten the respect he deserves for building the Lakers the past couple of years, but what exactly is his plan right now?
While shooting is not everything in today’s NBA – despite how it may seem – it is very important, more so for the spacing it creates than the additional point per field goal. The Milwaukee Bucks just won the 2021 title while shooting 32.1% as a team from deep; it was the threat that players could knock down those shots that kept their opponents honest, allowing Giannis to dominate on the interior.
One constant throughout LeBron’s time with LA is the team’s poor shooting ability. The Lakers have consistently ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of three-point percentage and volume. It is not difficult to see why when the team has boasted shooters such as Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo, but even elite snipers like Danny Green and Wesley Matthews have seen their percentages plummet.
After shooting a putrid 29.9% from three in the series against the Phoenix Suns, it was evident that the Lakers needed to fix their shooting problem. They nearly eradicated the issue by acquiring Buddy Hield, but the Russell Westbrook trade ruined all hopes of acquiring the disgruntled Kings player. Instead of having a player who shot 39.1% from distance in a down year, the Lakers now have the worst volume three-point shooter in NBA history. To make matters worse, the Lakers shipped off Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, their best shooter, in the Westbrook trade, making the deal a very expensive step in the wrong direction.
Pelinka did somewhat make up for this by signing several solid shooters: Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony, Kendrick Nunn, Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk, and Trevor Ariza. In classic Lakers’ fashion, do not be surprised if none of these players shoot over 40% from three – especially the latter three players – but they already significantly improve the team’s spacing.
While the Lakers will get virtually no spacing from Westbrook or any of their bigs – more on them later – fans hope that these signings allow the Lakers to at least be an average three-point shooting team, letting LeBron, Davis, and Westbrook do their damage on the interior.
In my 2019-2020 Season Award Predictions article, I argued that Anthony Davis should have won the Defensive Player of the Year Award while Frank Vogel should have come away with the Coach of the Year Award. Davis is a generational talent and his defensive versatility is nothing short of incredible, making life difficult in the paint and on the perimeter for opposing players. Vogel is a defensive genius, coaching the team to the third best defense in their title campaign and the best this past year, even with Davis and James sidelined for much of the season. In theory, the Lakers should have no problem maintaining their status as a top tier defensive team with Davis on the court and Vogel on the sidelines.
However, many key defensive stalwarts are gone from last year’s best ranked defense. KCP and Kyle Kuzma are with the Washington Wizards, Alex Caruso signed with the Chicago Bulls, and Dennis “The Bag Fumbler” Schroeder is with the Boston Celtics. Veterans Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris have also since left the team. Those are six average to great defenders gone. While Vogel may have his suffocating defensive schemes, it helps have players who are able and willing to execute; if you don’t got it, you don’t got it.
That being said, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the Lakers are still an excellent defensive team this coming season. Ariza is still solid despite his age, Bazemore played well on that end for the Golden State Warriors last year, Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker will compete, and Rondo and Dwight are already familiar with Vogel’s system. This is on top of Marc Gasol’s intelligence, LeBron’s great – elite when he wants it to be – defense, and Davis’ mastery on that end. It should be acknowledged that this team does feature some defensive negatives in the likes of Carmelo, Monk, Ellington and Westbrook. However, I believe in Vogel’s ability to get his players to buy in and it would appear that many players are ready to compete on that end of the floor. No one should be surprised when the Lakers finish with a top five defensive rating.
Who is the Lakers’ best center? Easy: Anthony Davis. His move to the five allows the team to play “small” without actually sacrificing size and length; a lineup featuring Davis, James, Ariza, and Bazemore would be absolutely stifling. The issue lies in Davis’ well documented displeasure in being a full-time center and I do not blame him. The physicality at the position wears a player down and it is natural for someone with his injury history to avoid that as much as possible. In key moments and particularly in the playoffs, expect Davis to be the lone big on the court, but he will not and should not start games that way.
Thus, the Lakers have two options for a big man to play alongside AD in Gasol and Howard, each providing a very different skillset. Gasol is old – no way around it – but he has a high basketball IQ, can space the floor, and provides some playmaking at the center position. Howard on the other hand is purely a run & jump man, making his living off of lobs, putbacks, and blocks as he did two seasons ago. It would make sense to start Gasol to maximize spacing with Westbrook while Howard could come off the bench. This plan, while logical, may not come to fruition with the uncertainty surrounding Gasol.
For weeks, it has been rumoured that Marc may opt to play in his home country of Spain with his brother Pau. The Lakers reportedly shopped him in a potential deal with Caruso and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Most noteworthy, the team just acquired DeAndre Jordan after he was traded to and waived by the Detroit Pistons. Jordan is essentially a Dwight Howard-lite at this stage of his career, so it would seem redundant to sign him with Howard already on the roster. But, the Lakers might be trying to recreate the center combo they had with Javale McGee and Dwight Howard, two athletic bigs to provide defense and vertical spacing so AD could spend as much time at the four spot as possible during the regular season. If this is the approach, it is possible that the team might not prioritize Gasol or move on from him altogether.
I believe that Jordan should serve as a “break glass in emergency” option should someone get injured or into foul trouble. He does not do anything better than Dwight Howard and his defense has slipped significantly as he has gotten older. Speaking of age….
The Lakers had an average age of 30.9 before the DeAndre Jordan signing; simply put, they are OLD. This offseason alone, they have added eight players age 32 or older, the most in NBA history. The roster already featured 36 year olds in LeBron James and Marc Gasol. As with every coin, there are two sides to the Lakers’ age dilemma.
On one hand, the vast majority of this team is well-beyond their primes. Rondo is not dropping 15 assists each night, Carmelo isn’t scoring 35 points in his sleep, and Ariza is no longer the poster-boy for the prototypical 3-&-D player. With the Lakers’ Big Three making max money, they will need to rely on several of these older players to make significant contributions, be it hitting open threes or slowing down opposing players. A decade ago, these players could do that and then some; now, there’s no guarantee they can fill that role.
On the other hand, with age comes experience. Ariza, Rondo, and Howard all have won rings with this franchise – the latter two under Frank Vogel – and all of the veterans are knowledgable of and willing to accept their role on the team. Last year, players like Schroeder and Andre Drummond came to the team making demands; this year’s iteration is all about sacrifice, doing whatever is needed for the betterment of the team.
Am I somewhat cheating by selecting not one, not two, but three x-factors for this Lakers team? Yeah, probably. However, I believe each player’s role and performance could drastically change the course of this season.
Talen Horton-Tucker went from barely playing in his rookie year to being a rotation player last year to signing a 3-year, $32 million contract this offseason, making him the Lakers’ most expensive player outside of the Big Three. Yet, there has not been much discussion surrounding the role he will play on this team. The Lakers have a very full guard rotation with Westbrook, Ellington, Bazemore, Monk, Nunn, Rondo, and THT, meaning at least one will likely fall out. Many suspect that could be Talen, but why would the Lakers pay him to not play?
With the Lakers in win-now mode, it is understandable that they may not have the patience for the 20-year-old to develop. While oozing with potential, THT is still very raw; his jump shot needs work, he needs to be more attentive on defense, and he needs to be more secure with his ball-handling.
That being said, the fact that Talen is so young is reason to believe he could make a significant improvement from last year. Images have surfaced of his evident weight loss and he has been working with The Lethal Shooter to improve his jump shot. The Lakers don’t need him to be a 20 point scorer, but if he can be more consistent with his shot and have the wisdom to pair with his physical gifts, he could be a crucial bench player for this team, maybe even challenge for the starting spot at some point.
Russ. Brodie. The new “Mr. Triple Double.” He is one of, if not, the most athletic point guard in NBA history. Even as he gets older, his speed, agility, and jumping ability is rivalled by few. He is a one man fast break with his rebounding ability and can find the open man for a dump-off pass or a corner three.
Yet for all the good that he does on the court, his fit with this Lakers’ team is highly questionable. His inability to hit perimeter shots will lead to spacing issues, particularly if two bigs are on the court. He is the team’s third-best player but operates best with the ball in his hands; in fact, he simply stands around when he is not in control of the ball. When the ball is in his hands, he frequently turns the ball over, leading to many empty, frustrating possessions. And for all of his athleticism, he has never committed to being a lockdown defender, often gambling and ball watching.
How does Frank Vogel maximize his new star point guard? One way to do this is to play him with shooters and Anthony Davis while LeBron is on the bench; a healthy diet of AD pick-and-rolls will lead to threes and lobs galore. Additionally, if he buys in, Russ could operate as a shooting guard when in the game with LeBron, setting screens and cutting to the basket à la Dwyane Wade while James was with the Miami Heat. While Westbrook has rarely played an off-ball role, one can hope being with this organization can allow him to accept it.
For all the negatives that come with Russell Westbrook, no one can deny his effort on a nightly basis. There will be many nights where Westbrook’s effort alone should will the team to regular season wins, getting LeBron and others crucial rest. In the postseason, the hope should be that he minimizes on his mistakes and lets LeBron run the team.
Following up a dominant postseason run that ended in a ring, AD had the worst season since his rookie year. A strained calf had caused him to miss half of the regular season. Then, a strained groin brought him and the Lakers down in the playoffs. Davis went from being almost unanimously considered a top-5 player to being left off top-10 lists; not that the opinion of internet nerds matters to him, but he does have much to prove this upcoming season.
Davis has all of the tools to be an MVP and DPOY winner in a given year. Few bigs can match his athleticism, speed, and strength, especially when playing at the center position. At 28 years old, he should be the Lakers’ best player on most nights. Given a full offseason to recover and prepare, AD should get back to what we saw in his first year with the purple and gold. He led the Lakers to a 2-1 series lead over the Suns before getting hurt. Similar to James Harden’s comments, a healthy Brow is scary for the rest of the league.
Though LeBron remains the best player on this team, the Lakers will need Anthony Davis to be Anthony Davis if they want a chance to reclaim the Larry O’Brien trophy come June.
PG: Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Rajon Rondo
SG: Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Talen Horton-Tucker, Malik Monk
SF: LeBron James, Trevor Ariza
PF: Anthony Davis, Carmelo Anthony
C: Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan
Guards: Russell Westbrook & Kent Bazemore
Forwards: LeBron James & Trevor Ariza
Center: Anthony Davis
Final Roster Moves
Free-agent James Ennis has been in Lakers’ rumours for the past month. Ennis would be a young(er) 3-&-D wing that this team could certainly use for their final roster spot. However, due to luxury tax implications, they want to leave that spot open to acquire someone on the buyout market. Thus, if the Lakers were to sign Ennis, it would almost certainly coincide with Gasol’s exit. I appreciate Gasol’s cerebral play, but the Lakers need more wing depth than center depth. That paired with the Jordan signing might spell the end for Marc’s time in L.A.