The Lakers' retool makes sense
Yes, they got older. But they needed to change up the offense dramatically, and they've done that.
Good morning. Let’s basketball.
Saint Jerome Writing, Caravaggio
The Lakers got older this offseason, which is not typically something one of the oldest teams in the league (No. 4 in average roster age last year) should be doing when relying on an aging superstar and fighting for a championship. But it’s what the Lakers did: they added Carmelo Anthony (37), Dwight Howard (35), Trevor Ariza (36), Wayne Ellington (33) and Kent Bazmore (32). Marc Gasol (36) is coming back with LeBron James (36), and Russell Westbrook (32) came over in a trade that sent out players in their 20s.
L.A. also added Kendrick Nunn (who turned 26 on Tuesday) and Malik Monk (23) and invested in a multi-year deal for Talen Horton-Tucker (still 20). So it’s not a complete investment in veterans, a last hurrah of sorts. It’s a big investment in a major turnover of the supporting cast around LeBron and Anthony Davis, with an emphasis on shooting and experience.
Doesn’t that make complete sense?
The Lakers’ offense was a huge problem last season, despite having one of the best playmakers ever in LeBron for much of the season (he ended up playing 45 of 72 games) and A.D. for about half of it (36 games). L.A. was in the bottom 10 in three-point rate and three-point shooting percentage. The Lakers had the third highest turnover rate in the NBA and the seventh worst offense overall.
That the team squeaked into the playoffs at all is a testament to their defense, No. 1 in the NBA during the regular season.
The Lakers, defending their championship in theory, were an enormous disappointment in 2020-21, needing a tightly contested play-in game to make the postseason and getting their doors blown off in the first round by the Suns. Yes, LeBron and A.D. missed a bunch of time. But the Lakers, given LeBron’s age, could not simply afford to run it back. They needed to make some real changes to the roster. Hence the trade for Westbrook (an enormous swing for the fences, to borrow cricket parlance) and the near-complete revamping of the supporting cast.
Melo has shot 38 and 40 percent on threes his last two seasons in Portland. The paint gravity created by LeBron and A.D. should, in theory, open up the arc even more for Anthony this season, assuming he keeps his legs. (Workout sessions with his close friend LeBron every day might help, too.) Bazemore shot 41% on threes last season. Monk shot 40% on threes last season. Ellington shot 42% on threes last season. Nunn shot 38% on a pretty high volume of threes last season. Gasol shot 41% on threes last season.
Only one or two of those guys is likely to be on the floor with LeBron and A.D. at any given time, and Westbrook is a notoriously frequent and ineffective deep shooter. Horton-Tucker might be playing a larger role befitting his contract and open minutes in the rotation, and he has been an atrocious deep shooter in the NBA. Howard, who will split minutes with Gasol as the center when A.D. plays power forward (probably still most of the time in the regular season), doesn’t step out. LeBron’s deep shooting has been no better than average in L.A.; Davis is actually a shockingly mediocre three-point shooter despite his overall perimeter skill level.
In other words, this isn’t a total salve. The Lakers will likely still be no better than an average deep shooting team, depending on how Westbrook adjusts his game (please don’t laugh). But being an average team in an important category like three-point shooting — both in frequency and efficiency — would be a huge improvement.
The turnover problem will continue so long as LeBron continues to have a high turnover rate and Westbrook doesn’t change. Dennis Schroder, still hunting for a home, had a surprisingly high turnover rate last season, as did Alex Caruso, who has decamped for Chicago. Horton-Tucker and Gasol turned the ball over too much given their touches last season. If there’s hope here, it’s in that more Davis availability and an overall improved level of playmaking and creation from LeBron and Westbrook (who, again, are turnover prone) will reduce the pressure on other Lakers and lead to improvement. Another path to improvement here is an increased focus on transition, where Westbrook is deadly.
Having swapped out Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Caruso for lesser defenders, the Lakers will probably not finish No. 1 in defense again. But LeBron is an incredible defender. Davis is a top-3 defender in the league when healthy. Frank Vogel has proven consistently that his schemes and focus add to a team’s defense. An advantage of consistently playing true NBA centers is that it boosts the defense’s effectiveness: size still matters. Barring major regression from LeBron on that end or major injuries (again) to the top two, the Lakers should be able to have a top-5 defense again.
Even an average offense with a top-5 defense? That’s a recipe for a decent playoff seed, and that might be all LeBron and company need next season in the West given the Clippers’ lack of Kawhi Leonard, the Nuggets’ likely lack of Jamal Murray and the Warriors’ lack of a big offseason move. No offense to the Suns, Jazz, Mavericks, Blazers or Grizzlies — especially the Suns, who knocked the Lakers’ heads off their shoulders in May — but it’s easy to believe a LeBron-A.D. team can make a run to the title because we saw it two years ago.
The Lakers haven’t exactly won free agency — the Bulls and Heat have been splashier this week — but L.A. seems to have done quite a lot of what it needed to do this summer. Maybe it won’t work because of the age of most of the roster, maybe the clock is going to strike midnight on LeBron’s dominance this season. But on paper, this all seems like a pretty good plan to get the Lakers back in the Finals.
Latest Notable Non-Lakers NBA Free Agency Moves
Lucrative DeMar DeRozan sign-and-trade to Chicago, look at the Bulls spending dough!
Bruce Brown bet on himself by signing the Nets’ qualifying offer, he’ll be an unrestricted free agent next summer now
Women’s Olympic Tournament
Three of the four semifinalsts are set, one quarterfinal game still in progress.
China 70, Serbia 77 — Tough finish for China, who was so good in this tournament to this point. They looked headed to a medal, but ran into a really good team that had underwhelmed in the group stage. Serbia won the most recent EuroBasket and won bronze in Rio.
Australia 55, United States 79 — Rather easy work for Breanna Stewart and the squad. Stewie finishes with 23 on 8/10 shooting. Tough tournament for the Opals, as they’ll finish out of the medals for the second straight Olympiad. Next stop for them: hosting the World Cup next year.
Japan 86, Belgium 85 — Wow! Saki Hayashi hit a three to put Japan up with 15 seconds to go and Belgium couldn’t claw it back, so the host team moves on. I would love to be able to share a clip with you but thanks to the IOC and its broadcast partners’ aggressive social media monitoring I can’t find a reliable good clip, not even on FIBA’s channels. Bummer! Tough, tough break for Belgium. Emma Meesseman is probably heading to the All-Tournament team.
Spain vs. France (in progress)
Men’s Olympic Tournament
Gonna be a late night or an early morning for the men’s Olympic semis!
United States vs. Australia, 12:15 a.m. ET
France vs. Slovenia, 7 a.m. ET
An interesting problem: GMIB will be published on Thursday before the conclusion of the second semi, so a gold medal game preview will wait for Friday. The gold medal game will be at 10:30 p.m. ET on Friday night. Morning in Tokyo, I’m sure the players will love it. The women’s gold medal game will be the same time Saturday night.
Zach Lowe on ESPN Insider making the case that Kyle Lowry is a perfect fit with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. ($) I’m really quite in on this team.
The WNBA has a panel that will unveil the top 25 players in league history next month, followed by a fan vote to determine the greatest WNBA player ever. I feel like the GOAT has to be Cynthia Cooper, Sheryl Swoopes or Lisa Leslie. But being a fan vote, I bet Diana Taurasi wins it.
Owen Phillips put some data behind my plea to stop writing and paying attention to mock drafts. As I suspected, mocks correlate much closer to each other than to the actual draft order. You should really subscribe to Owen’s The F5 (which is free) if you love interesting data and cool visualizations.
Luka Doncic’s pride in his national basketball team is pretty cool. Slovenia has roughly the same population as the Columbus, Ohio, metropolitan area. I don’t think Columbus, Ohio, has a basketball player the level of Luka Doncic, however.
For all the handwringing about wasting the end of Stephen Curry’s prime, as is clear in this Marcus Thompson conversation with Curry in The Athletic, Steph — who signed a new, second $200 million plus extension with the Warriors — seems perfectly on board with the team’s current strategy. ($) That doesn’t mean fans need to be on board. And it doesn’t mean Steph can’t change his mind. But it’s worth noting.
How WNBA MVP odds have shifted over the course of the season. Jonquel Jones looks like the favorite right now.
Be excellent to each other.