Are the players the Los Angeles Lakers have signed to support LeBron James and Anthony Davis commensurate with the superstar duo’s needs? BreakingNews Sports NBA’s Mark Deeks takes a deep dive into the Lakers’ 2019-20 roster.
In the summer of 2018, the Los Angeles Lakers pulled off arguably the biggest free agency signing in 22 years of league history since their own acquisition of Shaquille O’Neal back in 1996. But after agreeing terms with LeBron James they immediately paired him with an abundance of playmakers, an awkward collection of young and old, an excess clutter of wings and aspiring wannabe go-to guys that never gelled.
In the summer of 2019, they won the Anthony Davis bidding war. Between he and LeBron, they now have two of the best players in the world, something which has come at the cost of gutting their roster, but which does immediately convey the spectre of title contention. But only if the supporting cast around them are commensurate with the pair’s needs.
This time around, the approach to flanking LeBron has been different.
The trade with New Orleans for Davis saw Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram go back the other way. Ball, at one time the point guard of the future, never thrived in an off-ball role due to his own wonky shooting (something he looks to have changed this summer), while Ingram’s intentions as a half-court playmaker outstrip the reality of how good of one he is right now.
Gone too is Lance Stephenson, unable to get a new NBA contract and instead returning to China, and although both Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso were re-signed over the summer, no new playmakers other than Davis were brought in. Instead, acquisitions in the backcourt have come in the forms of Quinn Cook, Avery Bradley, Danny Green and Troy Daniels.
Cook is a shooter, Green is a shooter, Bradley is a shooter and a cutter, and Daniels is one of the most one-dimensional players in the league today, that dimension being just raising up from outside. The Lakers ranked second-last in the league in three-point shooting last season, third-last in turnover percentage and a lowly 24th in offensive rating. Too many cooks did indeed spoil the broth.
The direct intent here is to re-establish LeBron’s position at the top of the play-making hierarchy. Now with 16 years of huge minutes, impossible burdens and lengthy postseason runs wearing on his body, and, having ended last season on the lengthiest injury absence of his career, the hope – or rather, the need – is that LeBron can still get up for at least one more big push.
Regardless of how close he gets to his best days, James has slowed physically. He walks more than any other player in the game; the athletic bursts are still there, and he still covers the entirety of the court in only a few ridiculous strides, but only because he saves stamina in the first place with the slower overall tempo.
The potentially-awkward reconciliation comes from the fact that making LeBron the primary half-court lynchpin adds to the wear and tear on him, yet it also is the best way to maximise his talent, considering his transcendent passing ability, the ease with which he gets to his spots on the floor, and the fact that he has simply always been better on the ball rather than off it.
Last year’s decision to pair him with playmakers was done with the intent of lessening his individual burden. In reality, though, it soon became apparent that the other options were not cohesive or good enough to fulfil this role, and that the Lakers could only compete with LeBron at the head of the snake.
This only exacerbated the lack of shooting, because even James’s excellent passes right into the shooter’s pockets did not make those shooters any noticeably better.
In acquiring Cook, Bradley, Green and Daniels, however, along with the returning Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a streaky but useful shooter) and Rondo (much better as a catch-and-shoot player in the second half of his career than the first), it is hoped now that there will always be two average to above-average shooters for James to work around at any one time.
Davis, meanwhile, never achieved competitiveness in his seven seasons with the Pelicans because he never had the right balance of playmakers to help him. Superstar talent though he is, Davis is the ultimate finisher more than he is the creator. He can score from all areas of the court, yet it is better for him to catch the ball on the move and make quick decisions rather than play in the Nikola Jokic role, handling and creating up top or in the post. He can do it, but if he is doing it, he is not in his most optimal role.
Both James and Davis have always needed the other half of the pick-and-roll player, the unstoppable weapon in the two-man game that could best be exploited by their presence. In each other, they should now have it.
In flanking that two-man game with shooters, the offensive quagmires of yesteryear should be avoided. Offensively, even with the unfortunate recurrence of injury to DeMarcus Cousins, the Lakers should be vastly improved on last season. When you have two superstar players both capable of playing four positions, it would be impossible not to be.
What will determine the success of the team and of the new roster construction is the defensive end. James’ Cleveland Cavaliers teams which made four consecutive NBA Finals appearances did so with offensive units not unlike that of these current Lakers, but what cost them against the Golden State Warriors – except for the one time it did not – was their individual and team defense.
As LeBron has got older, his own defense has tapered off markedly. The walking is particularly evident on this end as he tries to hide in the back-line – great observer and communicator though he is, he does not do too much of the rotating himself anymore. With the exception of a hungry pre-payday Tristan Thompson and a brief bit of Timothy Mozgov, Cleveland never had anyone in the back-line who could cover for that.
Davis, though, is an excellent rim and paint protector. He immediately can erase a lot of mistakes, and his presence allows a gambling defender like Caldwell-Pope to take his chances. With Green also in the fold as one of the better wing defenders around to play strong team defense, as well as analytical favourite Jared Dudley, the defensive rebounding of Dwight Howard and the combo guard-presence of Bradley (who has lost his way defensively over the last couple of years but whom was once regarded as a pest), the Lakers have the makings of some good defensive units as well.
If you were to begin a roster with Anthony Davis and Anthony Davis alone, you would first add a second superstar that could get him the ball in the right situations, be the primary play-maker, serve as the bailout guy, and be the isolation scorer. You would add a strong physical defensive center and elite rebounder to alleviate his physical requirements in man-to-man match-ups down around the basket, someone who needs few touches but who can seal and finish, finish lob plays and expand the playbook with their verticality. You would further add catch-and-shoot wing players, solid perimeter defense, ball-pressuring guards to form a fearsome switching combination, and athletes he can run with.
With LeBron, Dwight Howard, Green, Bradley and Kyle Kuzma respectively, you could argue that the Lakers have the entire checklist.
If you were to begin a roster with LeBron James and LeBron James alone, you would begin with a realm of shot-makers who can play in four- and five-out line-ups, who can finish on the move and at the basket, and of whom one is a second superstar that can get his own baskets in the half-court so that James does not have to do it all. You would get strong interior defenders and wings eager to help down low and onto shooters, you would get someone who would guard the point guard position full time without needing to play like one on offense, and most importantly, you would find a bevy of players who can finish in primarily off-ball roles with efficiency and without pouting.
You could argue that they have ticked off that checklist, too.
Make no mistake, the team is still built around LeBron. The only above-average ball-handler, playmaker and passer on the move other than him is Rondo, someone with whom LeBron does not pair well. This is deliberate – barring injuries, when James is out, Rondo will be in, and vice versa.
Bradley and Caruso will likely put in sizeable minutes at the point guard spot as they can be the three-and-D players that give LeBron the ball in his hands while defending the speedsters that he cannot, better than Rondo can, but there are so few perimeter playmaking options lined up this season for a reason – because this is LeBron’s team that goes as far as he can take them.
There is very little chance that this all works without Davis. There is no chance it works without LeBron.
This is not to say that he will be the team’s most impactful player, at least not during the regular season. The need to manage James’ load and save him up for the postseason push might mean relatively limited regular-season minutes and greater statistical production for Davis, who, it should always be remembered, is a phenomenal all-around talent who can play as a giant guard if needs be.
Needs may be, to begin with at least, and it would seem to be out of character for LeBron to be so individually minded as to overexert himself in the regular season when the younger Lakers, Davis included, can carry some of the load in the less-important early stages.
In the playoffs, however, the construction around James will be self-evident. Davis will get LeBron back to the postseason, but once there, LeBron will take Davis closer than ever has been before.
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