Breaking Down the New-Look Lakers’ Upside

For the third year in a row, the Los Angeles Lakers are trotting out a new-look roster.

And although they didn’t take home the biggest prizes in free agency after the Anthony Davis trade, the latest version of the Purple and Gold should be noticeably better than its immediate predecessors—and not just because the Brow is in town.

L.A. tried to snag a top-shelf signee like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, or Jimmy Butler to join AD and LeBron James. Those big names had other plans, so the Lakers aren’t quite the Space Jam Monstars that many of their fans hoped (planned?) they’d be. GM Rob Pelinka resorted to raiding the second-tier and role-player market, filling out the roster with a flawed, yet intriguing mix of veterans.

Landing Davis was obviously a gigantic step toward title contention. His elite rim-diving gravity, shot-creating skills and defensive range will make life easier for James and the whole rotation. But how will the rest of the offseason additions fit with the megastar duo?

Similar to last season, Pelinka signed or retained a few interesting personalities with unpredictable value—DeMarcus Cousins, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee come to mind first. Fortunately, they’re surrounded by more star power and a steadier depth chart than last year. Shedding Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson is likely addition by subtraction.

New coach Frank Vogel has more efficient shooters to utilize than Luke Walton had in 2018-19. The Lakers were 25th in league three-pointers per 100 possessions last season (10.0), per Basketball-Reference.com, and they were 29th in three-point percentage (33.3 percent). The 2019-20 iteration will improve both of those marks, thereby boosting the team’s overall offensive efficiency.

L.A. will first get more floor-spacing from its reloaded frontcourt. Cousins is a moderate threat from deep, and Davis was in the 73rd percentile in spot-up shooting (per Synergy) last season, as Nick Hauselman of Bball Breakdown noted.

But the remaining newcomers are reinforcements for an especially needy wing corps. Danny Green (career 40.4 percent from three-point range), Quinn Cook (41.8 percent), Jared Dudley (39.2 percent) and Troy Daniels (40.0 percent) will all streamline L.A.’s perimeter punch. That will immediately give James and Davis more room to besiege the rim.

May 30, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Raptors guard Danny Green (14) passes while defended by Golden State Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins (left) and guard Quinn Cook (right) during the second quarter in game one of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Vogel could assemble several different lineups with multiple respectable shooters, something Walton never could. And in some cases, he could have a decent three-point threat at every spot. For example, a lineup of James, Davis, Kyle Kuzma, Green, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would stretch the defense, while there are also a few slashers to punish opponents who overplay the arc.

Dynamic things could happen if the Lakers put LeBron and Davis in pick-and-rolls and surround them with all this newfound shooting talent. And despite Vogel’s reputation for playing big and not shooting much in Indiana, his time in Orlando proved that he’s willing to spread the floor if the personnel allows. In his first full season as Pacers head coach (2011-12), Indy made 6.5 threes per 100 possessions on 17.6 attempts; During his last season with the Magic (2017-18), Orlando made 10.5 triples on 29.8 attempts.

The 2019-20 Lakers will likely eclipse those numbers.

Vogel likes to use cross screens at the high post and on the block to create quick post-ups. In Orlando, he still ran a lot of weak-side picks for his bigs and forwards, but he started integrating more flare-screen action to those sets in order to stretch the defense and generate more three-point opportunities. Here are a few such sequences, via Coach Gibson Pyper of Half Court Hoops:

If Vogel mixes these cross-screen sets with different pick-and-roll combinations and dribble-handoffs, L.A.’s scoring will swell. As long as the Lakers properly value spacing the floor, (unlike former figurehead Magic Johnson), they’ll have a playoff-caliber offense.

It may take time for this new combination of stars and role players to gel, but there’s already some foundational chemistry between several of them. There are six players returning from 2018-19, which is actually more than some had predicted after the AD trade. Meanwhile, James and Davis have played together in the Olympics and on the All-Star team.

Furthermore, the star triumvirate of the 2017-18 New Orleans Pelicans—who won a playoff series—is reunited.

Brow, Boogie and Rondo were only together for a brief time, but they collectively turned NOP into a dangerous squad. The Rondo-AD pairing was particularly successful: In 1,310 minutes together, they posted a net rating of plus-3.9, per NBA.com, including a defensive rating of 103.7. Surrounding those two with James, Green and another shooter will present problems for opponents.

Nov 17, 2017; Denver, CO, USA; New Orleans Pelicans guard Rajon Rondo (9) and forward Dante Cunningham (33) and center DeMarcus Cousins (0) help forward Anthony Davis (23) up from the floor in the third quarter against the Denver Nuggets at the Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Davis and Cousins also consistently displayed great high-low passing instincts with one another, and DMC turned in the most “I’m making an effort to stay engaged” defensive season of his career while motivated next to Davis. The difference between that and his dark days with the Sacramento Kings was palpable, making it all the more tragic that his Achilles injury ended both his tenure and the Pelicans’ chances so prematurely.

The Lakers’ defense also has promising, tangible potential. They finished 12th in defensive rating last year (109.5 points per 100 possessions), and I’m honestly not sure whether they’ll outperform or underperform that rating next season. They’re losing some solid competitors on that end, like Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball, but they’ve brought in defensive talent like Davis, Green and whatever Avery Bradley rediscovers in the tank.

LeBron and Caldwell-Pope should both remain relative plusses, though the upside for surprisingly elite seasons remains for both now that they have proper reinforcement.

L.A.’s defensive outcome will hinge partially on which Davis shows up. He has tremendous range and displayed strong rim protection for many stretches of his first seven campaigns, yet he didn’t lock up the paint last season. His defensive field-goal percentage within six feet of the rim was a career-worst 62.7 percent. However, Davis was also “forcing” his way out of New Orleans at the time, was on a minutes restriction and was clearly not plugged in.

Assuming he is more engaged and stays home in 2019-20, he could quickly return to top form.

Another variable is how much the new wings mesh and take pressure off LeBron. Adding veteran defenders like Green and Bradley to KCP could ease James’ burden on that end. They’ll take turns chasing the opponents’ top wing scorer, enabling the King to expend more energy running the offense.

The limiting factor might be players like Cousins and Kuzma, whose defensive effectiveness has been all over the place. The hope has to be that if any coach can turn them into viable defenders, it’s Vogel.

Jul 13, 2019; El Segundo, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka (left) and head coach Frank Vogel (right) formally introduce Anthony Davis (3) at a press conference at the UCLA Health Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

During his seven-plus years as an NBA head coach, he’s maximized his personnel defensively more often than not. He gets his players to buy in as competitors and collaborators. And the Lakers have enough respectable defenders throughout the rest of the lineup, so it’s reasonable to project L.A. to be mediocre at worst.

Of course, all of this assumes that this somewhat combustible—though far less so than last year’s nightmare roster—respects Vogel enough to remain part of the program and lead by example. (Here’s looking at you, Lebron.)

I don’t blame you if you accuse me of being overly optimistic. And if you’re a Lakers fan, I don’t blame you for clutching your pearls because I haven’t already anointed this group 2020-2025 NBA Champions.

Sure, this roster is flawed. The Lakers aren’t particularly athletic in the backcourt and wing spots, and it won’t be a cinch for this group to play cohesively in the beginning. However, Davis’ arrival and upgraded shooting depth should generate more consistent offense. There is also a good blend of talent and locker-room leadership.

If Vogel pushes the right buttons, L.A. could be a top-three team in the Western Conference and an outside threat to chase the Larry O’Brien trophy.

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