Role Call: A Breakdown of the 2019-2020 Lakers

The Los Angeles Lakers have enlisted the services of a superstar for the second consecutive summer. On June 17, news broke that the New Orleans Pelicans had agreed to trade Anthony Davis to the Lakers in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and a basket of first round picks and pick swaps, including the No. 4 overall pick in the 2019 Draft. While the promising potential of Ball, Ingram, and Hart will not be realized in a Lakers uniform and fans will certainly miss watching them grow, any sorrow that followed the trade is outweighed by the vision of having LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the same court together.

Having another top-ten talent on the same team should excite fans and the organization alike, but as a starting point only. Last summer, when the Lakers signed James to a four year, $154 million contract, the excitement of having the best player in the world in a Lakers uniform died with his injury on Christmas Day, and the player signings that followed that of James did not work out and were unable to carry the load in James’ stead.

Last July, General Manager Rob Pelinka said that he coordinated the plan to sign versatile players who can defend and playmake with both James and President of Basketball Operations Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson. “Earvin and I had a conversation, and LeBron echoed this sentiment: I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap,” Pelinka said. “No one is going to beat them at their own game, so that is why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we will have an advantage.”

After the vision failed last season, Johnson abruptly resigned from his position before the season even ended on April 9th, leaving Pelinka to be the de facto head of basketball decisions for the franchise. With perhaps the most important summer ahead of him, Pelinka secured Davis and then took the worthwhile risk of waiting out Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. After Leonard signed with the Clippers, the Lakers quickly used their estimated $32 million left in cap space to fill out the roster around Davis and James, but in a much different fashion than last summer. 

Shooting and Spacing

Last year, the Lakers did not prioritize shooting in free agency. While names like Lance Stephenson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have the ability to make three-pointers, they did not possess the level of reliability that a player of James’ caliber needs. In fact, Josh Hart came into last season with the highest three-point percentage posted in the previous year out of every player on the team (39.6). The Lakers ended up posting the second-worst team three-point percentage at just 33.3 percent, only doing better than Phoenix, who finished the season with just 19 wins. 

This summer has so far been different. Even before the Lakers monetarily joined the chase for Kawhi, they signed Troy Daniels and Jared Dudley both to minimum deals. Though their playing time will most likely end up being minimal, both are considered to be three-point sharpshooters with career averages of over 39 percent from deep.

Once the news about Leonard’s signing broke at 11pm PT, the Lakers did not even wait until morning to begin filling out the roster with multiple three-point threats. Danny Green immediately announced in a video that he would be signing with the Lakers, and news broke during the following days that Los Angeles had also signed players with reliable three-point shots like Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, and Avery Bradley while also resigning Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso.

Add that list of names to a roster that already has James, Davis, and Kyle Kuzma, and this summer compared to last summer in terms of shooting is night and day:

Instead of a roster with the best shooter in the previous season being rookie Josh Hart, the Lakers have a group of shooters that together in the previous season averaged Hart’s team-leading 39.6 percent going into last year. 

It should be said, however, that Green and Cook are the only players on the roster who have proven to be consistent sharpshooting threats throughout their careers. Kuzma had an off year last year shooting just 30.3 percent. Bradley’s percentage dropped to 33.7 in 49 games with the Clippers last year (though he did experience a promising resurgence finishing the season with Memphis by posting per game averages of 16.1 points and 4 assists with a 38.4 three-point percentage and what would be a career-best 53.7 true shooting percentage). The Lakers are not Davis and James with three shooters who all shoot 40-plus percent from beyond the arc surrounding them.

Nonetheless, James does have something he did not last year in ten capable shooters around him. This ensures that there should never be a lineup on the floor including James and Davis where at least two other players are not deep ball threats. In fact, the only Lakers who are expected to get legitimate minutes while not being a threat from deep are Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee.

Ball Handlers and Perimeter Defense

This is where the Lakers will have some holes that they will need to be filled by players who can be fairly called either inexperienced or regressing.

On July 8, just a week into free agency, Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported that LeBron would start at point guard this year. Two days later, new Lakers head coach Frank Vogel refuted the report, saying “There are no decisions made on our starting lineup. No imminent plan to start LeBron at the point guard spot.” On the other hand, Vogel did go on to concede that “[LeBron will] be a primary ball handler in our system the same way he has been his entire career, but we’re certainly not going to ask him to do anything he hasn’t done his entire career.”

Los Angeles does have three point guards on the roster in Rondo, Caruso, and Cook, but it safe to assume at this juncture that Vogel’s offense will primarily run through James. Most speculative lineups have Green, Davis, and either Cousins or McGee starting around James, but that last spot will probably be filled by the guard who can space the floor and defend the opposing team’s point guard the best. 

It would not be in the Lakers’ best interest to make Green defend the point guard position as he is best utilized as a wing defender. Avery Bradley presents perhaps the team’s best hope in defending guards, but it must be stated that he has taken a step back over the past two seasons due to a number of leg injuries. Though Cook can certainly provide spacing and his effort on the defensive end is easy to see, he is not hailed as a good perimeter defender. 

Rondo is not either, and on top of that, it is worth mentioning that his fit with James proved to be terrible this past year. According to Tom Haberstroh of NBC Sports, by March 6 of last season, “LeBron’s plus-minus is positive with just about every Laker teammate and wayyy positive with some, like Kuzma and Lonzo. But LeBron with Rajon Rondo? That’s a -55 for the season.” A point guard who struggles to shoot and defend at his position like Rondo is the antithesis of what the Lakers should want in a player to complement LeBron. However, having Davis and Cousins back on the same team as Rondo may give the Lakers some reason to keep Rondo on the floor.

That leaves Caruso as the remaining option, and the Lakers will have to rely on the relatively unknown guard to provide legitimate minutes, whether as a backup or starter. He is already a more respectable defender than Rondo and Cook, and his 6’5” frame certainly is a reason why. He can be trusted to bring the ball up to take pressure off of James, and as an added bonus, he made 48 percent of his three-point attempts in 25 games with the Lakers last season. Even more impressive, he posted a 53 percent average on catch-and-shoot threes. On paper, Caruso might just be the best fit to start at the point, though he may not yet have gotten enough of an opportunity to prove his consistency.

Interior Defense and Rebounding

Going into free agency, the Lakers had a plethora of players at the power forward position in Kuzma, James, and Davis. They were weakest at the guard position and knew they needed some pure centers, especially since Davis made it clear that he likes to play the four and would prefer not to play center. 

As the dust started to settle in the days following Leonard’s decision, the Lakers scooped DeMarcus Cousins and resigned JaVale McGee. In terms of ability, McGee and Cousins complement each other perfectly. Cousins is a modern big that can work down low, work in a pick-and-roll, and also stretch out to the three-point line when needed. He has lost a lot of explosion after he tore his achilles two seasons ago and his quad tear this past April probably contributes to that, too. While he can still rebound and throw his weight around, McGee is the more traditional big man that can pick up where Cousins lacks, being a super athletic and long lob threat and rim protector.

Cousins makes all the sense in the world on a minimum contract and with a full summer to rehabilitate the quad he tore in the first round and continue to get his strength and power back on that left leg where he suffered the achilles tear. Cousins also has history with Davis as a teammate in New Orleans and how well they played together before his achilles injury is well-documented. The Lakers are banking on this summer to help Boogie return to as close to what he was before the tear as possible. 

However, the Lakers know that this summer having no effect on Cousins’ condition is just as likely of a possibility. But that is the beauty of this signing: there is a safety net. Even if this summer does nothing to improve Cousins’ condition, the Lakers can still expect him to be a viable scorer and rebounder. In 30 games with the Warriors after coming back from the achilles, Cousins averaged 16.3 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. Doubters will point to his lack of production in the Finals after trying to come back from his quad tear, but his limited minutes might be an indicator that his quad was not healed all the way.

Even if this summer does not help Cousins, his worthwhile contributions as a Warrior during the regular season is enough to label him as low risk, high reward.

McGee deserved to return to the Lakers based on his play last season. He proved to be a necessary piece in the plans of Los Angeles by his ability to protect the rim and provide a constant lob threat to force defenders to pick their poison when players drive to the basket. He also posted averages that indicate a resurgence of 12 points (his career-high), 7.5 rebounds (his best since 2012), and 2 blocks per game (his best since 2013).

Pelinka believes McGee’s slowed production during the second half of the season was due to the fact that he was hospitalized with pneumonia in December. McGee only missed seven games due to the illness, but apparently did not fully regain his strength and health until the end of March. 

In five games between March 19th and March 27th, McGee posted incredible averages of 18.4 points and 14.4 rebounds per game on an amazing 68.9 percent. Mike Trudell asked McGee if there was any reason for why he was playing so well lately. “No, nothing else,” McGee started. “Just feeling good, that’s all. People don’t realize once you get pneumonia it takes a couple of months to get over it.”

With the Lakers prioritizing defense and shooting this offseason, it is almost as if the Lakers looked at Cousins and McGee and figured these two fit those priorities while making up for each other’s deficiencies. Overall, between Kuzma, James, Davis, Cousins, and McGee, the Lakers will have five talented bodies to play around the four and five positions

Expectations: Temper the Excitement

With all that said, what should Lakers fans expect out of this new roster? Excitement about Davis with LeBron and having a chance to contend for a title is rational, but expectations should be tempered in the beginning. With only six players returning from last year’s roster, it will take Los Angeles more than just training camp and six preseason games to figure each other out and start to reach their potential. Last season, the Lakers had five new faces on the squad (including Tyson Chandler, who signed with LAL on November 6 after being bought-out by Phoenix), and they started the season 0-3.

Now, with seven new faces and certainly a more talented cast surrounding James and Davis, Lakers fans should learn from last season and not expect domination from the start. Rather, while last season says expectations should be tempered early on, it also says that fans should not be surprised by how good this team can turn out to be once each piece starts to settle into his role and with each other. 

It is almost cliche at this point to bring up the fact that the Lakers were 4th in the Western Conference standings before James injured his groin, but it remains true. This is not to say that the Lakers should be surging after a few weeks towards the top of the West, but to underscore the often understated importance of building team chemistry and then maintaining that chemistry, especially with so many new faces.

Lakers fans learned the hard way last year how injuries can derail playoff aspirations, so health is key to this team’s success. Famous for her work with Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles rehired Judy Seto but this time as Director of Sports Performance. Fans should be encouraged in this respect.

The fact of the matter remains, however, that the Lakers traded away their young potential for a superstar in Davis who is just reaching his prime at 26 years old and rebuilt their roster in an image completely different from that of just a season ago. And while this year’s roster certainly looks more promising than last year’s, the Lakers still need a lot of things to go their way if they want to win championship No. 17.