LeBron James and Anthony Davis carried the Purple and Gold to a title, with L.A.’s assemblage of role players carrying out their duties and plugging whatever holes the Lakers had throughout the playoff run. Now, they are primed to run it back.
This was always going to be an interesting offseason for the Lakers. They had a number of internal free agents, with Anthony Davis chief among them. Davis will re-sign, eventually, but it was going to be intriguing to see how general manager Rob Pelinka reshuffled the roster.
As it turns out, the Lakers could be even better than they were last season. Pelinka’s moves have reflected a certain sense of urgency while also accounting for team needs.
Here are four reasons the 2020-21 Lakers could be an improvement over this past season’s championship squad.
1. Dennis Schroder provides vital backcourt scoring
One of the reasons the Lakers thrived in the playoffs was the performance of Rajon Rondo, who constantly made plays for others and occasionally provided his own scoring outbursts.
Rondo is gone, but the Lakers replaced him by trading for a more explosive guard in former Oklahoma City Thunder Dennis Schroder.
The German has traditionally been more of a score-first point guard in his career. Schroder averaged 18.9 points for the Thunder, though he also averaged 4.0 assists and 3.6 rebounds. The 27-year-old also has displayed his upside as a playmaker for others during his time in Atlanta with the Hawks.
Schroder was a vital acquisition for the Lakers on multiple levels.
For starters, he provides a secondary playmaker capable of creating his own shot, something L.A. lacked last year outside of LeBron James.
Schroder excels at getting into the paint and scoring at the rim. He can slash to the cup out of pick-and-roll sets or find rim-running bigs for lobs. As productive as Rondo was during the playoffs, he really struggled to finish at the basket. That will not be a problem for Schroder, who forces opposing defenses to make a decision.
The other reason Schroder has upside is his improved shooting stroke. Although he is shooting below 34 percent from deep for his career, Schroder shot 38.5 percent from beyond the arc on 5.0 attempts per game. If he can sustain those percentages, Schroder will be an absolute boon for the Lakers as a floor spacer also proficient at scoring inside.
2. Trez pick-and-roll sets
The headline is a bit of an oversimplification.
Los Angeles pulled a bit of a heist on the crosstown rival Clippers by signing big man Montrezl Harrell to a two-year deal. The move makes all the sense in the world.
Harrell is a hyperactive force who makes plays as a rim-runner and gets out in the open floor in transition. He is also capable of breaking down individual matchups off the dribble with his athleticism and skill.
But arguably the most intriguing part of the Harrell signing will be his chemistry in pick-and-roll with King James and Schroder, among others.
Harrell and Clippers guard Lou Williams were one of the league’s most dynamic pick-and-roll duos in part because of their scoring abilities and Trez’s aptitude for diving to the rim. Might he be even better playing with new personnel?
We have already established Schroder’s ability to score at the rim and make plays off the dribble. LeBron is almost impossible to stop when he gets downhill. It would seemingly be obvious that Harrell figures to benefit from these two playmakers. The skill sets are very complementary.
Really, how are opponents going to defend Trez-LBJ pick-and-roll sets? Merely forcing James to shoot is not always going to cut it. Simultaneously, hedging James and letting Harrell dive to the rim would almost certainly result in a score. Do not be surprised if the Lakers fully utilize Harrell’s explosiveness and finishing through a ton of pick-and-roll looks.
Harrell also gives the Lakers toughness and energy off the bench. He can play heavy frontcourt minutes and hold his own on the defensive end of the floor. Even though he has some flaws on defense, Frank Vogel can help cover them up with his coaching. Having AD out there alongside him will also help in certain situations.
3. Marc Gasol is an upgrade at center
JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard deserve all the credit in the world for their contributions to last year’s roster.
But with all due respect to those veteran centers, Marc Gasol is an upgrade at the position.
Gasol does not give the Lakers the same kind of athleticism or weak-side rotations McGee and Howard provided. However, he is one of the best interior defenders in basketball, and he also offers L.A. more on the offensive end of the floor.
The 35-year-old is no longer asked to score the ball. At least, Gasol is not the same kind of low-post presence he once was for the Memphis Grizzlies. Instead, the Spaniard has expanded his game to the perimeter.
Gasol has grown more and more comfortable shooting the 3 in recent years. He shot 38.5 percent from deep on 3.5 attempts per game with the Toronto Raptors last season, giving the Lakers a pick-and-pop, stretch big they lack outside of Davis.
More notably, Gasol is one of the better passing bigs in the game. He is averaging 3.4 assists for his career, including 3.3 with the Raptors last season. Gasol has a tremendously high basketball IQ, which should fit quite nicely with James and Davis.
Gasol’s ability to make the right play for others and provide shooting is critical for Los Angeles. He can also be a nightmare of a defender on the block … just ask Joel Embiid.
The Lakers might have lost Howard in free agency, but the willingness to trade McGee and make room for Gasol speaks volumes about the veteran being an upgrade at the center spot.
4. Lakers running it back
Yes, there are a lot of moving parts to this Lakers team.
Rondo, Howard, McGee, Danny Green and Avery Bradley are all gone, and they have since been replaced by new faces.
However, there is still a certain continuity given the Lakers brought back Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris. Perhaps more importantly, James and Davis could be that much better in the second year of their partnership.
Consider LeBron’s Miami years. The Heat lost in the 2011 NBA Finals in the first year of the Big Three, prompting Dwyane Wade to suggest James needed to be more assertive in establishing the fact Miami was now his team.
LeBron took the reins, and the Heat subsequently dominated each of the next two seasons en route to back-to-back titles. Is it not possible to envision a similar scenario play out for this Lakers team?
James has not shown any signs of slowing down. Davis is only beginning his basketball prime and will feel a new level of comfort and ease playing next to LBJ having won his first NBA championship.
The supporting cast is still strong, with KCP and Morris providing floor spacing and some positional versatility. Don’t forget about the bargain addition of Wesley Matthews, who will bring a stellar 3-and-D presence to the roster to help replace Green. Alex Caruso excelled as a defensive stalwart in the backcourt who meshed well with James. Plus, Pelinka posited faith in Kyle Kuzma, and L.A. will be that much stronger if he can unlock his potential.
At the end of the day, though, L.A.’s hopes come down to James and Davis. That is good news for the Lakers, as the superstar duo could be all the dominant with a full year of playing together under their belts.