Can the Lakers Win By Going Big?
The Lakers face serious challenges making a LeBron James, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins front court work in this era of small ball
Anthony Davis’ strong preference to play power forward has essentially locked the Lakers into a starting lineup with LeBron James at the three, AD at the four, and either DeMarcus Cousins or JaVale McGee at the five.
That lineup with three below-average three-point shooting big men is likely to give head coach Frank Vogel serious pace and space challenges as teams try to take advantage of the Lakers by going small. There are few teams in today’s small ball dominated game who can consistently win with just two elite three-point shooters in the lineup. Most of the top teams in the league prefer to have three or four good three-point shooters on the floor.
Offensively, the Lakers are likely to struggle to create space for LeBron James and Anthony Davis to play their best. While LeBron, AD, and Boogie are all willing to shoot threes, they’re also below average three-point shooters, which means teams will sag off of them to help and clog up the paint. Even if the Lakers start two guards who are elite three-point shooters, they won’t have enough shooters to create optimum spacing.
Defensively, the Lakers are likely to face a lot of three and four guard lineups that will spread the floor, run at every opportunity, and make LeBron, AD, and Boogie defend on the perimeter. Teams will try to force switches and run perimeter isolations or pick-and-rolls with whomever Cousins or McGee is guarding. They’ll rain threes and hope to use speed and quickness to chase down long rebounds and win the 50/50 balls.
The moves Frank Vogel and his coaching staff make to counter teams going small could well determine whether the Lakers’ decision to go big in the front court is a success as well as whether they can win a championship. While Frank Vogel’s done an excellent job assembling a strong team of assistant coaches, the Lakers still need an assistant coach who’s capable of making the offensive adjustments to make the big front court work.
So what moves can the Lakers make to counter the small ball lineups that teams will deploy against them? Here are five suggested strategies that should help the Lakers big front court of LeBron, AD, and Boogie work:
1. Play Outside-In.
The last thing the Lakers want to do is try to zig while everybody else is zagging. I don’t care how great your inside players are, you can’t win playing inside-out in today’s game. The simple reality is three is greater than two. The Lakers need to remember that and make sure they play the game that way and don’t get tempted to try and pound the ball in the paint or get cute and try to run some version of the Triangle Offense.
The Lakers need to play outside-in to create the spacing that LeBron and AD need to play their best. Play design that creates spacing will be critical. The Lakers need to run five-out sets to open up the paint or pick-and-rolls where the closest help is someone defending an elite three-point shooter. Frank Vogel and his staff need to focus on plays and sets to create open threes for the best shooters in the team’s starting lineup.
2. Make Boogie Brook.
The Los Angeles Lakers need to transform DeMarcus Cousins into a volume three-point shooter like the Milwaukee Bucks did to Brook Lopez last year. Lopez has redefined what a stretch five can mean for an NBA offense. If you compare the shooting skillsets and evolution of Brook and DeMarcus as centers, it’s easy to see that the next logical step for Boogie to take is to emulate the blueprint Brook took with the Bucks last year.
The 31-year old Lopez is an eleven-year vet who never took more than fourteen threes in his first eight years in the league before averaging over four hundred attempts last three years. The 28-year old Cousins is a ten-year vet who never took more than twenty-two threes his first six years before averaging close to two hundred threes the last five years. The Lakers need Boogie to follow Brook’s lead and become a true stretch five.
3. Play with Pace.
While the Lakers may not run as much as they did last year, they’d be wise to continue to push the pace to beat defenses down the court to get easy shots. The last thing they should do is walk the ball up the court and allow teams to set up their half-court defenses. Once again, the Lakers should use the Bucks, who played at the fifth fastest pace right behind Lakers’ fourth fastest pace, as their template for creating transition opportunities.
The transition three continues to become a more important offensive component in the modern game as teams recognize that spacing is just as critical in transition as half court. Whether it’s players running to the corners in transition rather than the rim or players trailing the break at the top of the key, the Lakers need to keep pushing the pace with the goal of creating easy high percentage wide-open threes in transition.
4. Limit the Switching.
Frank Vogel has already said that he wants his guards to fight through and over screens rather switching to make it more difficult for opposing teams to create mismatches to exploit. This is one of moves that will help the Lakers be a better defensive team, especially against teams who try to take advantage of by isolating guards on DeMarcus Cousins or Kyle Kuzma. Creating mismatches is big part of the strategy of small ball teams.
Vogel’s disdain for switching also complements his belief that defense starts with protecting the rim and the three-point line and forcing teams to take lower percentage midrange shots. Sticking with and in front of the player being defended has almost become a lost skill in the NBA but the Lakers are fortunate that they have two guards who could be among the best in fighting over and through screens in Avery Bradley and Danny Green.
5. Hire Shooting Coach.
It was reassuring to see the Lakers’ front office and coaching staff finally embrace analytics, understand the importance of three-point shooting in today’s game, and actually make an effort to sign elite three-point shooters this summer. The next logical step for the front office to take is to hire a professional shooting coach to help everybody on the team improve their mechanics and raise their three-point shooting percentages.
It’s frustrating to see the Lakers fail to take full advantage in areas where there’s no limit what teams can spend. The Houston Rockets had eight assistant coaches last year. The Milwaukee Bucks became a top three-point shooting team under shooting coach Ben Sullivan. It’s time for the Lakers to hire a dedicated shooting coach like Chris Matthews, KCP’s and Kuzma’s personal shooting coach, to help every player on the team.