Scheming to get three superstars to mesh is exponentially tougher than two superstars. The Lakers have to figure out how to merge the games of three high powered superstars into a championship offensive and defensive team.
While that sounds challenging, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook are on the Lakers today because of the ‘meeting of the minds’ they had in LA at LeBron’s home two weeks before free agency last summer. With Russ at the one, LeBron and AD agreed to slide to the four and five to leave room in the lineup for a pair of 3-point shooters at the two and three. That’s the championship lineup that was put in mothballs last regular season.
With three centers on the roster last season— Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, and Andre Drummond — the Lakers limited Anthony Davis to just 10 regular season minutes per game and 20 playoff minutes per game at center. While some of the lack of playing time at the five could be blamed on Davis’ injury issues, there’s no question the Lakers were strategically trying to limit his minutes playing center and accommodate his preference to play the four.
But the addition of Russell Westbrook changed everything, including asking LeBron James to move to the four and play off the ball and Anthony Davis to play major minutes at the five despite his stated preference to play the four.
WHAT’S THE LAKERS’ PLAN TO OPTIMIZE THEIR SUPERSTARS?
Rob Pelinka said in his press conference today the Lakers accomplished their three main goals this offseason: adding 3-point shooting, playmaking, and a return to the two athletic/defensive center model used in their title run.
The challenge Pelina will be passing on to head coach Vogel is how to fit the Lakers’ new playmaking in the form of Russell Westbrook, six new proven 3-point shooters, and two new traditional low post centers into viable lineups. The dilemma is that none of the Lakers three superstars are elite 3-point shooters so playing a traditional center along with three superstars only leaves one lineup spot for a team that now has six proven 3-point shooters.
While Vogel has not yet specified what position James and Davis will be playing this season, the team’s roster construction following the Westbrook trade clearly favors LeBron moving to the four and Davis moving to the five. Realistically, Rob Pelinka has given coach Frank Vogel a roster that clearly appears to have been specificaly constructed to support a small ball lineup with LeBron James playing the four and Anthony Davis playing the five.
From the roster construction Pelinka put together and the media comments from sources like Marc Stein, Jovan Buha, and Rich Paul, it appears the Lakers’ front office’s plan was for the team to embrace small ball on steroids.
WHAT CAN THE LAKERS LEARN FROM THE NETS LAST SEASON?
Even though Durant, Iving, and Harden only played 35, 54, and 36 games respectively out of the 72-game regular season schedule, the Lakers can still learn a lot about what to expect statistically from their three superstars.
Basically, the Los Angeles Lakers followed the identical route the Brooklyn Nets did to build their superstar big three, trading for a elite point guard to be their third superstar to complement their existing superstar twosome. The Lakers got their superstar big three by trading for Russell Westbrook to go with LeBron James and Anthony Davis while the Nets got theirs by trading for James Harden to complement Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
Changes are inevitable when a team starts a lineup with a superstar big three whose usage rate is close to 30% because there just aren’t enough minutes or touches for all three superstars to continue playing the same way as before. For the Nets, the superstar who sacrificed was James Harden, who became the team’s primary playmaker but saw his points drop from 35 to 25 ppg. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving basically posted the same stats as prior year.
James Harden’s adjustment to be more of a playmaker than scorer is a perfect example of the kind of sacrifices superstars need to make to win and is exactly what the Lakers will need mostly from LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
WHAT CHANGES WILL LEBRON, AD, AND RUSS HAVE TO MAKE?
With James Harden willing to sacrifice scoring for playmaking, the Brooklyn Nets integration of a third superstar went smoothly. The Lakers’ integration of Russell Westbrook, however, could very well turn out to be transformative.
The Lakers aren’t going to ask newcomer Russell Westbrook as the third superstar to change his game the way the Nets did James Harden. Instead, they’re going to use the Westbrook trade as an opportunity to go small. Instead of asking Russ to change how he plays, the Lakers plan to give him the ball, move LeBron to the four to cut his workload and extend his career, and slide AD to the five to unleash their small-ball-on-steroids lineups.
While Russell Westbrook will have to improve his shot selection, limit his turnovers, and play elite team defense, LeBron James and Anthony Davis will have to make the biggest adjustments since they have to change positions. Fortunately, James and Davis have championship experience playing the four and five together so the adjustment should be seamless and give the Lakers the best offensive and defensive frontcourt duo in the entire league.
In the end, the adjustment the Lakers have to make to integrate Russell Westbrook as their third superstar is to transition from a team running traditional twin towers lineups to a small ball-on-steroids juggernaut.
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