Lakers’ defense needs an anchor!
Why the Lakers’ greatest need right now is for a mobile shot blocking center to anchor their porous paint defense
The Los Angeles Lakers desperately need to make a big move before the trade deadline to add a mobile shot blocking center to anchor their defense, which currently allows the second most opponent points in the paint in the NBA.
While modern NBA offenses with their emphasis on pace and space have made protecting the rim a more difficult challenge for teams, there is little question having an elite shot blocker to protect the paint and rim is still a critical component to building a top 5 NBA defense. The ideal rim protector today must not only block and deter shots at the rim but also must have the foot speed and lateral quickness to switch and defend guards and wings.
The Lakers’ defense this season has dramatically improved over last season, currently ranking 14th in the league with a defensive rating of 105.3 points versus the league worst 110.6 points per game the team allowed last season. In fact, before Lonzo Ball went out with a knee injury on January 13th, the Lakers’ defensive was the league’s 8th best with a defensive rating of 104.4. Adding an elite rim protector could elevate the Lakers’ defense to be top 5.
While definitely being an upgrade over last year, the Lakers’ current center duo of Brook Lopez and Julius Randle has not provided the rim protection needed to anchor a top 5 defense. Lopez has done a better job than Randle, averaging 1.3 blocks per game (14th best among NBA centers) while Randle has averaged just 0.6 blocks per game (49th best among NBA centers). What’s obvious is neither player is the Lakers’ long term solution at center.
Brook Lopez has been a major disappointment as a rim protector this season, seeing his minutes and shots blocked decreasing significantly from last year. He is just too slow and plodding to be a good fit at either end for the Lakers. And while Julius Randle has been a revelation as a small ball center with his ability to switch everything on defense and stay in front of smaller guards and wings, he just doesn’t have the size and length to be a starting NBA center.
With injury removing DeMarcus Cousins from consideration, the Lakers still have viable options for the modern mobile center they need. Heading the list are two young centers whom the Lakers could trade for right now or look to sign as free agents this summer. The two centers are the Dallas Mavs’ Nerlens Noel and the Atlanta Hawks’ Dewayne Dedmon. Either player would be a major upgrade and give the Lakers a young stud to anchor their defense.
The Lakers and the Mavs had trade talks regarding Julius Randle and Nerlens Noel earlier in the season but interest declined when Noel went out with a thumb injury. Now that Nerlens is healthy and the trade deadline is looming, there has been talk that the Mavs are again interested in pursuing Randle. There are a lot of reasons why the Lakers would be interested in Noel and the Mavs in Randle but it remains to be seen whether they can agree to a deal.
While Noel comes with baggage due to his contract conflicts with the Mavs, there’s little question he has major upside as a modern mobile NBA center. Aside from Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, there is no other center in the NBA who has career averages of more than 1 block and 1 steal per game. At 6–11, 220 with a 7–3 wingspan and great hops and quickness, the 23-year old Noel is the perfect center prospect for a young team like the Lakers.
Randle and Noel both have salaries of around $4 million and are slated to become free agents this summer. While both teams could wait until summer and try to sign the other team’s player as a free agent, it makes sense for both to trade midseason so they can ‘test drive’ their targets before committing to a long term contract. Since Randle likely has a greater market value than Noel, a trade where the Mavs throw in a player like Seth Curry could close the deal.
The other young center prospect the Lakers should consider is the Atlanta Hawks’ Dewayne Dedmon. At 7–0, 245 with a 7–4 wingspan, the 28-year old Dedmon didn’t start playing basketball until he was 18 due to his religion. While Dedmon is an excellent shot blocker, he doesn’t have the foot speed or lateral quickness that Noel does but is a tantalizing prospect because of his ability to spread the floor, averaging 39% from deep and 78% from the line.
While 5 years older than Noel, Dedmon still appears to have untapped upside as an NBA center. He outplayed his 2-year $12 million contract with the Hawks much like he outplayed his 2-year $6 million contract with the Spurs. While he has never played more than 22 minutes per game he is now playing, Dedmon could be an excellent option for the Lakers. The ideal trade would be Jordan Clarkson for Dewayne Dedmon and shooting guard Marco Belinelli.
While Dewayne Dedmon is not as good a defensive anchor as Noel, he would be a huge improvement over Brook Lopez. Dedmon’s ability to shoot from deep and stretch the floor would make him a perfect backcourt mate for Julius Randle if the Lakers decide to keep him and a great fit for the Lakers’ who desperately need more and better 3-point shooting. Adding Dedmon and Belinelli would definitely help improve the Lakers’ long shot at the playoffs.
Elite rim protection in today’s NBA has been made more challenging and complicated by the changes in modern NBA offenses designed to optimize shots at the rim, the free throw line, or from beyond the 3-point line. Teams like the Lakers who want to run make protecting the rim even more difficult. Most modern NBA offenses play outside-in rather than inside-out, meaning that the offense is initiated by perimeter players attacking the rim with drives looking for layups or fouls or open shooters stationed behind the 3-point line.
Preventing penetration from guards and wings is hard enough with the rules that prevent hand checking on the perimeter but almost impossible if a team does not have a mobile center who can block and deter shots at the rim. Luke Walton has done a great job revamping what was the league’s worst defense into what could become one of the league’s best defenses. Pulling off a trade for Noel or Dedmon could elevate the Lakers’ defense to top 5 league status.
While fans seem to be supportive of keeping Randle and Clarkson, the truth is neither player is going to be a starter on an NBA championship contender. Trading one of them for a dynamic young defensive center is the smart move.