Let’s be honest. If the Los Angeles Lakers make a major roster move before Thursday’s 3:00 pm EST trade deadline, the primary motivation will be to improve their matchup against their crosstown rival Los Angeles Clippers.
The prevailing trade deadline priorities we constantly hear are the Lakers need a second playmaker offensively for when LeBron James rests and an elite wing defensively to guard bigger wing scorers like Kawhi Leonard. While the Lakers would definitely benefit from adding a second playmaker and elite wing defender, there are ways to cover those deficiencies in the playoffs, such as LeBron playing more minutes and doubling Kawhi.
When you look at the head-to-head matchups between the two teams, however, the Lakers might be smarter to add a power forward or center who’s a dead-eye shooter to play small ball center to create more space. While the Clippers won both of the teams’ head-to-head matchups, the major factor in both wins was the lack of dominating games by LeBron James and Anthony Davis because of how the Clippers packed the paint.
Using traditional low post centers like JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard played right into the Doc Rivers strategy to clog the lane and take away space to prevent LeBron James or Anthony Davis from attacking the rim. What the Lakers need to add to their roster is an elite shooting power forward or center with the three-point gravity to open up the floor and create lanes for James and Davis to get into the paint and attack the rim.
Even if Davis were willing to play the five, the better solution is to leave him at the four, play James at the three, and replace McGee and Howard with an elite shooter with size at the five to create space for James and Davis. That’s a major strategic change the Lakers need to make that will not only maximize their natural strengths in attacking the rim but also take greater advantage of the Clippers’ obvious weaknesses in protecting the rim.
Having Davis play the four instead of five not only assures a more favorable and less physical matchup for him offensively but also allows him to roam defensively and ensures he won’t have to bang with a bigger true center. Leaving Davis at the four also enables the Lakers to turbo charge the lineup with an elite three-point shooter at the five who shoots better than 40% rather than Davis, who’s currently only shooting 31.7% from deep.
Finally, the Lakers chances of successfully trading for an elite shooting big man who could be an effective small ball center are much greater than their chances of trading for a capable second playmaker or elite wing defender. The top candidates would be the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica, the Wizards’ Davis Bertans, and the Suns Aron Baynes. A package of Kyle Kuzma and Quinn Cook should be enough to trade for any of the three.
The 31-year old 6' 10" Bjelica is averaging 12.2 points, 6.3 rebound, and 2.7 assists in 28.2 minutes and shooting 43.4% on 4.6 threes per game, the 27-year old 6' 10" Bertans is averaging 15.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in 29.3 minutes and shooting 42.9% on 8.4 threes per game. The 33-year old 6' 10" Baynes is averaging 11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 22.9 minutes and shooting 33.3% on 3.8 threes per game.
While the 24-year 6' 8" old Kuzma is younger and has more upside, he’s been inconsistent, currently averaging 13.0 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.0 assists in 24.9 minutes and shooting just 33.3% on 4.6 threes per game. The Lakers experimented with Kyle Kuzma as a small ball five early this season but he lacked the size, bulk, or experience to defend the position that the bigger 6' 10" Bjelica, Bertans, or Baynes possess.
While the Lakers will obviously pursue options for a second playmaker or elite wing defender, their best opportunities to find players to fit those roles will come from the free agents like Darren Collison and Andre Iguodala. They would be smart to focus their trade efforts on stretch power forwards and centers like the Kings’ Nemanja Bjelica, the Wizards’ Davis Bertans, and the Suns Aron Baynes, all of whom are realistic trade targets.
Bottom line, if the Lakers want a wining matchup advantage against the Clippers or the Bucks in the playoffs, they need to rethink their trade deadline strategy and pursue a small ball center who can shoot from deep.
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