Amidst a wave of dissatisfaction with a first round exit in the playoffs and a desire to bring back elements from their bubble championship, the Lakers shocked everybody by finally committing to a small ball transformation.
Less than a year since winning their 17th NBA championship, the Lakers completely turned over their entire roster from last season, retaining only LeBron James and Anthony Davis and 20-year old Talen Horton-Tucker. Instead of running it back, the Lakers changed direction completely, trading for Russell Westbrook to create a superstar big three and then filling out the roster with the sharp shooting guards and wings needed to play small.
Small ball will transform the Lakers in six sweeping ways: Russ at the one, LeBron and AD at the four and five, rim protection for 48 minutes, better 3-point shooting, relentless fast breaks, and more switching on defense.
1. RUSSELL WESTBROOK AT THE POINT
There’s no question the catalyst to the Lakers’ decision to go small was the opportunity to trade for polarizing triple-double guru Russsell Westbrook, who will take over from LeBron James as the team’s primary playmaker.
While the Lakers expect Westbrook to improve his shot selection and consistency on defense, they’re looking for Russ to bring his usual high speed, high energy, full throttle kamakaze rim-pressuring style of play. Westbrook’s addition to the starting lineup was the move that opened the door for the Lakers to move James to the four and Davis to the five to create openings at the two and three for proven 3-point shooters to create spacing.
As Russ, LeBron, and AD discussed before the Lakers pulled off the trade with the Wizards, the arrival of Westbrook changed everything and was the main reason behind the decision to slide LeBron and AD back and go small.
2. AD AND LEBRON AT THE FOUR AND FIVE
While the Lakers did a great job adding playmaking, shooting, and shot blocking to their roster, the decision to slide LeBron and AD to the four and five and go with their championship small ball lineup was the killer move.
There’s never been any question the Lakers were better with LeBron at the four and AD at the five but up until now they have bent over backwards to accommodate Davis’ stated preference to play the four instead of the five. Westbrook starting at the one changed all of that as there was no way the Lakers could prevent teams from packing the paint against their superstars if they started a traditional low post center instead of a second 3-point shooter.
Moving LeBron to the four and AD to the five transforms the Lakers into a lethal offensive team that will reprise Showtime 2.0 and the most lethal switch everything defensive lineup since the Warriors’ Death Lineup.
3. RIM PROTECTION FOR 48 MINUTES
While the Lakers lost two elite perimeter defenders in KCP and Caruso in the offseason, they were able to add two bigger 3&D specialists in Bazemore and Ariza. But their major defensive move was bringing back Dwight Howard.
The poor personnel decisions the Lakers made at center before last season could have doomed the team’s chances of repeating even if they had stayed healthy. The lack of capable rim protection this last season was horrifying. Replacing Gasol, Harrell, and Drummond with Davis, Howard, and Jordan will transform the Lakers defense and give their perimeter defenders the security blanket that having a rim protector on the floor for all 48 minutes.
Frank Vogel has always been a strong believer that defense starts at the rim. Now he’s finally going to get the chance to show what kind of defense the Lakers can build now that the team has committed to playing small ball.
4. BETTER 3-POINT SHOOTING
Westbrook’s poor shooting from three was a major reason many pundits disliked the Lakers trade for him but Rob Pelinka surprised everybody by bringing in six proven 3-point shooters to surround his three superstars.
While the Lakers’ three superstars are subpar 3-point shooters, Pelinka has added enough quality 3-point shooters so Vogel will be able to include a proven pair of 3-point sharp shooters in every lineup he puts on the floor. The additions of Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Carmelo Anthony, Kent Bazemore, Kendrick Nunn, and Malik Monk should give the Lakers the veteran 3-point shooting they need to create spacing for their superstars.
3-point shooting has become the key to NBA offenses with league recording the highest 3-point shooting percentage in league history at 36.7%. The Lakers exceed that mark for this season and rank in the top half of the NBA.
5. RELENTLESS FAST BREAKS
The Lakers led the league in transition points and efficiency during their bubble championship run. Last season, they saw their transition points drop by 5 points per game. Expect Russ to make the Lakers the fast break kings.
Part of the bubble championship blueprint Frank Vogel wants to return to is the Lakers leading the league in fast break points and transition pace. The Lakers priority will be to play the kind of defense that generates fast breaks. With a defense anchored by three elite shot blockers and three athletic superstars who can defend multiple positions, the Lakers will reward their defenders with devastating fast breaks and early transition opportunities.
With three of the fastest and most athletic superstars in the league in LeBron, AD, and Russ, the Lakers intend to pair their elite team defense with what could be a legitimate reincarnation of their Showtime teams of the 80's.
6. MORE SWITCHING ON DEFENSE
The biggest area of concern regarding the Lakers’ new roster is how do they replace guards Caruso and Caldwell-Pope, the team’s two best point of attack perimeter defenders who are no longer part of the team’s roster?
Part of the solution is the addition of a pair of veteran 3&D players in Kent Bazemore and Trevor Ariza, who could be paired with the Lakers’ three superstars to create a small ball on steroids lineup that can switch everything. The other part of the perimeter defensive solution is the addition of two proven shot blockers to backup Anthony Davis who is going to start at center to back up the Lakers’ perimeter defenders with strong rim protection.
With two superstars in LeBron and AD who can defend all five positions and other versatile defenders like Westbrook, Ariza, and Bazemore who can guasrd up and down, expect the Lakers to do a lot of switching defensively.
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