Why Can’t My Lakers Play Basketball the Right Way Like the Warriors Do?
As a lifelong die-hard Lakers fan who lives in the Bay area and lost a son and two granddaughters to the Warriors as fans, I have serious concerns about what the resurgence of the Dubs means to the future of the purple and gold.
Forgive me but, if there is anybody more entitled than Los Angeles Lakers fans, it’s Golden State Warriors fans. Now favored to win their seventh title, the Warriors could end up participating in six of the last eight NBA Finals. With their three superstars finally healthy and Wiggins and Pool elevating their ceiling, the Lakers may be forced to go through another Golden State dynasty to get out of the West and win their 18th NBA championship.
Fear of a suddenly healthy and championship-focused Golden State Warriors team potentially blocking the way out of the West for the Los Angeles Lakers should lead to changes in the roster Pelinka builds around LeBron and AD. Ironically, not only do the Lakers now have to learn how to play like the Dubs but they also have to figure out what kind of players they need to surround LeBron and AD with to ultimately defeat the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers are at a critical crossroads and the direction they chose to go this summer could determine whether they win another NBA championship with LeBron and how they handle the looming transition to the post-LeBron era. What Rob Pelinka does this summer will have a major impact on the success or failure of the franchise over the rest of this decade. He has an opportunity to solidify his job as GM if he can build a Lakers team to beat the Warriors.
If the Lakers want to build a team to beat the Warriors next season, they’ll need to (1) hire a head coach who plays modern basketball, (2) build a roster that can play big or small, and (3) find players who can shoot and defend.
1. Find a Head Coach Who Plays Modern Basketball
The Lakers move to hire Darvin Ham, who won an NBA championship as a player with the Pistons in 2004 and as an assistant coach with Bucks in 2021 is a great first step in building a team that can play like and beat the Warriors.
During his four years as an assistant coach for Milwaukee, Darvin was part of a coaching staff that prioritized ball movement, spacing, and 3-point shooting on offense and pick-and-roll drop coverage and rim protection on defense. While Darvin will obviously adjust his basketball philosophy to the roster Rob Pelinka gives him, it’s expected he will want to play an offense and defense similar to those favored by his mentor, Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer.
Hiring a coach from an team that plays new school five-out basketball on offense and old school rim protection anchored basketball on defense is an encouraging sign the Lakers plan to modernize how they play the game. Embracing constant ball and player movement and floor spacing on offense would be a great first step by the Lakers to play a style of offense similar to the Warriors instead of constantly running isolation plays for their superstars.
I worry a little about Ham playing the same drop pick-and-roll coverage that Frank Vogel favored when he had a shot blocking, rim protecting center and a interested to see the changes Darvin will implement now that he’s the coach. I’m hoping he’ll be quicker to make adjustments than his mentor Coach Bud. Since Darvin is younger, I expect him to be more aggressive than Budenholzer was in making both roster and stylistic changes as the season progresses.
In Darvin Ham, the Lakers successfully nailed the first of the three goals they needed to achieve by finding a dynamic young head coach who believes in a modern style of NBA basketball similar to that of the Golden State Warriors.
2. Build a Physical Roster That Can Play Big and Small
If the Lakers want to get past the Warriors in the West, they need be able beat the Warriors by playing big or paying small, which means they need both a young physical center to go big as well as a big 3&D wing to go small.
Being able to physically dominate Golden State when they play big or small is the key to beating the Warriors going forward. You’re not going to outshoot a team with Curry, Thompson, and Poole but you can beat them with bully ball. When they play big, the Lakers need to be able to offensively overpower the Warriors on the boards and in the paint. When they go small, they need to defensively dominate the Warriors with their small-ball-on-steroids lineups.
In other words, the Lakers need the versatility to play two bigs with a young physical center like Isaiah Hartenstein paired with Anthony Davis or small-ball-on-steroids with a wing like Otto Porter, Jr. paired with LeBron and AD. Dominating positional size and physicality is the ticket to beating the Golden State Warriors. You’re not going to outshoot them but you can out-physical them with size and power at every position, especially in the front court.
That means the Lakers need to find a young physical center like Hartenstein as well as a bigger 3&D wing like Porter if they’re going to build a roster of players who can take it to Golden State with greater size and physicality. Fortunately, both could be signed in free agency if the Lakers were to accept a hard cap. They could then pay Hartenstein up to $10.3 million per year for up to four years and Porter $4.1 million per year for up to four years.
Using their Mid-Level and Bi-Annual Exceptions to sign a center like Hartenstein and a wing like Porter would give the Los Angeles Lakers a significant positional size advantage over the Golden State Warriors.
3. Find Rotation Players Who Can Shoot and Defend
The biggest problem with the Lakers’ roster last season was there was no salary cap remaining to sign legitimate rotation players who could shoot and defend after trading for Russell Westbrook and his massive max contract.
That’s why one of the Lakers goals this offseason is to trade Westbrook and Horton-Tucker for two or three legitimate NBA rotation players who are better shooters and defenders than the minimum salary players from last season. While there’s no way a team is going to be able to consistently outshoot the Warriors from three, there are major moves the Lakers can seek this offseason to build a roster that’s better equipped to defend and beat Golden State.
While it’s doubtful any team would be willing to trade for Russ the player, his $47 million expiring contract should be extremely appealing to multiple NBA teams looking to clean up salary cap sheets and dump long-term contracts. The top potential trade partner is the Indiana Pacers who are looking to dump point guard Malcolm Brogdon and shooting guard Buddy Hield, who would be outstanding fits as the Lakers new backcourt with LeBron and AD.
Malcolm Brogdon would be a huge upgrade over Westbrook in that he is an excellent playmaker who thrives both on and off the ball, shot 37.2% on 5.2 threes per game, and is an excellent point of attack defender with 6' 5" size. Buddy Hield was the player the Lakers were planning on trading for before they switched to Westbrook. He shot 36.2% on 8.5 threes per game last year but is a career 39.8% 3-point shooter who averages 7.6 threes per game.
Trading Russell Westbrook and Talen Horton-Tucker and their two first round draft picks for a volume 3-point shooting backcourt would be a critical step to building a roster that could beat the Golden State Warriors in the playoffs.