Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell are fantastic additions to the Los Angeles Lakers’ bench.
Every championship team, including the 2019-20 Los Angeles Lakers, has an identity. It might be elusive, hard to pinpoint, but you know it when you see it.
A team’s identity provides a common philosophy of how they will play that everyone — from the head coach to the star player to the 15th man — coalesces around. It gives the team purpose and structure, informing their playstyle and the roles that each player must adopt.
The 2019-20 Lakers built their identity on a suffocating defense anchored by Anthony Davis. For as much talk there was about the Lakers’ lack of a true third option or lack of depth, defensive solidity was a unifying theme across the roster.
There was no player that could be mercilessly picked on à la Lou Williams. Each player was either a plus defender or at least could execute Vogel’s defensive scheme as a piece in the cog.
So, the Lakers overhauling their roster, bringing in Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell for Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard, does entail some risks. No one player, not even Anthony Davis, can sustain an elite defense, but one or two players certainly can derail it.
Again, I refer you to the game against the Clippers in which Lebron James relentlessly picked on Lou Williams as Kawhi Leonard and Paul George became more or less bystanders.
Schröder’s defense improved this past season, but he is not the pesky defender that Bradley was nor does he possess Rondo’s acumen. Harrell suffers from the inherent limitations that come with being a 6′ 8″ center.
A worse defense could also have a spill-over effect on the Lakers’ offense. The Lakers’ offense thrived in transition off of defensive stops and turnovers. A more porous defense will lessen the sheer number of chances the Lakers will have to generate those transition opportunities.
Through the signings of Wes Matthews and Marc Gasol, the Lakers have tried to pull off a tricky balancing act of improving their offense while also keeping their defense-first identity.
Evaluating the roster moves as a whole, it is hard to argue against trading for Schröder and using the mid-level exception for Harrell. Whatever risks these two moves entailed, Matthews and Gasol mitigated them enough to justify the moves.
But, even if the Matthews and Gasol signings hypothetically fell through, the offensive spark that Schröder and Harrell promise to introduce would have made the gamble worth it.
If the Lakers had two noticeable weaknesses during the 19-20 season, it was their half-court offense, which ranked 11th per Cleaning the Glass (excluding garbage time), and the lack of a primary creator in minutes that Lebron sat.
During the playoffs, two developments washed away those concerns. First, Rajon Rondo woke up. Although the mythology of playoff Rondo has been slightly exaggerated — in the three games preceding Game 6 of the Finals, he averaged 3.3 pts on 18% shooting — a team headlined by LeBron James and Anthony Davis only needed vintage Rondo in spurts.
Second, and more importantly, Anthony Davis turned into a lethal shooter, shooting a scorching 49% from the mid-range in 184 shot attempts according to Cleaning the Glass.
As the new season approached, it was fair to ask whether these developments were sustainable. Perhaps Rondo did conserve his energy during the regular season, but it was not as if he consistently produced good performances throughout the playoffs.
And, even if one were to buy Anthony Davis’ shooting improvements, could he have improved by this much? During the regular season, he shot 37% from the mid-range on 453 attempts.
Given these questions, signing Schröder and Harrell were worthwhile gambles regardless of the subsequent signings of Matthews and Gasol or concerns about their defense.
Both Schröder and Harrell inject elements of self-creation into the offense that the Lakers lacked behind James and Davis. Schröder is a jittery speedster that befuddles defenders with quick changes of direction. Harrell is a bruising paint-scorer that punctuates his assaults on the rim with animalistic screams.
Working together, they promise to accentuate each other’s strengths. A Schröder and Harrell pick-and-roll gives the Lakers another dimension to their offensive playbook. Harrell formed a lethal pick-and-roll partnership with Lou Williams. With time, there is no reason why he could not develop that same level of understanding with Schröder.
Furthermore, the Lakers are well-positioned to hide their defensive weaknesses. Frank Vogel is a defense-first coach that will preach a defense-first mentality and scheme ways to hide their shortcomings on that end, for example by scram. Lebron James and Anthony Davis are fantastic help defenders that can provide back-line protection in case something goes awry.
In the playoffs, the Lakers erased any doubts about weaknesses in their offense en route to their 17th championship. However, it is fair to ask whether the developments that allowed the Lakers to erase those weaknesses are sustainable heading into the 2020-21 season.
Given these questions, signing Schröder and Harrell was the right choice for the Lakers even with the risks of relinquishing some of their defensive identity.