Rob Pelinka has been busy this offseason — how much better are the Los Angeles Lakers because of it?
Most championship teams tinker around the edges as they look to improve some of their minor weaknesses. Every once in a while, one will add a big star, as the Warriors did in 2016 when they signed free agent Kevin Durant.
But what the Los Angeles Lakers did this offseason is highly unusual. Five of the team’s top 11 players are no longer with the club, by virtue of either their own accord or of Rob Pelinka’s desire to avoid complacency and push the envelope.
Three players, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo, left the Lakers in free agency. Two others, Danny Green and JaVale McGee, were traded. And one other who didn’t play much anyway, Quinn Cook, was waived.
Although the team still hasn’t officially signed star Anthony Davis, it is universally agreed that AD will re-sign with the team once he determines what length of contract is most advantageous to him. So let’s look more closely at what resulted from the moves Pelinka made within the constraints of the salary cap to revamp the team.
1. Dennis Schroder Replaces Rondo at Point Guard
Rondo is adept at setting up offenses and is a better passer. But Schroder is an improvement at pretty much every other facet of the game. He’s a much better shooter and scorer. Last season he averaged 19 points a game while shooting 47%, including 38.5% from behind the three-point line. His defense also took a big step forward as he utilized his quickness and wingspan to great effect.
Even though Rondo raised his level of play in the postseason, there is little reason to expect that, at age 34, he can do so over an entire season.
Meanwhile, Schroder is only age 27, and his career is just peaking. Although his contract expires after this season, the Lakers will have his Bird rights, giving them an advantage if they want to re-sign him
This move is a major upgrade for the Los Angeles Lakers.
2. Wes Matthews Jr Replaces Green as a 3-and-D Wing
Green might not have lived up to expectations, but he still was second on the team in three-point percentage, 37% (although he slumped in the playoffs to just 34%) and was one of the Lakers best perimeter defenders.
Matthews, at 34 a year older than Green, shot almost as well from behind the line (36.4%) during the season but nearly 40% in the postseason. His defense isn’t quite as strong as it once was but he is still a fearless competitor who never backs down.
This move is more or less even, but Green will earn $15.4 million this year and Matthews will be paid $3.6 million
3. Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell Replace the Center Tandem of McGee and Howard
McGee and Howard were both excellent rim protectors and their defense could be missed. Together they averaged 14 points, 13 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game.
Their styles of play were quite similar. The biggest difference is that McGee is more athletic but he isn’t strong enough to hold his defensive position against big centers. Howard, meanwhile, is one of the league’s strongest men. But neither provided much offensive punch.
Gasol and Harrell, on the other hand, will provide a wide variety of contrasting skills. Gasol is an ultra-smart player and even at age 35 is still one of the league’s strongest post defenders. He isn’t the offensive force he once was, but he remains a good three-point shooter (38.5% last year) and is still a terrific passer, particularly from the high post.
Harrell, whose signing surprised just about everyone, is an energetic dynamo, an absolute bull in the paint. He is a great finisher who consistently scores inside against bigger players, is an outstanding offensive rebounder and is terrific at converting lob passes off the pick and roll.
Defensively, he may not be a great rim protector, but he is adept at taking charges. In Vogel’s system, he will undoubtedly use his athleticism to become a better defender.
Last season, Gasol and Harrell together averaged 26 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. Although McGee and Howard were both important contributors to the Lakers title last season, the new duo represent a solid improvement at the center position
As a result of these four additions plus the return of Davis, Alex Caruso, LeBron James and Kyle Kuzma and the re-signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris, the Lakers now have 10 first-rate players- enough for two teams!
So how did Pelinka do? If you asked every other NBA executive whether he would have traded Bradley, Cook, Green, Howard, McGee and Rondo for Gasol, Harrell, Matthews and Schroder, the answer would probably be a unanimous YES!
Yes, an elite shooter would have been nice, but let’s not get too greedy. Also, adding a third-string center would provide extra depth, particularly in case of injury, and that might still happen.
In the summer of 2019, Pelinka helped build a Lakers team that just earned its 17th title and first since 2010. This offseason, he resisted the urge to just stand pat and instead opted to try to make the Lakers even better this coming season.
The result is a team that might dip just a tad defensively but has enough new firepower to more than make up for it. And now one of the team’s biggest question marks may be solved.
Last year, after LeBron and AD, the Lakers never knew who they could count on to score. The newly-acquired Schroder and Harrell each averaged close to 20 PPG last year and were named the top two sixth men in the league. The realistic expectation is that each will easily be a double-digit scorer once again.
In the larger picture, Pelinka’s moves kept intact his master plan to set the Lakers up for years of success. Next summer, they will be well below the salary cap, and Laker fans anticipate that Rob will be successful in signing another all-star quality player.
For the 2020-21 season, through two trades and several deft signings, Pelinka has likely created what appears to be an even stronger Lakers roster than the one that just won the title. How could anyone hope for more than that?
A basketball professor would likely give him an “A”.
All statistics courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com