3. Roster Construction
Speaking of the front office, Rob Pelinka completely turned the roster around this offseason. Only three players (LeBron, AD and youngster Talen Horton-Tucker) returned from last year’s team. By itself, that extreme roster turnover meant it will take more time than usual for players to mesh together as a team.
Pelinka started the summer by trading two of his best defenders, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (age 28) and Kyle Kuzma (26), to get Westbrook. Then he declined to match the Bulls’ offer for the Lakers’ best perimeter defender, Alex Caruso (27), a move that may well haunt the team this season and beyond.
The two stars, James (37 next month) and Davis (28) led the team to the 2020 title. But KCP, Kuzma and Caruso all played integral supporting roles. Without their contributions, the championship would have been at the very least much more difficult to win.
After acquiring Westbrook, Pelinka wisely re-signed Horton-Tucker (almost 21). But to fill out the roster the GM was severely limited by the salary cap. Most of the guys he signed were, by necessity, one-dimensional players.
The team now has three sharpshooters, Carmelo Anthony (age 37), Wayne Ellington (about to turn 34) and Malik Monk (23). Each is converting at least 38% of his shots from behind the three-point line. Melo is having a resurgent year shooting the ball, connecting at a career-best but probably unsustainable 50%. But all three are below-average defenders, although Melo is looking a bit better at that end than he has in years.
The two new centers, Dwight Howard (almost 36) and DeAndre Jordan (33), are both good rim protectors and rebounders. But just about the only offense either one provides is converting lob passes for dunks. Neither has any shooting range, so their defender can help clog the lane against Lakers driving to the hoop.
The team’s best two perimeter defenders are Kent Bazemore (32), who’s shooting just 31% from deep and 33% overall, and Avery Bradley (nearly 31), who was picked up via waivers on a non-guaranteed contract as a 15th man. AB is hitting 39% on 3’s. He moved into the starting lineup in LeBron’s absence and may well remain there after James returns.
Rajon Rondo (35) has injected life into the offense in some games but has looked his age in others. He’s shooting a woeful 29% from the field, 26% behind the line. On defense, he either steals or deflects the ball away from his opponent or gets beaten badly off the dribble. When the Lakers are at full strength he probably won’t play regularly.
Rookie Austin Reaves (23) has shown promise but is still raw. He may also take a seat on the bench when the injured warriors return to action. For now, he’s out with a pulled hamstring for a couple of weeks.
The championship prospects of last season’s team were destroyed by injuries to AD and LBJ. When one or both were out, the Lakers had trouble scoring.
The fortunes of this season’s team still depends on the performance of its two stars. But a big goal of the offseason was to provide more offensive weapons to take some of the scoring load off their shoulders.
Mission accomplished. This roster has more offensive firepower than the Lakers have had for many years and ranks third in the league in points per game. Already this season five different players (LeBron, Davis, Westbrook, Anthony and Monk) have scored at least 27 points in a game.
But there’s a tradeoff. So far this Lakers team is not nearly as good defensively as they have been under Vogel. After ranking fourth and second in points allowed in his first two years, they currently are 28th, allowing slightly more points, 111.5, than they score, 110.3.
To return to where they want to be on the defensive end of the court will take time and continuity. Players returning from injury should help. And that brings us to the next point…