The recent past for the Los Angeles Lakers has had fluctuating success. After the 2020 NBA Championship run, the Lakers lost in the first round against the Phoenix Suns in the 2021 NBA Playoffs. The 2022 Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook on a draft night trade and missed the postseason entirely after being riddled with injuries constantly. Westbrook’s tumultuous tenure with the Lakers was cut short in early 2023.
In 2023, Los Angeles entered the postseason as the seventh seed following an impressive list of trade deadline moves. Winning in the Play-In Tournament, they entered the Playoffs against the second-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. LeBron James led the Lakers to a dominant showing, eliminating the Grizzlies in six games.
After winning a second-round series against the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers fell in four games to the eventual champions Denver Nuggets in the Western Conference Finals.
Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka kept the core together, re-signing Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, and D’Angelo Russell on contracts cheaper than their estimated values suggested.
Additionally, a core role player for the Miami Heat’s recent run to the Finals, Gabe Vincent, joined the ranks with the majority of the Lakers’ Mid-Level Exception (MLE). Taurean Prince signed a one-year contract, giving Los Angeles another wing to contribute on the perimeter and defensively.
Jaxson Hayes left New Orleans to accompany Anthony Davis in the front court. The Lakers’ active summer prepares them for a competitive 2023-24 campaign. They still have two open roster spots, leaving room for even more improvement.
With this offseason nearing an end, the Los Angeles Lakers are surely expecting the Larry O’Brien trophy to be within their grasp. How can they set themselves up for a season of serious contention in a Western Conference loaded with fearsome rivals?
Key Factor 1 – The Lakers need to prioritize depth and athleticism
Looking at the 2020 roster, one thing stands out against the crowd. The Lakers built their roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, filling the rotation with high-level role players and tough-nosed defenders.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was seemingly unstoppable at times in the Bubble run, serving as the glue guy for the Lakers. His athletic defense and fearless nature always gave the Lakers a chance in every game.
Additionally, Alex Caruso’s incredible play as Los Angeles’ starting point guard provided the Lakers with the prototypical guard next to LeBron James. Caruso could do a little bit of everything and harassed opponents on defense until they wore down and could not handle his determination.
In the 2020 Playoffs, the Lakers recovered the most fumbled balls per game and deflected the fourth most passes in the league, per NBA.com stat tracking. Staying active and aware on defense pushed the tempo to give the Lakers the edge in every matchup.
The current iteration of the Lakers shares numerous similarities to the 2020 Championship roster. Namely, Austin Reaves, Rui Hachimura, and Gabe Vincent are the perfect archetype of role players to push the Lakers to the next level of contention.
Austin Reaves’ defense and unstoppable scoring opens up the opportunities for LeBron and Davis to play their best. No defense is safe if they ignore Reaves, and the 25-year-old guard seems never to run out of energy and hustle.
Alongside Reaves in the backcourt are Vincent and D’Lo. Both players can orchestrate an offense and take some of the ball-handling needs from James. Vincent showcased the mentality the Lakers need a Playoff performer, perfectly matching the winning culture established in the premiere Southern California team.
Rui Hachimura follows a similar trend to his aforementioned peers. As a tall forward, he maintains the defensive intensity that Lakers head coach Darvin Ham demands of his players. In the 2023 Playoffs, Hachimura shot an outstanding 48.7 percent from 3-point range and was one of Los Angeles’ most efficient players.
One thing is missing from the Lakers’ secondary unit, though. In 2020, Dwight Howard had a career resurgence and greatly added to their post presence. Though Jaxson Hayes is a good center, he is likely not the ideal backup center behind superstar Davis.
The next key factor addresses this issue to bring the Lakers into the upper echelon of Western Conference teams.