“I know I am not a starter,” Jared Dudley stated securely and confidently during Lakers Media Day last month. “I can get 5 or 6 DNP’s and then have to play 25 minutes because AD (Anthony Davis) is on load management. You have to know your identity, and be a star in your role.”
While Dudley’s declaration could be easily chalked up as yet another rah-rah cliche that is common course for players during the annual press event, a mere glance at Dudley’s earnest expression suggested he meant this. And for the Lakers, it’s a sentiment that very well may be the team’s mantra.
The front office has the done the hard part. The Lakers have two of the best ten players in the entire world rocking their jerseys. But, as seen in their loss to the Clippers on opening night — in which their bench got outscored by 41 points — sometimes sheer top-shelf talent is not enough.
The Lakers will need more. While its unlikely they can get more stars, they can hope that some of their role players will be stars in their roles.
The team took a radically different approach this past offseason in the type of players they chose to fill said roles beside LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Instead of the playmaking bucket-getters from a summer ago, the front office instead opted for the more conservative route of signing veterans who can shoot. While this new approach is far safer, the sweet spot in terms of roster construction is probably somewhere in the middle, with a mix of auxiliary shooters and playmakers. But the Lakers didn’t go that route, opting to solely focus on acquiring deadeye marksmen.
So far, the Lakers have seen both the good and bad aspects of this. Danny Green, who the team inked after missing out on their pursuit of Kawhi Leonard, has been one of the brightest spots of the season thus far and a shining example of excelling within a role.
Green has essentially done everything that was initially envisioned of him when he signed with the team. Which is: provide fantastic and steady defense coupled with scorching perimeter shooting, two skills that star players dream of when it comes to teammates.
I thought Danny Green was tremendous last night as a help defender. He did a really good job digging down on Utah's post/drives and his timing on his three interceptions helped initiate the Lakers' transition game. Oh, and shooing 64.3% from three to start the season is good too. pic.twitter.com/Z0t9u5NBSC— Alex Regla (@AlexmRegla) October 26, 2019
Through the first three games, the Lakers have a defensive rating (how many points they allow per 100 possessions) of 97.2 when Danny Green is on the floor, a number that jumps to 112.4 when he sits, according to Cleaning the Glass. Those metrics match the eye-test, as the veteran’s instincts as a team defender have been wonderful, and also helped generate chances in what has been an otherwise stalled transition game.
Green has also held up his end of the bargain in terms of his shooting, canning 52.6% of his threes thus far (and 60% on his wide-open attempts), helping at least partially dispel the “shooters come to L.A. to die” theory.
The 32-year-old has not only been the only player who has endeared himself with the fans, as Dwight Howard — of all people — has also seemed to have taken Dudley’s words to heart.
Howard’s signing was vastly polarizing at the time due to his checkered history with the team and a spotty reputation amongst the last few locker-rooms he was a part of. But so far, he has not only kept his word, but has backed it up on the floor.
As one of the first players off the bench in Frank Vogel’s rotation, Howard has been a pivotal part of the team’s first two wins and is firmly a positive as the Lakers have a whopping efficiency differential (points scored per 100 possessions subtracted by points allowed) of +31.7 when he’s been on the floor this season.
The most recent example of Howard’s stellar performance so far came against the Charlotte Hornets on Sunday night, a game in which Howard scored 16 points (on perfect 8-8 shooting), snagged ten rebounds, blocked four shots and was a game-high +23 against his former team.
“We’re a team from top to bottom,” Howard told The Athletic after the team’s win over the Jazz on Friday, a game in which he tallied two blocks and two steals. “We have a lot of great pieces. I just want to make sure I do my job the best that I can do it, and I know if I do that, I’ll put my team in a great position — or our team in a great position to win.”
Howard’s resurgence has been nothing short of a wonder in his short time back with the Lakers. He has been an intimidating interior presence, has played within a team construct on offense (only a little over 5.3% of his shots have come from the post, 18.9% with the Wizards) and has looked every bit of a player who not only deserved a second chance, but warranted it.
Opposing teams have only shot an eFG% of only 44.3% with Howard on the floor, rim protection that particularly impressed his head coach against Charlotte:
“He protected the rim. Anything that came to the basket he either blocked or changed. ... He was a star in his role tonight.” - Vogel says of Dwight Howard— Tania Ganguli (@taniaganguli) October 28, 2019
The play of Green and Howard has dovetailed nicely with a couple of strong efforts by Dudley himself in short stints, and most recently with fan-favorite Alex Caruso, who — along with Howard — helped spark a lifeless Lakers team to what was an eventual rout Sunday night.
These are the exact types of performances the Lakers will need every night in a wide-open league that is ripe for the taking. They have the top-shelf talent in James and Davis, but with holes and question marks still dotting the roster, any slippage around the margins greatly magnify those flaws.
One of the issues that could negatively impact the team is the realization that James (who has used 35.8% of the Lakers’ possessions while on the floor, his highest mark in a decade) and Davis (33.3%, his highest usage rate of his career) will both have to carry an abundance of the offense due to the lack of other reliable on-ball-creation on the team.
Avoiding the wear and tear that often comes with such a huge workload will be of great importance, and this is where those role players could have the biggest impact.
When the Lakers’ offense got bogged down by the physical defense of the Clippers on opening night, it was Green who erupted to keep the score close. With James struggling in the first half on Sunday, and after a sluggish start to a third quarter where neither team could create separation, it was Howard and Caruso who jumpstarted the team with their relentless energy.
A role player is not a derogatory title. It’s a job that comes with responsibilities that often do not get the praise, the limelight or recognition they deserve. The best role players in the league understand this, and have the level of self-awareness needed to accept these duties and put aside individual accolades for the betterment of the team.
The Lakers ultimately did not grab that third star over the summer that would have fulfilled the holy trinity of NBA domination, but, it so far looks like they do have several players willing to do what is asked of them. There is value in that. In a way, it gives every role player a chance to be a star in their own way.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.