Think back to early July. After missing out on Kawhi Leonard, the Lakers have — in the span of just a few days — built out the main parts of the roster they hoped would compete for a championship. Reviews are mixed, to say the least. Questions about defense, shooting and playmaking are the chief concerns, and there are real doubts about whether the roster Rob Pelinka has assembled around LeBron James and Anthony Davis will be good enough to compete in what many predict to be an ultra competitive Western Conference headlined by their own Staples Center rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers.
Now, fast forward six months. It’s Dec. 19 and the Lakers are about to face off against reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks. With both coming off losses in the past few days, the Lakers and Bucks are tied for the best record in the league, boasting identical 24-4 records. Both teams also have the point differentials of teams who typically make deep playoff runs. Even the most vocal preseason skeptics rate the Lakers as an “unquestionable title frontrunner” at this stage of the season, wondering what they missed in evaluating a roster that once looked suspect but now looks dominant.
With the Lakers only losing four games in 28 tries, they are on a 70-win pace for the season. With this type of success, the natural inclination is to stand pat. That said, the preseason skepticism about this roster, while maybe pushed too far by some analysts, was not rooted in outright lies. In the games the Lakers have lost, certain themes were established and those resemble some of the concerns expressed by those who wondered about the team’s ceiling. Those losses, just as all those wins, can be extrapolated in a way that leads to thoughts about how to improve this team to (even) better position itself to plan that parade down Figueroa.
All this begs the ultimate question, then: Should the Lakers be actively looking to improve a team that has performed as well as it has? Let’s dive in, because I’m not sure the answer is as straightforward as either side of this argument would lead us to believe.
Stand Pat, Are You Stupid?
The argument to let this roster cook as long as they can is both powerful and understandable. Holding the best record in the league and the net rating and point differential of a real title contender means something. This team, as constructed, certainly has some holes, but the team’s stars have coalesced in a way that papers over many of such issues in ways that also make the roster, as a whole, greater than the sum of its parts.
Further, when you get into the specifics of the individual players, this roster actually has more balance than initially thought.
Guards Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley, and Rajon Rondo, as a group, possess all the skills, both offensively and defensively, you’d want on a team. Be it outside shooting, mid-range shooting, finishing off cuts, transition scoring, ability to set on and off-ball screens, playmaking and setup ability, on-ball defense at the point of attack, ability to defend bigger players, off-ball defense as a chaser off screens, help defense, transition defense as last man back and in recovery situations... this group can be mixed and matched to offer any specific skillset the team needs to provide effective minutes against most any opponent.
The same can be said of the big men. Dwight Howard has been a revelation as a backup center, providing top-shelf defense, rebounding, and finishing ability as a dive man in the pick and roll or on dump-off passes. Starting center JaVale McGee offers a similar profile, but with his 2K sliders up a couple of levels on fluidly finishing near the basket, and slid down a few on defensive instincts and technique. Still, though, as a pair they provide athleticism, size, and effort on both ends of the floor. They protect the paint on one end and score around the rim on the other. They also both know how to fit into their very specific roles, and have great chemistry as a tag-team to play next to or behind Davis.
Then, in Kyle Kuzma and Jared Dudley, the Lakers have a pair of combo forwards who both can be slotted into lineups with James and/or Davis on the floor. Kuz and Dudz are sort of inverses of each other, with Dudley being a 3-and-D combo forward who can defend some bigger bodied wings/stretch-PF’s while (mostly only) knocking down 3’s, while Kuzma is the more versatile scorer who can threaten the defense from all three levels of the floor and do enough defensively and on the backboards to not be a total liability.
Beyond the tangible impact these players offer in complement to James and Davis, there are the intangibles this group of role players offer. They not only understand, but also accept their roles, they root for each other’s success, and they get along on and off the court. They have special handshakes. They go out to dinner. They crack jokes. They also get on each other during film sessions and games to get the best out of each other night in and night out.
In other words, this team has great chemistry and keeping this group together, as it is, enables that chemistry to continue to foster and grow. Part of the success of a team isn’t just the talent on the floor, it’s how that talent fits together. Not just from a complementary skills standpoint, but from a personality one. This is a group of veterans who, at this stage of their respective careers both understand what they’re chasing, and the sacrifices they need to make in order to all row in the same direction to get there. This is an invaluable quality, and is something nearly all the great teams throughout the history of the league have had.
Never Be Satisfied, Try to Get Better
You know why the Lakers have been linked to and are reportedly are holding out hope that Andre Iguodala will be bought out? Because the things that Iguodala does best are things the Lakers do not have enough of their roster. As a defender Iguodala brings both size and instincts in both on and off ball situations. Offensively he brings ball handling and offensive initiation skills. Wouldn’t more of these skills be nice?
Forget Iguodala for a second, though, and instead let’s look back inward at the Lakers. Beyond LeBron and Green, the this team does not have a defender who can reliably guard the better big wing offensive players in the league. If the Lakers are going to get to the NBA Finals and then win it all, there’s a distinct possibility they’ll have to face teams that have Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, James Harden, Luka Doncic, or Giannis. Having more players on the roster who can capably defend these players is going to be important.
Offensively, outside of LeBron and Rondo, the Lakers don’t have another player who can capably set up their offense in the half court, run a pick and roll, or even beat substantial full court ball pressure against aggressive defenses. This team also currently ranks 16th in 3-point field goal percentage and relies heavily on streaky shooters who can easily go cold over the course of a seven-game playoff series. When you add the stakes and pressure situations those types of games bring, it’s pretty easy to imagine scenarios where the Lakers shouldn’t just want more players who can do these things, they’ll need more.
In an ideal world, the pursuit of improvements would come at marginal cost. Iguodala is such an infatuating name because, in theory, he only becomes available via buyout and adding him to the roster would not cost anything but contract dollars and a roster spot. Even if having to make a trade, however, there’s an argument to be made that an uneven trade in numbers (trading two-for-one or three-for-two) could be a way to smooth out some of the rotation challenges the team faces in the backcourt while also opening up a roster spot. I’m not going to speculate too much in this space about potential deals, but packages involving Kuzma, Cook, and Cousins could bring you back a player who makes up to $12.7 million in salary. There are some good players around the league who could really help the Lakers that fit into that sized salary slot.
I know even bringing up those names sends us down a rabbit hole of whether the Lakers would really entertain trading those specific players and, more to the point, whether other teams would even want them. Personally, I think this front office and ownership group would need a pretty big return in any deal that involved Kuzma, to say nothing of whether they could stomach trading an injured Cousins or a player in Cook who they clearly liked this offseason and who grew up a Lakers fan.
In a lot of ways, though, that’s both beyond the point and the point exactly.
Because the Lakers are approaching the point in the season where they’re going to have to look in the mirror and make real determinations on what their ceiling is, and whether making moves actually significantly raises it enough to make a championship more realistic in the process. The answer to the questions raised via that self-reflection will determine the next course of action, and how active the Lakers are in trying to improve an already impressive team. In a lot of ways, I’m happy to not be the person making these decisions, even though it’s an enviable position to be in.