Maybe it wasn’t a “shift,” if Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka is to be believed. Maybe they were just small moves at the deadline, designed to bolster a roster chock-full of the “playmakers” Pelinka and president of basketball operations Magic Johnson so coveted over the summer. Maybe the cost of what essentially amounted to three second round picks and a bench riding veteran won’t look so bad after all have run their NBA courses.
Maybe. I don’t want to overreact here. The Lakers’ separate trade deadline moves to acquire Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala didn’t exactly send shockwaves through the Western Conference, where the Lakers sit a game and a half outside the eight seed. Nor did the team’s losses of Ivica Zubac, Svi Mykhailiuk, Michael Beasley, and a second round pick inspire the outrage from fans the way a trade of more prominent members of the young core would have.
There’s still something worth looking at here, though. Despite Pelinka’s assertion, the Lakers’ deals for Bullock and Muscala are implicit acknowledgments of an ideological shift within the Laker front office, direct confessions from the organization that it failed to acquire enough shooting to supplement LeBron James and his novice teammates last summer.
How else does one explain the sacrifice of Mykhailiuk, Zubac, Beasley and a pick for two solid shooters (and an open roster spot which the team will presumably use on a third)?
Pelinka understandably won’t admit as much.
”I don’t think there’s been a shift at all,” Pelinka told reporters Friday.
“Our identity’s still playmakers,” Pelinka said. “I think it’s probably just a tweak on it, given the circumstances — the unexpected circumstances that we don’t control that came up. I think it’s a smart response to the events that unfolded and we’re excited to see how it works.”
Of course Pelinka will never say out loud that he and Johnson should have realized what so many others did over the summer. It didn’t take a Dunc’d On Patreon subscription to figure out that the Lakers, in their “zig where others zag” style additions of “playmakers” like Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and Rajon Rondo had not added enough shooting around James in July to create sufficient spacing on the floor.
The team’s decisions over the summer have in fact had a direct negative impact on the team’s offensive proficiency, one that manifests itself on nearly every offensive possession, when cramped spacing and ineffective threats from behind the arc lead to really tough choices for primary decision makers like James, Rondo and Brandon Ingram.
In the clip above, a successful Ingram-Javale McGee pick and roll sucks in Celtics wing Jaylen Brown on the weakside, and Ingram makes the right read in threading the cross-court pass to James. Gordon Hayward initiates a weakside X-out to close out on James in time, but Brown is so far in the paint to tag and neutralize McGee’s roll that he’s late in scrambling out to guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on the wing.
A player of James’ caliber knows that, in a vacuum, the extra pass to a shooter on the wing in KCP’s position is the right play. He doesn’t make that pass, though. Instead of swinging to his Klutch teammate, James freezes and forces a highly contested three over Hayward.
That’s probably the incorrect play — KCP is shooting it slightly below average from three this year at 34.9 percent, but that’s high enough to justify a wide-open look. The point, though, is that James doesn’t have as much trust in his shooters as he’s had in the past. The Lakers lost a wide-open three on that possession because of that lack of trust, and a shooter of Bullock’s caliber — 38.8 percent from three on the year and nearly 40 percent for his career — will earn it back.
The lack of gravity from most Laker lineups causes general congestion, which bogs down almost every possession, clogging the floor to the point where even elite creators like James and Rondo struggle to finish in traffic and find the space to make tight passes.
With three to four defenders in the paint on each possession, there’s simply no room to operate, even if the duo’s collective basketball brilliance can make the sub-optimal situation work from time to time.
James’ combination of athleticism and supreme hoops IQ gifts Stephenson this layup with a bit of misdirection.
Rondo can catch sleeping defenders off guard, as he does to Terry Rozier here, and be ready to drive straight off the catch, breaking down the defense to get a cutting Ingram a dunk.
Those actions are really, really hard to pull off on a possession-to-possession basis, though. A thriving offense cannot survive on such plays. The Lakers possession directly following Ingram’s dunk Thursday featured Rondo attacking right off the catch in the same way. The result?
That sequence is a good illustration of the downside of the kind of low-shooting lineups Luke Walton is regularly forced to put on the floor. A good-to-elite shooter would be ready to fire from the corner on that pass from Ingram. Rondo was great Thursday running the floor in his old building, but he’s just not capable of finishing that play from downtown. A more capable marksman operating in that spot would be, turning a low percentage Rondo finish at the rim into a quality opportunity at three points.
Bullock will help fix that, and given the team’s win-now situation, the future potentials of Mykhailiuk, the pick and Zubac (who was unlikely to re-sign this summer anyway) to bolster the present is probably a smart move. The lack of shooting amongst the Lakers’ offseason additions is now a sunk cost; better to get help now then to let the problem fester for the rest of the year.
And that’s the point. The additions of Bullock and Muscala will help. Bullock, in particular, has a real chance to thrive operating in James’ offensive ecosystem; it’s easy to imagine him finishing off those drives and kicks and swings from behind the arc.
It’s the process the Lakers went through to make these transactions that’s troubling, though. It didn’t have to be this way. Great organizations have the foresight to get the little things right three months in advance, not three months late. The Lakers’ failure to do that cost the team assets in both the present (Zubac had been the team’s starting center for the better part of the month) and the future (who knows what so-called small piece could ultimately push trade negotiations for any available player over the top this summer).
The Lakers also could have kept their young pieces and snagged shooters like Wayne Ellington in free agency (it appears the now-Piston was readily available over the summer on the cheap) after James signed. They could have had it both ways.
Not anymore. They were tiny transactions, but championship teams become championship teams by nailing exactly these types of moves in advance. The Lakers failed to do that here, and they wasted a perfectly good set of assets because of it. We’ll see if their attempts at clean-up come anywhere close to papering over their summertime mistakes.
Editor’s Note: Bullock and Muscala are expected to make their debuts against the Philadelphia 76ers at 12:30 PST on Spectrum Sportsnet. This story will serve as our preview and game thread for today’s game. Enjoy.