The NBA’s foundation has long been built upon a series of trends. The grainy footage of the dominant low-post big man, the ridiculously difficult turnaround fade-aways of the 90’s and most recently, the evolution of “Moreyball.”
This new era, which has been composed of the idolization of 3-point shooting, attempts near the rim and free-throws (often taken by bearded men) has widely been accepted around the league as the premier method in which to build a modern and successful offense.
The Lakers’ braintrust of Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, they decided to buck this trend last summer. The still relatively new front office appointees infamously stirred up a roster of playmakers and non-existent shooting, then tossed LeBron James into the middle of it all.
It did not go well! With the Lakers currently in possession of the 21st-rated offense in the league, and 26th in terms of 3-point shooting efficiency, it is clear their experiment — some would argue predictably — failed. With the team’s acquisitions of two perimeter threats, Reggie Bullock and Mike Muscala, at the trade deadline, it would seem the duo has swallowed their pride, but paid a price in the process.
Theoretically, Muscala in particular represents one of the most desirable facets of a 2019 offense — the stretch-five. Last season, the Lakers’ acquired Brook Lopez for this exact reason, often commenting on the value the trigger happy big man offered the team and its young players (words that made their decision of not extending an offer to Lopez this past summer, and subsequently swooping up JaVale McGee to fill his void, that more puzzling).
Lopez eventually joined and has contributed to what has become the second best offense in the league after inking a one-year deal with Milwaukee worth only $3.3 million. On the season, Lopez is shooting 38.7 percent from behind the arc and has already canned 132 threes. That tally is 36 more than the Lakers’ current leader (Kyle Kuzma) in makes.
And while McGee has been solid, especially in relation to his low cap number, the team has desperately missed the floor space created from a big who can drag opposing centers out of the paint.
In dealing for Muscala (career 36.5 percent from three) Johnson and Pelinka in many ways quietly conceded that they did not properly value Lopez, or shooting overall when constructing the roster.
While this level of self-awareness is appreciated, and much needed, it unfortunately came at the cost of one of the team’s most promising young players: Ivica Zubac.
After an up-and-down few seasons with Los Angeles, Zubac, who is still only 21, broke out this year as he provided the team with a much needed spark and impressive effectiveness. His strong play also coincidentally came in a season in which he was set to become a restricted free-agent with the Lakers feasibly being able to keep him long-term at an inexpensive number.
In trading Zubac along with Svi Mykhailiuk, the Lakers’ front office continued their tradition of selling low on their young players. While this was partly expected given their new franchise outlook with James in tow, the team needs to be cautious going forward when it comes to giving away potentially useful and inexpensive talent for likely rentals.
Regardless of the avenues, Muscala is now on board, and the Lakers finally get some semblance of the front court spacing they have desperately lacked all season.
With Philadelphia, Muscala hoisted up 198 attempts from 24-plus feet out (34.3 percent shooting) which is fourth-most among centers in the NBA this season. Like the numbers indicate, Muscala is definitely not shy of letting it fly from deep, but also does so almost exclusively.
According to Cleaning the Glass, 69 percent of Muscala’s shot frequency (Lopez is at 66 percent) this season has come from behind the arc, which is in the 98th percentile among “Bigs.” In almost every sense, Muscala is exclusively here to open up the offense.
And although he hasn’t converted his looks (34.9 percent) at the exceptional rate he showcased during his tenure with the Atlanta Hawks (where he shot over 45 percent from 2015-17) simply having a perimeter threat from the center spot could potentially do wonders for a team still composed of multiple ball-handlers.
As seen with his success playing alongside players such as Channing Frye, Chris Bosh and most recently Kevin Love, James in particular has always played well alongside bigs who can space the floor. Famously being able to suck in defenders from their primary coverage, James has thrived in systems in which he can exploit his gravity, which is something he has been unable to do thus far in Los Angeles.
“I think it improves our team,” James told reporters on Thursday (via the O.C. Register). “It definitely creates more space for [Brandon Ingram], myself and for Rondo. And adding a shooter like Mike Muscala who spreads the floor extremely well, is going to be guarded by a lot of big, so he keeps the bigs out of the paint.
Muscala should also be a godsend for Brandon Ingram. Although finally beginning to be utilized more appropriately off-ball next to James, Ingram still shares a lot of primary on-ball duties in pick and roll possessions with Lonzo Ball still out.
With the Lakers’ lack of a pick-and-pop threat, Ingram (who is still fine-tuning his own 3-point volume) frequently finds himself bottled up in the paint in these situations as defenses often collapse and force a difficult look, or ill-advised turnover due to the shrunken floor.
This is the most clear and expected area where Muscala’s floor spacing should immediately be felt for James, Ingram and all of the Lakers’ players.
In a vacuum, Muscala should help both diversify the team’s front court, and add some much needed creativity to the team's often predictable offense. The player acquisition makes enough sense, but the process itself is risky.
The front office essentially selling on yet another young player who flashed glimpses of genuine promise is becoming a worrisome trend that could have almost easily been avoided if they had taken a more sensible approach in terms of roster building this summer.
With that said, it is also important to remember Johnson and Pelinka themselves are inexperienced in their current positions, and hopefully will develop as they have hoped their young players would. If they don’t, though, this continuous series of similar decisions could drastically limit the Lakers’ full potential and lasting power.