Even though the Lakers won the 2020 NBA championship (I still smile every time I write that), the front office will surely continue to look for ways to improve this roster. One common theme that has emerged from their efforts is that the Lakers are interested in another playmaker who can bend defenses with his ability to score.
Brian Windhorst indicated as much in an interview with our own Jas Kang. As Windhorst said, “There’s a deal out there for them for another guard. That would be interesting. I’ll see if they actually go forward with it. It’s a guard on the last year of his contract who was great last year for his team and that team may be looking to move him.”
Windhorst doesn’t specify which guard — or even what kind of guard — the Lakers are targeting, but the front office’s pattern of behavior over the past year suggests it’s a jitterbug point guard who can alleviate some of the scoring burden on the team’s two superstars.
Exhibit A: The Lakers offered Detroit Alex Caruso at the trade deadline in exchange for Derrick Rose. Rose is no longer the athlete he once was after years of knee problems, but he can still get to the rim consistently. Per Cleaning the Glass, he took 39 percent of his shots there last season, placing him in the 78th percentile of point guards. He also got another 28 percent of his shots in the floater range, demonstrating his ability to consistently put pressure on the basket. Furthermore, Rose had the highest assist percentage of his career last season on a team that wasn’t exactly bursting with offensive threats.
Exhibit B: The Lakers put the full-court press on Darren Collison in February before the L.A. native decided not to come out of retirement. Collison doesn’t attack the rim like Rose, but he provides a scoring threat with his outside shooting. He has also never averaged fewer than 5.2 assists per 36 minutes, a mark that was only eclipsed by LeBron James and Rajon Rondo on the Lakers this season.
Exhibit C: When Collison spurned the Lakers, they went with Dion Waiters as their backup plan. Waiters has historically been one of the league’s best guards at getting to the basket. Those numbers dipped in his injury-riddled end in Miami, but in his short stint with the Lakers, he took 42 percent of his field-goal attempts within four feet of the hoop. As a whole, his team’s offenses have always taken more shots near the rim with Waiters on the floor.
Clearly, the Lakers have a type. They didn’t need this kind of player during the playoff run because Rondo morphed into his playoff alter-ego and gave the team secondary playmaking with a dash of long-range shooting and frequent drives to the rim. Playoff Rondo is who the Lakers have wanted all along.
But if Windhorst is right that the Lakers are still interested in another guard, their continued insistence on finding a player of that mold suggests that Rondo has eyes elsewhere in free agency or that they expect Rondo to revert back into a lesser player when the regular season begins. The presumed accelerated pace of this regular season might also necessitate another guard because James won’t play as many minutes.
That leads us to the question: Who could Windhorst be talking about?
Victor Oladipo has been mentioned in trade talks with several teams given his reported desire to leave the Pacers once his contract ends after this season. Oladipo is an athletic scoring guard who would provide a different dimension to the Lakers’ offense, and the Lakers could easily put together a trade package for the Indiana guard centered around Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma.
However, Oladipo didn’t have a good season last year, so he’s probably not Windhorst’s mystery man.
Rose had a good season in 2019-20, and appears to have settled into the player he will be in this latter phase of his career, a less explosive but still efficient scorer who can also run an offense. He has one year left on his contract, and Detroit is likely headed towards a rebuild under new GM Troy Weaver, so it makes sense to cash out on Rose and get some young talent or future picks. And given Pelinka’s previous interest in Rose at the deadline, this would seem to be a highly likely possibility.
There’s also Dennis Schröder, another lightning-quick point guard who just had far and away the best season of his career in 2019-20 with Oklahoma City. He shot above-average from every part of the floor, including 63 percent at the rim and 39 percent from 3-point range. He assisted on 22.3 percent of his team’s baskets, an impressive figure in isolation and more impressive considering he always played next to another point guard. Perhaps most importantly, the Thunder defense was 6.6 points per 100 possessions better with Schröder on the floor.
The OKC guard finished second in Sixth Man of the Year voting, so “great” is a reasonable descriptor, and he will also be a free agent in the 2021 offseason. Like the Pistons, the Thunder are probably pivoting towards the future, and at age 27, Schröder is not a part of that, making him a potential trade candidate, as Windhorst suggests.
Looking at this list of targets, and considering Waiters’ minimal impact on the Lakers during his time in purple and gold, it’s worth considering if the Lakers really need a player of this ilk. Caruso’s body of work outpaces that of both Rose and Schröder, most prominently on the defensive end, and acquiring Oladipo requires a big leap of faith in his health, which seems like a perilous gamble based on his play in the bubble. Caruso is also continuing to improve as a floor general, and the jump he took before and after the hiatus shows that a traditional point guard may still be lurking within.
The Lakers are also grooming Talen Horton-Tucker as a facilitator in the G League, and he didn’t look out of place when thrown into the Western Conference semifinals. Anthony Davis was a point guard during his early years, and there’s no reason why he can’t take a greater responsibility running the offense, as he did at times last season.
And even if the Lakers don’t have the specific Rose/Schröder/Oladipo skill set on their roster, who says they need that? Waiters was beaten out by J.R. Smith of all people in the rotation before Rondo returned, and no one is further from a playmaker than Smith. The Lakers are defense-first outfit, and all of these potential additions are seriously lacking on that end of the floor.
The Lakers were by no means a perfect team in 2019-20, and there are probably ways they could stand to improve in the offseason. The front office’s affinity for quick-twitch point guards may not feel like the best way to use their limited resources, but Rob Pelinka has earned some benefit of the doubt with their roster construction success thus far. It remains to be seen if the team’s golden touch on the margins will strike again.