The Los Angeles Lakers were good last season; really good. If that wasn’t obvious when they finished the regular season with the best record in the Western Conference, it should have been after they won all but one of their playoff series in five games and cruised to an NBA championship.
If the Lakers decided to run it back with the same roster next season, they surely would have been among the favorites to win the title like they were last season, if not the outright favorites. However, complacency wasn’t an option for Rob Pelinka, and he made that clear going into the offseason.
That didn’t mean making moves just for the sake of making moves, though. After all, this is a team that prided itself on its chemistry last season. But as much as the Lakers valued the character of the players they had in their locker room last season, and how quickly each player bought into playing team-first basketball, they weren’t going to pass on an opportunity to improve, especially when the opportunities are as golden as they’ve been.
The first big domino to drop for the Lakers was the trade for Dennis Schröder. Schröder, the runner-up for last season’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, epitomized what it means to be a spark plug off of the bench in his second season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, averaging 18.9 points per game on 46.9% shooting from the field, including 38.5% from 3-point range, the latter of which was a career-high for him.
Upon arrival, Schröder will give the Lakers something they didn’t have on a consistent basis last season, and that’s a guard that can create their own shot while getting others involved. Rajon Rondo did that in the playoffs, but not as much in the regular season.
But what the Lakers gained on the offensive end by trading for Schröder, they lost on the defensive end by trading Danny Green, or at least that’s what appeared to be the case initially. The same could have been said of the team’s signing of Montrezl Harrell, who won Sixth Man of the Year last season, but not for his contributions on the defensive end.
While it’s possible both of those things end up being true next season, the Lakers have abided by Newton’s Third Law of Motion in free agency: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
In an effort to replace Green’s two-way production on the wing, the Lakers signed Wesley Matthews to a one-year deal for the bi-annual exception. Matthews isn’t the upgrade to Green than Schröder is to Rondo, but the combination of Schröder and Matthews has the potential to be better than the sum of what Green and Rondo provided the Lakers last season. It’s a balancing act, and it’s one that Pelinka has done with every move he’s made this offseason.
Like Schröder, Harrell made his money on offense last season, averaging a career-high 18.6 points per game on 58% shooting from the field. That’s not to say he didn’t bring any value on the defensive end — he averaged 7.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game in the regular season — but that wasn’t his main focus with the Clippers, nor is it expected to be his point of emphasis with the Lakers.
The opposite was true for Dwight Howard last season, who was a stabilizing presence on the defensive end, particularly in the post, where he was able to keep even the strongest and most skilled big men honest. Harrell might be a better player than Howard at this stage of his career, but at 6-foot-7, he won’t be getting the defensive assignment of Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic.
Knowing that, the Lakers aggressively pursued a a defensive-minded center in free agency, and they landed one of the best in the league in Marc Gasol. Gasol might not be as mobile as he was seven years ago, when he won Defensive Player of the Year, but he’s still a fundamentally sound and skilled defensive player. It’s why he finished the season with the seventh-highest defensive real plus-minus (3.42) in the NBA, and why the Toronto Raptors’ defensive rating was 7.7 points better with him on the floor.
Gasol’s not going to get on his trampoline to block shots like McGee or Howard did last season, but he’s going to make the Lakers better on the defensive end while giving them a different dynamic on the offensive end, where he excels as a post-passer and has the ability to be a pick-and-pop threat. Meanwhile, Harrell is going to give the Lakers a skilled and versatile athlete that LeBron James can run plays with in the pick-and-roll.
With all due respect to Howard and McGee, the Lakers massively upgraded at the center position in the offseason, and they did it while working under the hard cap. That’s kind of incredible.
Where the Lakers go from here will depend on who’s available when the market cools down, but even if they don’t find another difference-maker in the late stages of free agency, they’ll going into the season with one of the most deep rosters in the NBA, if not the most deep. The same wasn’t true last season, and they still won it all.
That’s not meant as a slight to the role players from last year’s team; there were just some players that were more expendable than others, and the ones that weren’t — like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Markieff Morris — were brought back. In total, six players from the Lakers’ championship-winning roster will officially be back for another season. That’s not including Anthony Davis, who’s expected to sign a max contract eventually.
While some teams took a step back this offseason, the Lakers took two steps forward, at least on paper. Right now, they should be considered the heavy favorites to win it all, and they still have several vacant roster spots. Things couldn’t have gone much better for them.
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