The Lakers entered the seeding games with questions about their backcourt rotation, justifiably so since the team is without two of the five guards who played the majority of the minutes before the hiatus.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso have taken on larger roles, and conventional wisdom suggests that Dion Waiters would fill in the gaps as the lone primary ball-handler within the bunch. However, Frank Vogel appears to still be auditioning other candidates for the remaining minutes.
“We’re continuing to look at at different guys, and tonight was Talen and Quinn Cook and Dudz’ turn to get significant minutes, and I thought all three of those guys played really well,” Vogel said after the Lakers’ loss to the Indiana Pacers on Saturday. “We’ll continue to evaluate and we’ll continue to use the next two games to look at different things. I’ve got a good feel for what our playoff rotation’s going to look like, but there’s some wiggle room and we’re going to continue to evaluate.”
Cook’s performance was noteworthy, since he was the lone Laker to have success on a high volume of 3-point attempts. The team has struggled enormously with any shots outside of the paint throughout the restart, but Cook was the exception against Indiana. He shot 8-of-14 from the field, including 5-of-9 on threes as L.A.’s second-leading scorer. Outside of Cook, the Lakers shot 8-of-30 from beyond the arc.
He may have the size of a point guard, but Cook’s outing made it clear that his path to success lies at the two. His best moments came when he waited beyond the arc or relocated for kick-outs, or when he dribbled into pull-up jumpers. Cook was efficient at finishing plays, even leaking out on the fast break after turnovers or defensive stops. Play him next to LeBron James, Alex Caruso, or another creator, and Cook will find his way to the receiving end of multiple passes.
“He’s a knock-down, knock-down 3-point shooter,” Vogel said. “He’s proven he’s able to do things off-the-bounce. He’s a smaller guard so certain matchups are more difficult for him on the defensive end, but he gives us a lot of pop offensively.”
That pop is almost exclusively restricted to Cook’s individual offense, however. He had no assists on the night and committed two turnovers. Entry passes were once again an issue in the first half, and if Cook can’t deliver the ball into the post, it begs the question of what place he has in this particular offense.
Defensively, Cook wasn’t the sole culprit for the Lakers’ inability to close out the game — seriously, you try covering TJ Warren right now — but he wasn’t blameless. He is too small to effectively contest shooting guards, and he gets eaten up on switches. The Lakers often have to hide him on that end of the floor. Even with his hot shooting, the team was outscored by 10 in Cook’s 24 minutes.
What’s undeniable is that the Lakers love Cook as a locker-room presence. He is often the first player to dap up James when he comes back to the bench, and that handshake is extensive. If there are any questions about this team’s chemistry, it is impossible to point the finger at the former Duke guard.
“Quinn is such a positive for us in the locker room and within our culture. That’s where it starts with him: just an A-plus attitude and the strength of our team has been our togetherness and our chemistry, so it starts there with him,” Vogel said.
“I know what I bring to the team, but I think my biggest intangible is being a great teammate, being coachable and being a professional,” Cook added postgame.
Even on a night when no one other than James and Cook could reliably generate offense, while bearing in mind that the Lakers willingly sat Waiters to give Cook the opportunity, it’s hard to make an argument at this point for the first-year Laker to earn more time on the floor. Cook’s shooting didn’t affect the rest of the team by osmosis, and the spacing he provided wasn’t enough to clear the traffic jam in the paint when he was in the game.
Nevertheless, the playoffs will be unpredictable, probably more so this year than in any other, and it’s never a bad thing to have player on the bench who only takes a moment to heat up. If nothing else, Cook proved once more that scoring in a pinch is his specialty.
“Obviously we have a deep team. Some nights might be your night, some nights might not be,” Cook said postgame. “But just staying positive, staying within the team, staying consumed with winning. Everybody can contribute on any night. It’s a part of being on a great team and, for me, I’ve been there before with the Warriors: from not playing, to starting, to playing extended minutes in the Finals. So I bring that confidence to the team as well and guys believe in that in me. I think that my experiences with the Warriors and and New Orleans before this has got me ready to help this team in the playoffs.”
Whether he has a regular role or not, Cook will likely be called upon at some point to help his team in the postseason, and against the Pacers, he made it very clear what he is, and is not, capable of. The Lakers will have to decide if those skills are worthy of more frequent use.