Before the Lakers have even suited up a single lineup featuring their two most decorated starters in the preseason, fans of the franchise have already begun to fret over Rob Pelinka’s seemingly lopsided roster reconstruction.
After last year’s overcrowded big rotation was bogged down by a pair of underperformers anticipating the starting job, Pelinka’s apparently overcorrected, leaving just Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan as the only true 5s backing up Anthony Davis — the presumptive starter at the position. Now, with Trevor Ariza out for at least two months, the Lakers are down to just Carmelo Anthony behind LeBron James at the 4, lest they opt to throw Kent Bazemore into the frontcourt fire.
On the flip side, the Lakers’ backcourt is jam-packed with players looking to make an impact. Of their 14 rostered players, by my count nine are best suited to guard the opposing team’s backcourt. While Talen Horton-Tucker and Kent Bazemore may prove capable of sliding down to guard true wings, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, Rajon Rondo, Austin Reaves, and Malik Monk should be spared from the inevitable incineration that would ensue.
After Westbrook, Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn — considering their respective contracts — are the only two solid bets to garner consistent playing time. Still, the starting five has yet to be set in stone, as conflicting reports have spurred uncertainty approaching opening night. The Athletic’s ($$$) massive preseason report on the Lakers suggested that Ariza and Ellington were the favorites to flank the star trio, but Vogel’s made it clear he has yet to definitively name a starting group.
Further complicating matters is Malik Monk’s rapid ascendence towards the top of the heap through training camp and the first two preseason games. So far, he’s led the Lakers in scoring in both games while tickling twine on seven of his 13 attempts from distance.
He even received first-team reps to close out the squad’s last practice, per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com:
At the end of Tuesday’s practice, the first team is a small ball group for LAL composed of LeBron, AD, Westbrook, Melo and Monk. AD just hit a contested 2 from the corner, then LeBron drained a fadeaway from the baseline on the next trip down. pic.twitter.com/wqQzysClVB— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 5, 2021
Monk has impressed with his ability to generate instant offense as a scorer, even earning the “Microwave” moniker from his teammates.
But Monk isn’t just an accurate shooter, he’s one with a quick trigger and deep range, helping stretch defenses thinner than a more limited shooter with a similar 3-point percentage might.
Keep an eye on where he takes these shots from.
He may not have needed to spot up as far out as he did to exploit Chris Paul’s tardiness in transition, but doing so gave Jalen Smith an impossible closeout:
Here, Monk creates a shot out of Chaundee Brown’s drive to nowhere simply by hoisting from a place far beyond where a defender would normally be expected to guard:
Through two games, Malik Monk has taken most of his threes from very deep range, going 6-11 between 25 and 29 feet, per NBA.com. This preseason, only two players have made more shots from that range: Bryn Forbes (8-10) and Stephen Curry (7-12).
His comfort in bombing from way downtown gives the Lakers an avenue to attack in a way they’ve been broadly bereft of in recent memory. With 11 such attempts in just 42 total minutes (taking an astonishing 9.4 threes from 25-29 feet per 36 minutes), Monk has fired away at a greater rate than any player on the Lakers in either of the past two seasons.
LeBron was the only Laker to take more than four long bombs per game (5.1) than Monk’s per-36 preseason average, and only Steph Curry took more per game last season. While Monk will of course have to tone down his volume in the regular season, he’s displayed a willingness and aptitude uncharacteristic of recent Laker teams.
As Indy Cornrows’ Caitlin Cooper recently showed for FiveThirtyEight, a player’s willingness to shoot from extreme depth can be beneficial to offensive spacing, even when those shots aren’t going in. Monk’s willingness to expand the Lakers’ offensively threatening locations may help clear LeBron and Russ’ paths to the basket, given the proven positive correlation between willingness to shoot and spacing. Obviously, it will be even better for the Lakers’ offense if Monk continues to drain triples at this rate, too.
He’s also shown flashes of capability as a lead ball-handler as both an attacker and facilitator in the pick and roll, broadening his offensive utility to the Lakers. Monk is more than just a shooter.
Above, on back-to-back possessions, Monk shakes free of the 6’8 Cam Johnson with an in-and-out dribble to create space for a drive, then uses his unusual bounce for his size and frame to finish over the much taller defender. In the latter play, he uses a jab-step to size up Abdel Nader before riding him straight into DeAndre Jordan’s screen. Then, he loses JaVale McGee with a hesitation dribble and beats him to the rim for another layup, this time finishing with his off-hand to create just a bit more space.
Pictured: Malik Monk's bag pic.twitter.com/YHjOhIl6oP— Silver Screen and Roll (@LakersSBN) October 3, 2021
But while his bread-and-butter is as a scorer, Monk has also flashed the capability of making simple reads, like this especially impressive one to Anthony Davis (while being guarded by Chris Paul), or on this relatively rudimentary read to DeAndre Jordan. Still, he’ll occasionally telegraph a pass, lacking the improvisational creativity in his facilitating that he has as a scorer.
And that, unfortunately, is where the raving ends, as Monk’s defensive ineptitude has been almost as noticeable as his offensive prowess already this preseason. He has trouble staying engaged away from the action and gets manhandled when guarding bigger and more athletic players. He is especially apt to half-heartedly gamble in a passing lane, leaving him vulnerable to a drive when his attempt to intercept fails.
Here, he fails to stay with Nader on the perimeter, then gambles to gain ground, and subsequently allows an open driving lane.
In this play, he makes a late lunge at Ayton’s pass, opening up a clear lane to the rim for Mikal Bridges, who smokes the open layup.
Below, Monk gets caught on McGee’s screen and lets Cam Payne get to his floater for an easy two.
Instead of going over to defend against a solid 3-point shooter, Monk tries to go under the pick but gets stuck, leaving Cam basically unguarded. It’s both his lack of quickness and poor footwork which turn him into a human turnstile here.
While Frank Vogel’s quick hook for defensive lapses may help correct some of Monk’s bad habits on that end of the floor, there’s not a ton he can do to improve his on-ball effectiveness given his physical limitations.
His footwork and effort could theoretically improve with the right coaching and practice, but he’s a long way off from where he needs to be on defense. Little, however, can be done to improve his mediocre lateral quickness and strength as he’s consistently bullied by more physically imposing guards. Monk’s physical build is as waifish as Kevin Durant’s was at the time of his infamously pathetic combine bench press. However, KD was just 17 at the time and is now repping out 315 pounds on the bench, while Monk is already 23 and entering his fifth NBA season, still small as ever. From afar, it’d be foolish to speculate on Monk’s sweat equity, but his lackluster defense and physical gains since entering the league do cause one question whether he can get any bigger and more physical than he is now for genetic reasons or otherwise.
If Malik Monk’s offensive output is anything near as potent as it has been in the preseason, Frank Vogel will have to find ways to get him on the floor even if his defense leaves something to be desired. Vogel himself has acknowledged an embarrassment of useful lineups in the past, even referring to the 2019-20 roster’s overcrowding as a “good problem.”
We’ll just have to wait and see if this Vogel’s “good problem” can meld as coherently as did the championship team of two years prior, but Monk’s assertion of his talents in the early-going has at least given the Lakers another type of tool to work with. Only time will tell if his “Microwave” production can sustain, or if he’ll prove to be the kind of “Ramen Noodles” scorer whose ultimately inefficient and defense-free empty calories preclude winning basketball.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley. No, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can follow him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.