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It won’t be just the Lakers’ role players who have to sacrifice this season

If the Lakers are going to win as much as they expect to, the team’s star players will also need to sacrifice in much the same ways that their role players are expected to.

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NBA: Phoenix Suns at Los Angeles Lakers

When the Lakers traded for Russell Westbrook and changed over nearly the entire rest of their roster in free agency, they invited an entirely new group of players to surround LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the intent of winning a championship. In the wake of that roster shakeup, a common refrain taken by the new Lakers has been a lack of focus on their individual roles, instead talking up the team’s pursuit of a title and how they’d do whatever it took to achieve this goal.

Sacrifice has been the buzz word of choice by many, with several of the new guys parroting the exact term, as if talking points were distributed to all of them after they’d signed their respective contracts. The general implication of these statements are straight forward enough: On this Lakers team, they will likely have a smaller individual role than they might have elsewhere, they will functionally do less than they have been asked to do in the past, and that is perfectly fine by them.

Essentially, they say they want to win, and this is the way to make it all work.

What interests me most about these comments — whether they’re from Dwight Howard, or Wayne Ellington, or Trevor Ariza, or Carmelo Anthony — is that the idea of sacrifice is almost always viewed through the lens of role players. On a certain level, this makes perfect sense. After all, they’re the ones whose roles are most fungible, and the players whose flexibility is most required night to night. Individual and team matchups are often going to dictate their prospective success, which then impacts their playing time and what they’re asked to do in order to help the team win.

So, when a guy like Ariza looks at this roster and sees a Melo or a Kent Bazemore or even a Talen Horton-Tucker as potential options to play in a similar rotation spot to him, the idea of how he’ll need to sacrifice is right there, staring him in the face. On any given night, one of these other players could be a better option than him, and he’s smart enough to recognize that. He’s also smart enough to know that how he’s impacted personally by that matters less than how successful the team is after determining that the gameplan may not involve him — or, if it does, it may do so in a much smaller role than he might have played previously in his career.

Such is the life of a role player, right? Sacrificing for the betterment of the team is in the job description. You simply do not end up contributing to a high-level team as a non-star player if you cannot embrace this reality eventually.

For this Lakers team, however, it would be silly to think the sacrifices would be limited only to the role players. No, it is the team’s stars — LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook — who must also adopt the mindset that each of them will have to bend in ways that help facilitate the success of each other.

Yes, I said each of them. Here’s how that might look for all three.

Russell Westbrook

Los Angeles Lakers Introduce Russell Westbrook
Russell Westbrook is happy to be home, but fitting in to his new reality will take some adjustments.
Photo by Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images

I know it’s easy to think that Westbrook should carry the biggest burden when it comes to sacrificing — and that might just end up being true when it’s all said and done. Russ, after all, is joining a duo that won a championship without him, naturally slotting him as the team’s “third option” (aka the Chris Bosh/Kevin Love of this Lakers team).

But while I’m skeptical a lead ball handler of Russ’ capabilities (and history) will actually end up being the team’s third option, that doesn’t mean he won’t need to scale back some, or find opportunities to impact the game in ways he’s not been asked or forced to do on previous teams he’s been a part of. While this could take many forms, I think this really comes down to three things.

First, Russ will need to be a more engaged cutter off the ball. Russ has never played with players quite like Bron and AD, who draw defensive attention in different ways than the superstars he’s shared the floor with previously. Both can be dominant post players who can demand double teams when they’re actively working to establish deep position or threaten the paint off the post. Off these actions, cutting is a necessity, not just to receive a pass in order to potentially score, but to draw attention in the middle of the floor in order to open up teammates for open shots around the arc. As a non-shooting threat, this naturally makes sense for Russ.

Second, Russ needs to become a more willing and active screener both on and off the ball. Some of the Lakers best performing sets have been when guards set screens for both LeBron and AD. The Lakers can use Russ in similar ways, weaponizing his size and athleticism to set picks to free up his teammates and then have him cut or flash into open space to be a threat himself. Russ would also do well to set more flare and back screens on the back side of sets, helping to free shooters and using the inattentiveness of his own defender against him.

Third, Russ needs to divert some of his energy to being a more engaged and focused defender. There’s little explanation needed here. If the Lakers are going to maintain a culture of defensive accountability, all their stars need to buy in and play with commitment and effort on that side of the ball. For two seasons, LeBron and AD have done that. This next season, they’ll need to do so again, and Russ will need to join them.

To be clear, I don’t particularly expect any of this to happen seamlessly, or for Russ to be comfortable doing any of these things right away — if ever. It’s been a long time since Westbrook has been asked to do these things, or publicly held accountable in a way that modified his behavior if he was and did not execute. So, expecting some growing pains is probably the most generous way to phrase what’s on the horizon.

That said, Russ is more than capable of doing these things physically, it’s just a matter of approach and commitment. We’ll see if he has it in him.

Anthony Davis

Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers - Game Six
The Lakers will need Anthony Davis’ defensive versatility this season as much as they ever have.

The sacrifices AD will need to make are fewer than Russ, but they’re just as meaningful.

First, AD will need to commit to playing more center this season than he did last year. The stats on this have been repeated ad nauseam, but I’m going to do it again now: In the Lakers championship season, AD played Center for roughly 40% of his minutes in the regular season (and 60% of his minutes in the playoffs). Last regular season, that number dipped to only 9% of his minutes, according to to Cleaning the Glass.

For these Lakers to be at their best on both ends of the floor, AD will need to get back to playing more minutes in the pivot, both in the regular and postseason. His ability to space the floor offensively while also being able to impact the paint as a scorer will be key in every lineup, but especially in lineups with Westbrook. Further, his defensive range and ability to play any scheme allows the Lakers to take whatever defensive approach that best suits their opponent and still be successful on that end of the floor. AD is also the Lakers’ best switching big man, so lineups that he anchors should allow the team to play some of the more wing and guard heavy lineups where they switch more often.

Second, AD will have to be a more physical presence offensively and find ways to attack the paint more often. Whether it’s rolling more in the P&R, committing to being more of a rim runner in transition and early offense, fighting to establish deeper position in the post when he does go to the block, or attacking the offensive glass with more vigor, AD will need to commit to being a presence in the paint.

Understand, I’m not expecting AD to be a Shaq (or even an Embiid) type of offensive force out of the post. That’s not AD’s game, and him trying to play that way would be detrimental to him and to the team. That said, striking a better balance between his perimeter-oriented game and his paint-bound one is in order. AD is simply too good a scorer in the paint and restricted area to overly depend on his jumper as his main source of offense.

Again, I’m in no way advocating for AD to abandon his outside shot — he’ll need to space the floor effectively to give the Lakers the type of lineup versatility that will help them win both regular season and playoff games. But, AD does need to recommit to being more of a paint presence on offense to be the most productive version of himself that also also helps the team win at a high rate.

LeBron James

2021 NBA Playoffs - Phoenix Suns v Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James has always (and to some degree, will always) dictated the flow for his teams. This year, he may have to play off the ball more than ever.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Much like AD, the sacrifices LeBron will need to make are smaller, but ones that can significantly help the team and his co-stars.

As the team’s best player, one might ask why he needs to adjust at all. I mean, it could be argued that everyone should be tweaking their games to complement and prop up LeBron, not the opposite. But, LeBron’s incredible versatility and smarts put him in a position to adjust in ways that he’s more than capable of and that could really help both the team and himself, while also not diminishing his own output or productivity.

First, much like AD, LeBron will need to commit to playing up a position by sliding to PF more often. Playing next to Russ will necessitate having more spacing, which means parking Bron as a SF in lineups with multiple bigs will not be ideal. LeBron at PF might be more “in name only” situations where he’s playing next to a combo forward who can defend either forward position while allowing Bron to “rest” on the lesser offensive player (hello, Trevor Ariza). But, in some situations, Bron will need to play more like a PF where his focus on back line defense, rebounding, and doing more “big man” things offensively like setting more screens and spacing to the corner will be required of him. None of these things are new for Bron, particularly on defense where he’s a master help defender and shown capable of protecting the rim as well as anyone when the stakes are highest.

Second, LeBron will need to find ways to cede more ball handling duties in order to get the ball later in possessions, rather than dictating the flow of them from the beginning of the action. Now, I get that taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands is usually never the right answer if you’re looking to optimize your team’s offense. He’s one of the best decision makers ever, and remains an elite shot creator for himself and for teammates. Limiting that feels counterintuitive and requires a delicate approach to ensure you’re actually accomplishing what is needed.

That said, you simply do not acquire Westbrook to turn him into an all-the-time off-ball worker. You’re not going to get the most out of him, and you’re very likely to hurt the spacing of whoever you ask to be the primary ball hander in place of him. So, empowering Russ is a necessity, not just for him, but in helping those around him, too. LeBron included.

For LeBron, then, he’ll need to embrace doing more of the little things that support Russ: be the screener in the P&R, space the floor in the corners rather than above the break, be more of a cutter and weak side post player.

In other words, some of the things that the Lakers will ask of Russ, they’ll also need to ask of LeBron. Which makes sense, right? Like Russ, Bron is a primary ball handler who will now need to take a step back in that area in order to give a teammate more of those chances. Bron has shown he can do that over the course of his career, but Russ is a player who has had the ball more than any teammate Bron has ever played with. Russ won’t be able to maintain his career norms next season, but allowing Russ to play his style will, at least partially, fall on Bron too.

The three Lakers stars are not the best fitting trio you’ll find, and that means they’ll have to purposefully seek out ways to make things work, rather than having it happen organically and more naturally. That said, I have little doubt this team’s star players will figure out ways to best support and complement each other in order to produce the best results. Talent has a way of doing that.

But what cannot be ignored is that amount of sacrifice that will be needed from them to accomplish all of it. So as we think about how this team is going to play their best, and who will need to step out of their comfort zone, compromise, or sacrifice parts of their games to help their teammates thrive, let’s not only focus on the role players. We have to look at the Lakers’ stars, too.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Darius on Twitter at @forumbluegold.

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