Capped off by a blockbuster trade with the Washington Wizards for Russell Westbrook, the Lakers have gone and swapped out literally their entire roster since winning the 2019-20 NBA championship, save for their two best players and the final Baby Laker with a chance to be something special. With an attempt at self-redefinition bordering on the basketball equivalent of the Ship of Theseus, it’s impossible to know exactly what this season’s on-court product will look like, other than the fact that it’ll be dressed in Forum Blue and Gold.
Nonetheless, there are a couple of reasons to be excited to watch the new-look Lakers take the court come October, even though there are a few questions looming over the new squad’s championship aspirations. Before outlining the unknowable, let’s dig into why this year’s LakeShow will be must-watch from the jump.
This is far-and-away LeBron’s best shooting Lakers team
Starting with his second stint in the heartland, the tried-and-true path to success for LeBron James-led clubs has been to surround The King with shooters. Flanking the floor with a gang of snipers stretches defenses thin, creating a dual-threat out of James’ rack-attacks. With a head of steam, barely anyone is better at getting to and finishing at the rim than LeBron, especially against a compromised defense that is nearly as concerned about the possibility of an open shooter as they are about the imminent threat of LeBron around the rim.
Historically, LeBron’s most successful teams have been those that have shot the 3-ball well enough to sustain an effective half-court offense during the postseason. When the Lakers won the title in 2020, they shot a mediocre, 35.3% from downtown, the eighth-worst percentage in the NBA that season, per Cleaning the Glass (an advanced stat site that filters out garbage time and end-of-quarter heaves).
When they needed it most, in the Finals, the Lakers maintained their success rate on an unprecedented volume for them, taking almost half of their shots (43.4%) from distance in the series, 133.5% as often as they had during the regular season. Though they weren’t the most efficient group of shooters in the league, they shot well enough on a D’Antonian volume to make the Miami Heat pay for overplaying LeBron around the rim.
Even last season, in a 45-game sample which included four contests following James’ slow recovery from an ankle sprain, James was better at getting to the rim than 92% of the NBA, and finished there better than 99% of players. It led to an Overall Finishing Talent better than 98% of the league, per the Basketball Index.
As a passer, LeBron was even better, creating more great looks for his teammates than just about anyone in the game. Despite finishing with his lowest assists per game average since 2015-16 (7.8), LeBron created more assist-worthy, open looks for his teammates every night (14.4) than 99 percent of the NBA, per Ben Taylor’s Box Creation metric. Piling onto his Herculean offensive burden was the fact that his teammates were borderline inept from outside, posting the 11th-worst adjusted 3-point percentage of any team (35.7%) per Cleaning the Glass. Worse yet for LeBron’s prospects of creating shots for teammates was the fact that he, at 36.5%, was the best 3-point shooter on the roster.
Even with all those caveats, if sustained, the Lakers’ passable regular season shooting should have been enough to overcome any playoff opponent that spring, all things being equal. Unfortunately for them, all things were not equal. LeBron’s ability to get to the rim was sapped by his bum ankle, the Lakers lost their secondary offensive creator and backbone of their defense when Anthony Davis went down with a groin strain, and perhaps most importantly, the non-LeBron Lakers shot a pathetic 7-50 on threes in the final two games of their season, games they lost by a combined 43 (!) points. Average shooting from distance alone would have made things a heck of a lot closer down the stretch, even if their chances of repeating were ultimately doomed as soon as AD went down.
Despite falling to the Hamptons Five Warriors in the NBA Finals, LeBron James’ best shooting and overall offensive team ever may have been the 2016-17 Cavaliers. After dogging it through an up-and-down regular season as the reigning champs, especially on defense, they filleted the Eastern Conference with a 12-1 record en route to the Finals. That team led all playoff teams with a 124.5 offensive rating prior to the Finals, along with the third-best defensive rating in basketball at 107.2 points per 100 possessions. With an all-time great offense and an above-average defense, the 2016-17 Cavs likely would have been champs again in most seasons, so long as they hadn’t had to face the Warriors, supercharged by the offseason addition of Kevin Durant.
That season, LeBron was able to deploy the most dangerous collection of long-range snipers he’s ever had access to in his career. Altogether, that team shot the fourth-best percentage (38.5%) at the second-highest clip (37.1% of all their shots) in the NBA on 3s. In the playoffs, their frequency held steady, while their accuracy crept upwards into the impossibly elite, shooting 43.4% from distance as a team.
Not only did the Cavs possess a handful of knockdown shooters off of the catch, headlined by stretch-fours Kevin Love (37.3%) and Channing Frye (41.5%), they also employed an elite shot creator in Kyrie Irving (40.1%), and most importantly, the greatest shooter-only of all-time, Kyle Korver (48.5%). While the former pair of names enabled LeBron to access the best version of himself in the halfcourt, the latter pair removed some of his offensive burden entirely by creating their own offense on and off the ball. Irving’s “beautiful” game provided James with the greatest offensive counterpart of his career; to a degree unmatched by anyone on this Laker roster.
Korver, however, despite lacking any on-ball offensive creation ability whatsoever, developed a preternatural ability to connect with LeBron, unlike any partner James has had before or since. Korver’s dynamism as a devastating movement shooter, paired with LeBron’s ability to hunt even the smallest slivers of space, enabled efficient early offense that required minimal expenditure of LeBron’s precious stamina.
With the Lakers’ roster re-edification, they’ve added a bunch of veritable snipers who shot 40% or better from distance last season. Theoretically, Carmelo Anthony (40.9%) can provide some of the catch and shoot spacing at the four that the Lakers lacked last season. Malik Monk (40.1%) and Kent Bazemore (40.8%) will ideally give the Lakers a couple of options capable of replicating some of the intermittently incandescent shooting those Cavs wrung out of wings like James Jones and J.R. Smith.
Also, Kendrick Nunn (38.1%) is a fantastic shooter off the bounce, and in transition, a couple of areas the Lakers sorely lacked production in last season. Finally, Wayne Ellington (42.2%) gives the Lakers some Korveresque movement shooting to open up the floor without possession of the basketball. Though he’s not quite as sharpshooting as Korver or as steady of a team defender, Ellington provides the Lakers with an emergency release valve to open up the offense when little else is working.
I asked Wayne Ellington about his elite off-ball movement. He mentioned (not surprisingly) Rip Hamilton, Reggie Miller, and Ray Allen as inspirations, and believes his ability to create space for LeBron, Russ, and AD can be just as important to the Lakers as hitting 3s: pic.twitter.com/2VbDZYIePD— michael corvo (@_michaelcorvo_) August 6, 2021
Altogether, this group can’t quite match the all-time shooting of LeBron’s best Cavaliers team, but they’ll come a heck of a lot closer than any Lakers team in recent memory.
Talen Horton-Tucker’s talent is tantalizing
While the past pair of Laker teams’ singular focus of banner-raising has brought an intensity missing from the STAPLES Center over the past decade, these teams have lacked a certain je ne sais quoi of the Baby Lakers squads from the early teens. While enjoyment in watching the LeBron Lakers has been that of performance, they’ve been without the reality-bending intravenous dopamine drip of going all-in on potential.
This season, Laker fans can have their cake and eat it too. Having yet to turn 21 years old and already entering his third NBA season, Talen Horton-Tucker is showing all the signs of a player on the verge of a breakout.
While he’s got to improve on his inconsistent outside shooting to make the most of his finishing talent (16th-best in the NBA per the Basketball Index), the foundation for a special player is just waiting to be built upon.
It’s not inconceivable to think of THT as the bridge to the Lakers’ post-LeBron era of team-building. Under contract for at least the next three years, every whiff of awesomeness from the Chicago native should provide a potential glimpse of what might be, free of the burdensome reality of what actually is — good or bad. With an irresistible B-plot to follow throughout the coming season, the Lakers are primed for a monumentally entertaining season, regardless of how the year goes.
On paper, the Lakers have enough talent to keep pace with the Brooklyn Nets in an arms race of presumptive favorites, but whether the parts of that sum can coalesce into a greater whole depends most significantly upon a trio of presently unanswerable questions.
Is LeBron James mortal?
By turning 37 just a month into the upcoming season, LeBron James is light-years into unprecedented territory. While it’d be foolish to count the King out just yet, his eventual demise is an unfortunate inevitability.
LeBron James is slowing down. He played the fewest minutes per game of his career last season and missed more games than ever before. In the past three seasons, he’s suffered two debilitating lower-body injuries that severely hampered or ruled him out entirely from playing through the end of the season.
He may still be the best player in the NBA when fully healthy. Nonetheless, the ultimate question is not if LeBron will ever fade into mediocrity or retire, but when.
Can Anthony Davis stay out of “street clothes?”
In a season in which he entered with the sixth-best odds to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award, Anthony Davis came up way short, playing in just 36 games before a groin strain sidelined him for the majority of the Lakers’ final three playoff games.
In the 2019-20 playoffs, Anthony Davis was a wrecking ball of efficiency on both ends of the court. He drilled jumpers from all over the floor at career-best rates and made life miserable for any opponent attempting to score from anywhere in his immediate vicinity.
If the Lakers are to come out of this coming season alone atop the NBA, they’ll need the version of AD we saw in the 2020 bubble, and the biggest obstacle standing in his way from that goal is his recently fickle health.
Will Russell Westbrook scale it back?
If the Lakers can make magic out of their new tripartite superstar grouping, they’ll need a different version of the Russell Westbrook the basketball world has seen since Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City. No one in the world does more damage to basketball rims than Russell Westbrook with his combination of vicious dunks and hurled bricks. Playing aside perhaps the best passer and the most devastating lob threat in the world, Westbrook needs to pare down his share of ill-advised chucking.
Next to two other undeniably better players, the NBA’s triple-double king likely need not average one in the coming season to maximize the Lakers’ chances of winning. Though the Lakers will want Westbrook to cut, screen, and generally move without the ball to prevent clogging up the team’s half-court offense, his impact on that end will boil down to his willingness to supplant “Why Not?” with a new mantra: “Do Less.”
Not since 2012 have the Lakers taken a bigger risk on roster construction and aging veterans. That time around, beset by a Princeton offense, the team’s balky health, and a dose of passive-aggressive passing, things didn’t work out so well. This time, the Lakers are rolling with five different newly rostered players returning for at least their second stint with the team; meriting the same “Redeem Team” moniker as the 2008 Olympic squad (which featured three of the same players).
In sharp contrast with the team’s set-in-stone championship expectations, so much about what exactly this squad will look like on the court remains unknown. Whether it’s all gonna work out, in the end, is as big of a question as any. Regardless, with tectonic pieces in place to collide, whatever happens, it’ll be worth watching.