Don't forget, the conversation around the 2020 title team was pretty uninspiring. The Clippers were almost universally considered to be favorites to win the title while the Lakers were generally expected to be a slow regular season team that turned it on in the playoffs... and were expected to struggle some on defense, here's a take from The Ringer's Zach Kram: "The Lakers’ best defensive point guard at the moment is assistant coach Jason Kidd. Gimme the little brothers with a roster actually constructed for the modern NBA." Now, just because the pundits were wrong about the 2020 team doesn't mean they're wrong about the 2022 team. But I think if you look at this collection of players not as who they were in their last stop, but who they could be on this team, there is cause for optimism, just as there would have been in 2020.
So what's realistic or optimistic? Well as a baseline, when we talk about better or worse on offense or defense, we are really talking about a couple different things. One is the team's offensive or defensive rank over the course of a season, points scored or points scored against over 100 possessions. The other is a team's peak offensive or defensive potential for a given game or set of possessions. These are obviously related but not exactly the same. The Milwaukee Bucks were the best defensive team in the NBA by defensive rating for the two seasons before they landed Jrue Holiday. Last season they graded out as the 10th best defensive team, obviously they were a more potent defense with Jrue, but a combination of worse depth and different defensive strategy during the regular season caused their regular season efficiency to slide. The same principle applies to the Lakers 2020 title team, where the team rated out as the third best defense defense but the best defensive lineup, the one that obliterated the Heat in Game 6, only played about 30 minutes together during the regular season. Their peak defensive efficiency wasn't necessarily reflected in their already great rating.
The most likely outcome for this coming season is the Lakers are relatively better in terms of offense on the whole, because of a greater depth of offensive players, and relatively worse in terms of defensive rating, because some of the more offensively oriented lineups won't be as strong on defense. But the cautiously optimistic view is that when LA really needs to turn it on, the Lakers can be almost as effective as the 2020 team defensively and more dynamic offensively.
How do they get there? Well, assuming there are no injuries or major age-related declines to Lebron or AD, it all starts with Russ (surprise, surprise). You'll hear a lot of "Westbrook has never shown he can do X," from the naysayers. That logic is misplaced for three reasons. First, Westbrook played more disciplined and effective defense earlier in his career, not to mention college. Certainly he didn't on those pillars of defensive identity, Houston and Washington, next to the co-captains of the defensive accountability team, Harden and Beal. But otherwise, Westbrook has always been on good defensive teams that have been better when he's played. On offense, as recently as 2020, Russ meaningfully changed his shot profile to accommodate the Rockets. Second, when superstars drive these team-ups, they generally do what they need to do to succeed. At this point, we should take these guys at their word when they team-up until proven otherwise. Third, Lebron's magnetism is unique in the NBA - JR Smith, Tristan Thompson, Kyrie, Dwight, the list of guys who have put their egos and issues aside playing with Lebron is long. Russ obviously respects Lebron and knows his role on the team, he's already speaking about how his role is to help ease the burden on Lebron. He also hasn't played with a defensive culture setter like AD. I think there's a compelling case that Russ will, to the best of his ability, do what needs to be done for the team.
What does that look like? Russ playing with high energy and moderate focus on D is still a force. Before the 2020 season, KCP stood for Kid Can't Play. After two years playing with AD and Lebron and under Vogel, we hear him talked about like he was Scottie Pippen. Imagine what Russ, still an unparalleled athlete in the history of the NBA, looks like after a year. Russ will never be Dwyane Wade off the ball, but he doesn't have to be. He just has to move enough that he's a threat. He obviously CAN set screens and cut, we've all seen it in highlights, he just doesn't do it enough. But he's never really been asked to, the only time it would have made a lot of sense was in Houston, and the defining feature of the Houston offense was a bunch of guys standing outside the three point line around James Harden. Even Chris Paul, a historic level basketball genius, was reduced to standing around off the ball in the Houston offense. And if Westbrook doesn't fall in line? He'll be benched, it's that simple, for the first time in his career, he's on a team that can get by without him, and only needs him if he does what the team needs him to do to succeed.
Let's also not gloss over the effect of Russ on Lebron. Clearly, there is a reason Lebron wanted Russ instead of Buddy Hield. Lebron isn't an idiot, he may very well understand the NBA game better than any person in history, and that's not hyperbole. Obviously Lebron knows that Buddy Hield spacing for the Bron-AD pick and roll would be nuclear. Lebron also knows that he'll be 37 halfway through the season with an unprecedented minutes and mileage load. He knows that it will be a tough ask for him to be the point guard, wing scorer, and defensive power forward for every possession of four rounds of the playoffs at this point in his career. Now, Westbrook isn't just an "innings eater" who can finally help LA float in the "non-Lebron" minutes. He can also handle the ball, find Lebron on cuts, feed Lebron in the post, find Lebron in the corner for an open three. Lebron hasn't gotten to play that way since the golden days in Miami, and to an extent in Cleveland, where shooting 55% from the field was routine. And in case you hadn't noticed, Lebron is not a Jimmy Butler-esque "non-shooter." He's led the team in three point attempts both of the last two seasons and has shot a solid percentage, especially considering how many of those shots have been contested pull-ups on tired legs. Sure, Lebron will have the ball in his hands less often, which doesn't sound great, but Westbrook is a legitimately brilliant passer, imagine Lebron catching the ball on the move with his defender a step behind. Even at 37, that may be the highest percentage half-court play in the game. We haven't even gotten to AD yet, arguably the best roll man in the game today. AD will be able to play all of his minutes with a world class facilitator in either Lebron or Westbrook. The amount of pressure this team will be able to put on the rim is really without comparison in the NBA since Shaq and Kobe.
Obviously there are other guys on this roster too, and almost all of them are new (well, technically, almost all of them are former Lakers), so how do they fit in this optimistic view? I broke them down into four categories, THT, Monk, and Nunn being one group. Bazemore and Ariza are the second. Ellington and Melo are the third. And the big men, Gasol and Dwight are the last group. Let's take them in reverse order and talk about why some of them probably will contribute in unexpected ways.
Let's not bury the lede here, AD will be playing center in the high leverage minutes when the games count. If he's not, then this team is sort of a moot point. For most of the season though, Dwight and Gasol will do what they do. These guys are the easiest to talk about. Dwight was solid for the Lakers in 2020 and terrible for the Sixers in 2021. Fortunately, the Lakers have something the Sixers don't, which is a player (a couple, in fact) that can take advantage of Dwight's ability to vertically space on offense in the half-court. Defensively, Dwight will be able to protect the rim well enough on defense to keep the team afloat for 15-20 regular season minutes. Gasol is also still solid on D, it looks ugly when he gets caught in space against a ball handler, but the numbers say his size and know how are still a plus on that end. Gasol is the opposite of Dwight on offense, he is strictly a shooter and a passer now. He's good at both, although he could stand to be a little more indiscriminate with his shots. Another guy who can play a solid 15-20 minutes a game in the regular season. It will be on Vogel to try to work the lineups to try to prevent too many Russ - AD - Dwight minutes, but that's why they pay him the big bucks.
Melo and Ellington are the next grouping. At this point we know exactly who these guys are and what their roles are. They are offense only vets who will be regular season innings eaters. We throw on around the term "bad on D" pretty frequently when discussing NBA players, but it's important to parse it a little. There is the type of "bad on D" that Lebron was getting before the 2020 season because he was lazy on closeouts... that's what Westbrook is more or less. Then there is "unplayable in late games because you get targeted mercilessly." That's what these guys are. That said, Ellington can really shoot the hell out of the ball. During a long regular season, he is a guy who can come in and play entirely off-ball and just hit 3s. Hit them standing still, hit them off screens, hit them in transition. The guy has basically shot 10 threes per 36 and hit them at 39% over the last five years. You don't want him closing close games unless you know you can sub him out on defense, but to keep the offense moving for a few mid-game shifts in January, you need a guy like Ellington. Melo is an innings eater in a different way. Melo can still be the mismatch nightmare he was in his prime, he just can't and shouldn't do it the whole game. But he can come in and hit tough shots if the second unit offense is jammed up and can provide some very legit stretch from the four position. No one expects these guys to be part of the Lakers best lineups, they are a big part of the reason why the Lakers regular season defensively efficiency may slip some, but they don't really impact the team's defensive potential in the high leverage moments of the playoffs, because they won't be playing.
Ariza and Bazemore are the next group, they will actually matter when the games get important. They are solid 3 and D vets who played 20-25 minutes for playoff/play-in teams in 2021 and started when the games mattered. Don't let the vet min price tags fool you, both these guys have value around the league. In some sense here is where my realistic optimism for the Lakers' best case scenario starts again. Neither of these guys needs to do anything they haven't done before, they just need to be able to continue to do what they've done for the past half decade or so as they continue to age. Bazemore is a legitimately good defender, he's not Thybulle, but he doesn't have to be. He's long enough to guard almost any wing or big guard, still relatively quick, and he knows where to be. He's not locking down Kyrie, but for most of the minutes he's on the floor, he'll make the guy in front of him work. And sure, his 41% from deep from last year is probably a bit of a fluke, but he just needs to be able to shoot around 36% on reasonable volume to keep defenses honest, which is basically what he's done for most of his career. Ariza is older than Bazemore and but also basically did what he's done for the last half decade of his career, which was start for a playoff team while playing above average defense and hitting a reasonable amount of threes at a reasonable rate for a guy his position. Provided these two just keep on trucking and Westbrook is reasonably bought in, a closing lineup of Westbrook-Bazemore-Ariza-James-Davis is as scary as any other five man lineup in the NBA. That includes, in my estimation, a Brooklyn team whose best lineup includes significantly better shooting (than any other team in the NBA) but only one or two defenders who could grade out as pluses even at their best.
The last tranche of players is the most exciting but also has the most variance in Nunn, Monk, and THT. These are the young guys, the guys who the realistic optimist would say have the potential to actually do things we've never seen them do before in the right situation. The Lakers don't need all of these guys to hit, if the veterans all play around where we hope they do, the team just needs one of these guys to really pop. If two of them show out, the team could be really special, and if all three do, watch out. Nunn is probably the most likely to be productive. He's a bit older, quite a bit more consistent, and will be playing a role he has played for the last two seasons. Nunn is built like a point guard but plays like a combo guard. Which is fine, because he will largely be an off-ball weapon for this team. He can shoot the three well enough and isn't scared to take it, he can get to the rim and finish if he gets the ball in space, and he's good in transition. On defense, he's small but he's relatively athletic and he tries. In a lineup with the Lakers' three stars and Bazemore or Ariza, Nunn can hold his own on D. He'll be targeted some, sure, but he's not so small, slow, or weak that the Lakers will need to worry about a Kevin Huerter on Seth Curry situation. Monk is a bit more of a wild-card than Nunn, but could have an even bigger impact if he hits. Last season Monk finally started to hit his three-ball. It could be a fluke, but Monk came into the league as a shooter, so the pedigree is there. If the shooting is real, Monk adds a level of dynamism that someone like Ellington just can't. That's because Malik is a real athlete and a solid ball-handler. He's not much of a passer, but that's fine, the team has enough facilitators. Defensively, he's been pretty rough, but he's young and athletic enough that it's reasonable to hope that being slotted in the right role, on the right team, under the right coach, he can do enough to grade out as adequate. And like Nunn above, if Westbrook is putting his athleticism and size to good use on the defensive end with Lebron, AD, and Ariza/Baze, all Monk would need to be is adequate on defense. The last of these guys is THT. THT is the youngest and therefore, hopefully, has the most room to improve. Obviously the thing that makes THT so appealing is that he has the quickness to defend guards but the heft and length to legitimately guard big wings. He's just not there yet in terms of know-how. Offensively, he can get to the rim and finish but can't shoot consistently enough. If he improves just some amount as both a team defender and shooter, he really could be just what the doctor ordered to play next to the Lakers' stars and whichever veteran wing is most appropriate. He's not even 21 yet and has shown signs of developing, so it really isn't a stretch that he could get there this coming season.
So that's who the Lakers look to be rolling with this season. Put it all together and what is the reasonably optimistic case? The three stars plus the best of the young guys plus the better or more case-specific of the veteran wings would be the teams' go to closing lineup for tight games. Russ's athleticism and skill make that group far more dangerous offensively than even the best lineups of the 2020 team. Defensively, at the very least, that group will be almost as big and athletic as the 2020 closing five, and if Russ really does buy in, they will be even more disruptive. On a game to game basis for the regular season, the rotation of AD, Dwight, and Gasol give the Lakers a backline defensive presence at all times. Sure, the backup wings and guards won't be as big or defensive minded without KCP, Caruso, or to an extent Kuzma, but the Lakers won't be playing their worst defenders huge minutes and what they will lose in defensive depth, they will almost certainly gain back moreso in offensive dynamism that had been lacking from the bench units the last couple of years.
So in total, the most likely outcome is a regular season team that sacrifices some defensive efficiency that came from defensive oriented guards who couldn't create their own shots for some offensive efficiency that comes from a second legit ball-handler and more offensively dynamic guards. But that team won't be BAD on defense by any means. When the playoffs come, the Lakers will trim the offense-only innings eaters and reduce the minutes of the traditional centers and be a lean team built around the three stars, the veteran wings, and whichever of the young guys hit.
Could it all fall apart? Of course. But health permitting, I don't think the worst case scenario for this team is particularly likely. The culture that Lebron, AD, and Vogel have built means that this team will likely be closer to its very high ceiling than its floor.