When the Lakers won their most recent championship, they did so in unorthodox fashion. While the rest of the league maneuvered themselves further and further outside, behind the 3-point line, the Lakers moved in and called the rim home.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the team had the second-highest frequency (39.8%) in the league in terms of shots that came within four feet of the basket a season ago. Their 68.8% conversion rate in that area would end up being the best mark of any club. The barrage at the rim mainly came on the backs of their front court, as the trio of Anthony Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard devoured their aerial chances on a nightly basis.
However, those dunks that turned into a powerful offensive staple and helped create one of the more fun Laker teams in recent memory came few and far between last year. Due to a combination of roster construction and injuries, the team would go on to produce 186 fewer dunks (342) than they did in their previous campaign (where they slammed home 528).
Individually, LeBron James saw his lowest chances at the rim in a decade, and Davis — who was sixth in the league in dunks just a year ago — posted the lowest shot frequency at the basket of his career (32%, down from 42% a season prior).
Fortunately for the fanbase, there should be optimism that thunderous tomahawks, lobs and highlight moments could be making a comeback this year. One of the main reasons is not just Howard’s return, but the alteration to the team’s front court overall.
Although the previous center rotation of Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell featured more offensively talented players than the group they replaced, neither were the lob targets that Howard was a year prior. Both served as more horizontal threats than vertical ones.
The team’s lack of an aerial game quickly became evident as they scoured the market for players who could replicate the lob-catching ability of their previous bigs, trying to recapture the winning formula from their championship season.
This is likely why the team has recently been linked to DeAndre Jordan, who threw down 137 dunks this past season, and the most (1,926) of any player in the last decade. And also the rationale behind Howard (1,385, the third-most dunks in the last 10 years) being back in the fold. If Jordan joins Howard, LeBron James (seventh, 1,057 dunks) and Anthony Davis (fifth, 1,281), the Lakers will have four of the top 10 players in dunks over the last decade on their roster.
But either way, more dunks are almost certainly on the horizon.
Despite not having quite the season with Philadelphia that he had with the Lakers, Howard still showed the ability to hammer it down when tasked. Especially when serving as the roll-man. Even in the twilight of his career, the center ranked in the 90th percentile when it came to roll impact (measures points scored per 75 possessions on court from rolls), according to the BBall-Index. That skillset should be a welcome addition and void-filler for the team’s half-court offense.
Between his reputation and sheer athleticism, Howard also brings a sheer gravitational value that a player like Gasol was unable to provide. When measuring his “roll gravity” — a stat that aims to measure “a player’s ability to pressure the defense through their screening and rolling, forcing defensive help the same way a great shooter might on the perimeter,” per the BBall-Index — Howard ranked in the 76th percentile of the league this past season.
Gasol, who has always been more perimeter oriented, was in the mere 5th percentile.
The other positive indicator that the front court could recoup the athletic advantages they once had over opposing teams— and throw down more dunks in the process — is the report that Davis himself is willing to play more center this upcoming season.
Beyond the spacing advantages that come with Davis as the team’s sole big on the floor, he would be put in better individual positions to be the recipient of those lob chances on a more consistent basis. That’s an area of the game he thrives in, but has recently been diluted due to injury and personnel.
Davis, Howard and the rest of the front court should also benefit mightily from the arrival of a revamped playmaking core, spearheaded by Russell Westbrook.
If the Lakers add Rondo, they'll have the 2nd (Russ), 7th (LeBron) and 42nd (Rondo) ranked players in our Playmaking talent metric at @The_BBall_Index from this past season.https://t.co/d5UxZrtDtT— Cranjis McBasketball (@Tim_NBA) August 29, 2021
He'd be their 7th A grade Playmaker. Here's the team so far ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/XenzlBNLFb
The Lakers’ front office was clearly focused on adding more playmaking, injecting the roster with a slew of creators. With Westbrook, one of the league’s best in recent memory, serving as the crown jewel.
A center-whisperer of sorts, Westbrook’s dynamism and brute strength has carved out space for his bigs on both horizontal and vertical planes, making it so they can simply catch and dunk. His athletic gifts and keen playmaking eye were a big reason why he dished out the second most assists at the rim this past season, and second most in the league in the last five years.
With a healthy James back and Westbrook in tow, the team’s bigs should have no excuse when it comes to shot quality this upcoming year, especially around the bucket. And with Rajon Rondo set to return to Los Angeles, the Lakers will have three of the top 10 players when it came to rim assists the past decade on the same team. No other team will have more than two.
It is worth noting that while the new playmakers on the roster will undoubtedly be there to make life easier for their bigs, there is also much more oomph in their own offensive games than in years past. Westbrook is the best example, as it’s not only his passing that should help generate more action at the rim, but his own prowess at dunking the ball himself. Westbrook has dunked 203 times in the last five seasons, the most among all point guards not named Ben Simmons or his new teammate, James (if we classify them as such) during that span.
Like Howard, Westbrook’s athleticism is in the deep rounds of a competitive fight against Father Time, but he still showed the ability to serve up a collection of hammers as recently as this past season. His poster on Bismack Biyombo in particular was so vicious that Westbrook himself even had to check on him in the closing seconds of the game.
That level of hops at the point guard position is simply something the Lakers have lacked in the back court for, well, years. Maybe decades. Honestly, they may have never had a point guard who can dunk like this. For context, Westbrook slammed home 24 dunks with the Wizards this past year. That is the same number of dunks that every Laker point guard not named James has tallied collectively in the past two seasons.
Between Westbrook, Howard and the team’s stars simply being healthy again, the team is clearly on track to do some serious damage at the rim. A welcome sight for sore eyes.
Although they count as much as any other 2-point field goal, dunks are so much more than that. They are for one, the most efficient shot in basketball given their high probability rate of going in. Also, a team who generates a high frequency of dunks is likely executing their offense successfully, and perhaps could help preserve energy over the course of a game, and season, versus a team who slogs through their scoring chances.
And basketball benefits aside, there are also intangible bonuses only slams can provide. A degree of excitement, joy, and energy that a timely throwdown can have on an audience — and team — that is unmatched.
The basketball equivalent of a defibrillator, dunks could be the exact thing that turns the tide of a contest. It could also be what brings a team together through the doldrums that come over the course of 82 games.
That collective celebration on the sidelines that happens after the disgusting posterization of some poor soul? It’s invaluable for camaraderie. It is a chance to practice cheering on someone else’s success. To share a collective victory, even if it’s a minor one.
Dunks also allow players to have the rare opportunity to disassociate themselves from their job, from adulthood. That singular awe-inspiring windmill on a random Tuesday night on the road presents the opportunity to be a kid again. The one who was once in their room dreaming about doing things that seemed otherworldly back then. Those are the moments in basketball that are worth recapturing, worth cherishing.
It was not just those dunks that were missing from the Lakers this past season, it was fun. Trite maybe, but it was an element that — when sapped — impacts nearly every facet of the game.
Fortunately for the team and the fanbase, the squad may be on the verge of bringing it back. One point at the clouds, one pass in the air, and one catch and finish at a time.