In Darvin Ham’s final media availability of the preseason, he made a fairly obvious, yet honest observation about his team — and what he wanted to see as they transitioned from the exhibition games (in which his team went 1-5) to the games that actually mattered. He said, flatly, that he just wanted his team to “get whole,” implying that health had been and would be a factor in his team’s success.
They’d need health for continuity purposes, but also to simply have all the players and their respective talents available to him to deploy as he saw fit. Ham didn’t have that in the preseason and it’d be silly to ignore the impact that had. It wasn’t the only reason the team’s record was what it was, but health and availability were important. So, he wanted his team healthy, and he wanted it as quickly and to be as constant as possible.
If only wanting it made it so...
Only a few days after Ham spoke to assembled media after that Kings game, both Dennis Schröder and Thomas Bryant were ruled out for at least 3 weeks due to thumb injuries. They joined Troy Brown who had already been ruled out for the start of the regular season with his back injury. Since then, both LeBron James and Anthony Davis have missed games due to injury management, while Patrick Beverley and Lonnie Walker have missed games due to illness.
Just like the preseason, the Lakers' record — now sitting at 2-8 through their first 10 games — cannot be pinned totally on these injuries and general spotty availability of multiple rotation players. But, it would be disingenuous to completely ignore how much it has mattered and why there are some reasons to believe the corner Ham thinks his squad is going to turn is real as the team does get healthy.
Which brings me back to Schröder and Bryant.
First, some caveats and contextual pieces of information. One, what we’re not going to do is overstate how good either Dennis or TB are as individual players. Both are on minimum contracts this season. Dennis has been on five teams in the past 4 seasons (OKC, Lakers, Celtics, Rockets, and now the Lakers again) while Bryant is in year two of recovering from a torn ACL and fell out of favor in Washington due to Daniel Gafford’s emergence (and the trade for Kristaps Porzingis). Both have been, in the past, perfectly fine and reasonable rotation players who have played starter-level basketball while being best used as backups. They’re fine players, but not elite talents that have been on the shelf.
And two, it’s important to note one of the key reasons why Darvin wanted his team whole in the first place. After Monday’s loss to the Jazz, Coach Ham noted that this team is built with three very high-salaried players, impacting the way you can functionally build a team around them. While his statements have been interpreted in a variety of ways, an important one is that the simple math of it all means you’re not going to be able to simply spend your way into signing a bunch of talented players who are, by nature, expensive. There are rules that govern these things.
Furthering this idea, if you’re limited in what you can spend (as an over-the-cap, luxury tax-paying team) in free agency, it’s likely that you’re only going to be able to sign similarly talented players who all offer some very specific strengths and weaknesses. Which you then account for when building a rotation and determining the best way to matchup with opponents.
That said, with Dennis and TB out, the Lakers have been missing their specific skill sets — skills that have been notably absent when you consider both their general scarcity on the roster and the level to which some of the other players (who replaced them in the rotation) have been playing to through these first 10 games.
Said another way, as both Kendrick Nunn and Damian Jones mostly played themselves out of rotation spots, players like Patrick Beverley and Wenyen Gabriel have been asked to fill into other roles that aren’t necessarily in their respective wheelhouses. Beverley, for example, has been asked to handle the ball and play more of a traditional point guard role in minutes in which LeBron and AD are in the game, but LeBron is off-ball. While Gabriel has been thrust into playing more minutes as the backup center, he’s sometimes being put in situations where he’s playing against much bigger and more physical players.
While both Beverley and Gabriel have some utility handling these tasks, these are jobs that are better filled by Schröder and Bryant.
Dennis has been a lead guard his entire career in the NBA. Just two seasons ago, he started at point guard for the Lakers in lineups that featured...LeBron and AD. If there’s a single player on the roster suited to slide into this role, it’s him! Meanwhile, Bryant — the Wizards’ starting center before suffering his knee injury — has good size and strength, and plays with a very high motor. If there’s a player who is suited to provide minutes against some of the stronger bigs in the league on this roster — and this can be true whether AD is in the game or not — Bryant is a better choice than Gabriel.
Getting both players back — which should happen relatively soon — is a very easy way to potentially improve your team. I use the word potentially because nothing is guaranteed, but I do think they’ll help. Their respective skill sets not only match areas on this team that have been lacking, but, even more, are the skills that support both LeBron and AD in the ways that they need supporting on this team, while still understanding the weaknesses that this roster still carries.
That last point is important and should not be ignored. Neither Dennis nor Bryant are the “lasers” Bron has said this team lacks. Neither will come in and suddenly shoot 40% from behind the arc. Neither will transform the way teams defend LeBron and AD. But, what they can do is lessen some of the burden both players feel on both sides of the floor, and, in some cases, slot them back into positions where they too can better fulfill the asks this team is making of them.
You need another ball handler in the non-Russ minutes to play with small-ball units built around LeBron? Dennis can be that guy. You want a big man who can play next to or in lineups without Davis who runs the floor hard, can score inside, understands how to play in this offense, and has the strength and size to hold up in the post and on the backboards against bigger centers? Bryant can be that guy. Beyond that, they can uniquely help shore up different lineup types — putting different small-ball groups, more conventional groups, or even two-big groups back on the table.
But, just as important as all this, it does give Darvin what he said he wanted in the first place — a team that is whole. This is important as much for the optionality it offers as anything else. Because, when you build a team with a bunch of role players, they are — by definition — players who can do certain things well, but not all things. And on some nights, those things won’t be able to be filled by anyone else but them. And while that doesn’t guarantee they will do it well every night, it’s much better than not having that option at all.