Luka Doncic trekked out West for a duel.
The showdown would take place at Game 7, on the road and against a Suns team many had penciled in to represent the conference in the NBA Finals. Doncic’s Mavericks were seen by some as just another stepping stone in Phoenix’s path. A spunky squad with a generational player, but nothing more. Yet when the ball finally tipped, the roar that once echoed through the desert fell silent. And the quivering cacti that had danced all year became still.
Despite throwing various defenders his way, Doncic painted bullseyes on his targets then poured in step-backs, turnarounds and floaters with dazzling ease. The combination of craft and his stockiness flummoxed the opposition, ultimately leading to one of the most lopsided series clinchers the league has ever seen.
Doncic, who maniacally laughed as he went about his work, was not only quickest to the draw, but had an auxiliary advantage in the form of his frame that caused even the stingiest of defenders to wilt. There was no spot on the floor he was forced off of. He took and he took and then he took some more, his very own manifest destiny realized.
As I watched Doncic’s dissection of a team who won 64 games while also taking note of the other postseason proceedings, I couldn't help but think of the Lakers.
How would they have fared in a matchup with Doncic and the other rangy Dallas players? Or in a potential Finals rematch with Miami, a team surging at the right time thanks to the current eater of worlds, Jimmy Butler at the helm? What about against the abhorred Celtics, a group composed of nothing but long arms, legs and whose sole purpose is to vacuum- seal opposing rims?
The answer is the Lakers would likely have fallen short. Largely because of the exact reasons their peers are thriving.
Although there are varying factors behind the successes of the teams and players who are currently still shining under the brightest of lights, there is also a striking common thread that connects them and the larger basketball landscape together: A reliance on wing play.
Despite wing typically being used as a catch-all term, it is more often designated for players in the 6’5” to 6”9” height range (long wingspans are also a plus) who are versatile on defense (can guard multiple positions), strong and can make the occasional open shot.
Due to how their abilities coincide within the modern era specifically, rosters have begun to sprout these players like wildflowers. And in the playoffs, their utility and value only skyrockets. While there are exceptions, the postseason has become a showcase for players who can use their physical advantages to create offense, switch, allow their teams to downsize and offer sheer adaptability on a series-to-series basis.
This evolution of the game is not a trend, but instead, something that is stitched into the tapestry of the sport when it’s played at the highest level. What once was a luxury has turned into a necessity for survival.
Among the conference finalists, Maxi Kleber is the only player listed at or taller than 6-foot-10 who has averaged over 25 minutes per game in the playoffs.— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) May 16, 2022
For the Lakers, it was their detour away from these types of players this past summer that put them at a nightly disadvantage against their much larger competition. The holes on the roster that were dug by their own doing and only half-heartedly filled — if not ignored altogether — limited their ceiling from the get-go.
In the deal, the team not only shipped two of their most reliable perimeter players (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma) to Washington in exchange for Westbrook, but then saw the likes of Alex Caruso, Wesley Matthews and Markieff Morris walk in free agency.
The sudden exodus of size on the perimeter left the team starved for reinforcements, especially on defense, where the club ranked 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions (114.3) and constantly looked overmatched.
In an attempt to shore up what was lost, the front office turned to a mix of veterans. Players that proved to either be too old, one-dimensional and in some cases, unplayable. After being on level playing ground when it came to matching the rest of the league’s deluge of wing talent, the Lakers suddenly shrunk, whilst everyone else grew.
According to Basketball-Reference, there were only two Lakers players that measured within the 6’5” to 6’9” sweet spot that averaged at least 24 minutes per game this season: LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. While Anthony proved to be every bit of the shooter the team sought, he’s not really a wing at this point, and the team’s reliance on him even with his defensive liabilities accounted for only magnified how few options there were on the roster.
In contrast, the remaining teams in the playoffs — like the Mavericks and Heat, for example — have shown to be been flush with size and versatility as they both had five such players as key members of their rotation in the regular season.
The Lakers did attempt to course-correct this with the signings of Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel later in the year. Two lanky, hungry, wing-forward hybrids who despite having flaws, immediately showcased the benefits of having depth at the position. Albeit coming a little too late.
Austin Reaves, the undrafted rookie turned fan favorite, proved to be perhaps the team’s most effective wing as the season progressed. Although still needing to fill into his body, Reaves impressed when given the opportunity, and showed many of the tools teams around the league covet.
Given the caliber of talent they will have to compete against, the Lakers will likely need more than just these three if they aim to get back to contention. However, acquiring such reinforcements won’t be easy. In true supply and demand fashion, quality two-way players are being snatched up and offered hefty deals at record rates. And given the Lakers’ exceedingly stuffed cap sheet, finding such players with their limited financial options may prove difficult.
A full season of James and Anthony Davis will almost assuredly help in this department. But the extent to which the star duo can realistically be expected to help defend the likes of Doncic, Butler and Jayson Tatum on a nightly basis does not offer a viable long-term solution.
This is why scrounging up a couple of dependable wing options this coming summer needs to be of the utmost importance. Because the playoffs should not only be a blueprint to follow for the Lakers, but also, serve as a reminder that they are not too far removed from being sculpted in a similar fashion.
Although there is no one right way to build a team, there are components — and types of players — that have proven to make winning come easier in the current NBA. And after a season in which the Lakers made it extremely difficult to do so, investing in these time-tested commodities seems like a solid starting point.