There are a myriad of reasons why the Lakers started the season the way they did. Amongst their many foibles however, was a level of rigidness the team couldn't deviate from that hamstrung their growth. This inability to diverge was seen most in the backcourt.
With a glut at the guard spot, limited shooting ability and a polarizing lead ball-handler, the Lakers were limited in their options to effectively fill in the gaps around the likes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They were redundant, and in some cases, dictated everyone else to adjust instead of vice versa.
Fast forward to the trade deadline, which while didn't address every roster ailment, Rob Pelinka injected much-needed flexibility into the backcourt that has since helped grease the wheels of what has suddenly become a thunderous train.
While each new player has been a bright spot in their own way, it has been the acquisition of D’Angelo Russell and the subsequent promotion of Austin Reaves into the starting lineup that has paid major dividends.
This is largely due to the duo’s ability to serve as slabs of clay on offense. Whatever the game and coaching staff asks for, they are the ones to contort, change form and become something useful.
In terms of how their malleability manifests itself on the floor, it boils down to each’s capacity to execute three baseline skills: dribble, pass, and shoot. Couple in both having immensely high basketball IQ’s, and the Lakers have almost overnight swapped out one of the league’s most cast-iron guard rotations to one of the most elastic.
Take for example, Russell and Reaves on this play.
In this half-court setup, Reaves is the on-ball initiator while James serves as the team’s screener/roller. Beyond the clear trust the team has in Reaves to orchestrate the offense when the likes of James on the floor, notice also Russell’s role here. He does not need the ball, is not stagnant, nor is he in the way.
Instead, Russell sets a cross screen off-the-ball before exiting the vicinity. And thanks to a Jarred Vanderbilt flare screen, finds himself open in the corner. This is a play that Reaves and Russell can also easily interchange because of their aforementioned abilities, but also, their willingness to fill in the blanks.
Whether it’s on or off the ball, both are ready for whatever assignment is thrown their way. Be it scripted or improvised, Russell and Reaves have been effective and on time to provide the punchline.
On this possession, the initial James’ strong-side action gets stonewalled by the defense. Prior to the trade deadline this scenario would typically result in disaster. But here, the Lakers smoothly flow into a secondary screen-action for an always calm, cool and collected Russell.
Both guards are a pair of life-preservers that buoy the perimeter, waiting to bail out half-court chances against choppy water.
From golfing with one and other, to being near stylistic twins in their games, the tandem’s compatibility on and off the floor has been is hard to ignore..
“Man, I love playing with him,” Reaves said of his new backcourt mate. “He just plays the right way. Makes the simple play. Will go out of his way to ask you how you want to get involved in the game, like what play you want to run. Just little things like that. I feel like we’ve built a really good chemistry together on and off the court...So it’s fun because he’s so talented but at the same time, so unselfish that it just gives a good energy to everybody on the team.”
Beyond the sheer enthusiasm and shared wavelength Russell and Reaves have fostered and found themselves on, the Lakers are also seeing tangible results.
As of this article, the team has a blistering offensive rating of 129.7 and a +22.1 point differential when the backcourt duo are on the floor according to Cleaning the Glass.
Both data points would rank in the 99th and 100th percentiles respectively among lineup combinations that have logged at least 100 possessions this season. In other words, if it looks like it's working, it’s because it has.
“I don’t know if you can name anything Austin Reaves can’t really do,” Russell said. “On the offensive end, he dominates the game and myself I try to do the same. So, when you got us next to those two guys (AD, Bron) out there, the game is super simple.”
Outside of their own individual chops in creating for themselves or others, perhaps Russell and Reaves’ greatest value is their effectiveness in slotting in around the team’s stars.
With the Lakers’ offense often consisting of throwing the ball to either James or Anthony Davis in the post, the guards have shown to be threats in exploiting the opposition’s tendency to send extra help.
Here, Russell and Reaves use their passing to beat the compromised defense once James sees a double-team.
Although the extra help will always naturally come the stars’ way, it is coming less frequently now. The reason? Russell and Reaves according to Davis.
“When him (Reaves) and D-Lo are playing like that it opens up the floor for me and Bron,” Davis said. “As you see, there was no more double-teams. Bron was able to get isos on the post, the pocket passes got a lot more clear. Guys making shots. You’ve got to stay home.”
The guards are indeed making shots. Russell is shooting a healthy 40% from behind the arc since arriving, and Reaves has taken a significant step in his own jumper, canning 39% from three this season.
While helpful, it's not just the 3-point percentages in aggregate that is proving beneficial, but the types of perimeter attempts the duo are converting on.
According to the league’s Synergy data, Russell has scored a scorching 1.26 points per possession (92nd percentile) on his spot-up opportunities with the Lakers thus far. Reaves isn't too far behind, as he’s yielded 1.23 points per (90th percentile) on his own chances. These go a long way in preventing the defense from selling out on paint touches.
There are of course limiations to Russell and Reaves individually, and collectively. Neither is an above average athlete, both can be rattled against size and it remains to be seen how each fare on defense in a playoff setting.
That said, for the first time in a long time, the team’s pieces seem to fit. And in the instances in which they don’t, it’s been Russell and Reaves who have molded themselves into the shape that the Lakers need them to be.
Whether it’s running a pick and roll, setting an off-ball screen or simply making an open three, a sizable portion of Lakers’ recent success can be found directly in their blossoming backcourt.
You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla.