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Building Through the Playoffs: Takeaways from the Lakers’ Western Conference Finals exit

Despite failing to reach their ultimate goal, the Lakers rode a months-old roster farther than most thought was possible. Now, they need to double-down on what worked, while letting go of what didn’t.

2023 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

In the embers of an impressive playoff run, the Lakers are almost guaranteed about to undertake a serious reshaping of their roster.

As LeBron noted in his final post-game presser, only he, AD, and Max Christie are the only players contractually guaranteed money from the Lakers next season. Regardless of how closely they adhere to their stated goal of following the path towards “continuity,” they won’t likely be able to simply run it back.

In reshaping next year’s roster, the team should be cognizant of the weaknesses exposed throughout the postseason without neglecting the strengths that got them there in the first place — the kind of revisionist thinking that led to the disastrous trade of two summers ago.

Hold the Line

Most importantly, the Lakers need to reedify the defensive identity they built during the latter part of the regular season, proving that staunchness was no fluke throughout the playoffs. While Anthony Davis remained a Cthulu-esque destroyer of worlds whenever he could hang around the rim defensively, the Lakers needed their perimeter defenders to apply pressure to their opponents’ primary ball-handlers and force them off of the 3-point line and into AD’s zone of control.

Although the Lakers lacked any one all-defense level stopper, they were able to rely on a handful of high-motor options to steer scorers into the teeth of their defense. Dennis Schroder served as the Lakers’ best screen-navigator and on-ball pest, and Jarred Vanderbilt had his greatest utility matched up on the ball against scoring wings. Essential to the Lakers’ newfound defensive identity, without a second ace, is this malleability, allowing them to shift to the strengths of their opponents around the perimeter. This summer, they should hope to retain Schroder if at all possible and will likely hang onto Jarred Vanderbilt given his relatively low-cost non-guaranteed contract next season.

Plug the Gaps

Still though, the playoffs exposed some of the weaker links in the Lakers’ defensive rotation. While Rui Hachimura’s length and physicality gave great minutes against scoring big men like Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic, the team lacked a true, bruising five like the ones they had in their 2020 title run in JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Given the way the Lakers got beaten on the boards at times, and their admitted lack of size in the Denver series, they could stand to add some girth in the middle either next to or to back up Davis, unless they’re cool giving fourth quarter minutes to Tristan Thompson with their season on the line again.

Mo Bamba, who has a non-guaranteed contract next season, is someone who could hypothetically help plug that gap — especially if his summer schedule to work on his body so “it’s like a tank” goes as planned. However, he doesn’t quite fit into the high-effort, physical identity that the Lakers seem to be gunning for.

Despite their broad success on defense, the Lakers’ woeful transition defense was hidden by a much better effort in the half-court. Poor running habits ultimately cost them as the Nuggets’ high-tempo attack continuously took the Lakers by surprise in transition and semi-transition. Whether it was Jeff Green or Bruce Brown attacking the basket coast-to-coast without a Laker stepping up to stop the ball, or Jokic beating AD down the floor to create an advantage for the following halfcourt possession, the Lakers lacked the attention to detail and fitness to tamp down the game’s best offense.

The Lakers’ elder statesmen who too often wasted time arguing for fouls weren’t the only offenders either, as D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley cost the team when they would hold their finish on threes that failed to fall, finding themselves in no-man’s land upon a long defensive rebound leading to a kickout. Across the board, this is something the Lakers need to clean up at the start of next season, or they will not likely be able to outrun their unwillingness to run come next spring.

Advantage Maintenance and Advantage Creation

Between LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Austin Reaves (assuming he returns) the Lakers have some of the highest IQ offensive talents in the NBA. Given an edge against their defender, all three typically earn a makeable shot for themselves or one of their teammates. However, with LeBron’s accelerating age and bum wheel, Davis’s inconsistent shotmaking, and Reaves’ lack of burst, none is especially equipped to be the point of attack for a championship-caliber halfcourt offense.

While it’s probably unwise to doubt Reaves, who was undoubtedly the Lakers’ third-best player in their postseason run, his track record as a high-minute contributor is more brief than his reputation might suggest — it took 75 games for Austin Reaves to start three consecutive ones this season, something that is almost unimaginable in retrospect. Still, Austin has some room for growth heading into his age-25 NBA season and could have Jalen Brunson-level upside if he continues on his current trajectory and mastery of pick-and-roll operation, though prospect progress is scarcely as linear as that.

Even if D’Angelo Russell returns, which probably isn’t something the Lakers should do unless they can get him on a tradeable, team-friendly deal, he’s not someone capable of taking on the mantle of leading an offense in the playoffs. Even if that offense is stocked with three of the game’s best secondary playmakers and play-finishers, Russell lacks the explosiveness to create off the bounce against good defenses. Dennis Schroder’s downhill aggression provided greater utility than Russell in the playoffs, but Dennis is short on the requisite shotmaking and vision to spearhead an elite offense.

Rui Hachimura is also worth a mention here, if not as an offensive kickstarter, someone who can be an offense’s release valve when nothing else pans out in a given possession. However, his best performances came off of the bench and never seemed to earn the full-time trust of the coaching staff. He’s also just 25, and has the prospect pedigree and physical tools to believe he has more talent to tap into, especially with continued help from the Lakers’ elite player dev team headed by Phil Handy.

Without unprecedented growth from Reaves and/or Rui, the Lakers will still be short a primary operator to set in motion what has the potential to be one of the more potent offensive units in the league.

Looking for a “Laser”

One way the Lakers tried to off-set their lack of on-ball pop was by running offense through a movement shooter to get defenses scrambling. The only issue was that they couldn’t seem to find a guy who could make those shots. From Matt Ryan to Malik Beasley, the Lakers never seemed to find a guy that could consistently knock down open threes on the run, an archetype that could breathe life into an offense that so often petered-out in the waning moments of games.

Although Beasley has an expensive team-option at $16.5 million, it could be in both parties’ interests for him to return at less than that number if the Lakers want to give him a shot at regaining some of his credibility as a shooter. Ultimately, it is imperative that the Lakers have some sort of plan to address this weak-spot in the roster heading into 2023-24.

One-Way Weapons are Double-Edged Swords

Playoff series are often won not just by the biggest stars, but by the teams with the most well-rounded players. With the time and focus inherent to a seven-game series, teams will find their opponents’ exploitable weaknesses and poke at them until they fix it or lose.

The Lakers’ most glaring structurally exploitable weakness, at least in their most frequent starting group, was Jarred Vanderbilt’s one-way utility. Although even his defensive usefulness in the latter rounds of the playoffs was debatable, due to his sub-par screen navigation and limitations as a rebounder, there is no argument to be made for Vando as an offensive threat. Beyond a single hot-shooting night against the Grizzlies, Vando failed to reach double-digit scoring despite being left on an island in the corner or even in the dunker basically whenever he was in the game.

No matter how good he was on defense, he couldn’t make up for forcing the Lakers to play four-on-five offensively. When they ultimately sent him to the bench in the final game of their season, they lacked the defensive muster or rotational depth to out-duel the Nuggets.

Vanderbilt has a place in the league, but probably not as a starter for most teams unless he can figure out how to shoot corner threes at a respectable clip. Without a total retooling, repairing his brutal shooting stroke might not be a realistic hope.

Wenyen Gabriel, on the other hand, had a positionally different but stylistically similar one-way role on the Lakers this season. In scarce playoff minutes as a backup big, Wenyen clogged up the Lakers’ offense as a near-non-threat, unable to offer much of a meaningful impact.

Although lineups with him and Anthony Davis crushed opponents during the regular season, the Lakers completely went away from it after LeBron returned from injury due to Wenyen’s inability to shoot well enough to play beside both LeBron and AD. However, with the summer improvements he hopes to make atop a relatively clean shooting form, assuming he’s back with the team next season, a 3-point shooting, rim protecting tweener could provide some serious value at the back end of the Lakers’ rotation, especially against bigger teams.

While the Lakers have a number of relatively minor roster issues to address this summer, they must remember the lesson of the 2021 offseason and refrain from springing a major leak to patch a minor hole. In the final guaranteed year of both LeBron and AD’s Lakers tenures, the Lakers need to build upon what they created this season in order to avoid having to answer even bigger questions the following offseason.

Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.

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