When the Lakers traded D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, the benefits were twofold. Not only did they clear some of the cap space necessary to realize their two-max dreams in 2018 Free Agency, but they also acquired a dependable scorer who could anchor the half court offense and allow younger players to grow at a more appropriate pace.
Lopez’s reported back issues may be throwing a wrench into those plans, causing him to miss part or all of the preseason, and the Lakers can ill-afford to lose him beyond that.
Spacing the Floor
Lopez added a 3-point shot to his repertoire last season, and adapted well to this new responsibility, making 34.6% on 5.2 attempts per game. As I noted in my recent Laker Film Room video on what Lopez brings to the team, no other Lakers big is currently a threat from distance, so the ability to include this element in their offense is completely dependent upon his availability.
No Laker is more dependent upon this spacing than Lonzo Ball. Lonzo has been surrounded by shooters who could exploit his preternatural ability to throw outlet passes at every level, from High School and AAU, to his one season at UCLA. Even the Summer League roster saw Kyle Kuzma and even Travis Wear playing significant minutes at the Center position. Despite being relatively slow of foot, Lopez projects to be a secondary threat in transition, due to his ability to pull-up from deep as the trailing big.
I recently outlined how Lonzo’s scoring abilities in half court situations are a work in progress, and losing Lopez for any extended period of time would exacerbate this problem. One of Lonzo’s well-documented issues is his difficulty pulling up, specifically off of the pick and roll.
The pick & roll coverage above is a common one, with the defensive big hanging back in the paint to protect against guard penetration. This is most effectively countered in one of two ways. Either the guard shoots the pull-up jumper that Lonzo struggles with, or the screening big pops out beyond the 3-point line. With the defensive big so far back in the paint, he has no chance to close out to the shooting big, who then has a wide open shot. Losing Lopez effectively removes this threat, and this defensive coverage would likely shut down much of the Lakers’ pick & roll attack.
Another coverage, which is becoming more and more prevalent in the NBA, is simply switching the screen. With Lopez in the lineup, it doesn’t matter too much that Lonzo struggles a bit when attacking the big on switches, as Lopez will chew up any guard who tries to defend him in the post. He is one of the few players in the NBA who is relatively efficient when he posts up (0.97 Points Per Possession, vs. the league average of approximately 0.95 PPP in half court situations), which would likely be much higher if opponents dared to stick a Guard on him. With Lopez out, you have far less certainty in this respect, with Ivica Zubac, Andrew Bogut, or even Julius Randle at the Center position, and switching becomes a much more viable option for opponents.
Ingram Needs Help
Lonzo Ball isn’t alone when it comes to struggling to create his own shot. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope operated in Isolation just 3% of the time last season, generating 0.81 PPP. And despite the fact that Julius Randle did an admirable job of setting up his teammates in half court situations, he struggled to create quality looks for himself, yielding just 0.81 PPP in Isolation and a dreadful 0.69 PPP on Post Ups.
With Lopez out of the lineup, that leaves Brandon Ingram as the only player who can potentially create his own, quality look on a consistent basis. Ingram has made significant strides in this respect, exhibiting fantastic triple threat footwork in his only Summer League game.
Yet being solely reliant on him to carry the burden of Isolation shot creation is extremely premature, and probably not beneficial to his development. While the goal of most offenses is to have as few Isolation possessions as possible, the reality of the NBA is that the defense will win some possessions, and the Lakers will inevitably find themselves in situations where there are 8 seconds left on the shot clock and no obvious opportunity is available. Every team needs guys who can get some degree of value in these situations, and the Lakers recently had one who was able to do that and more over the better part of two decades. Lopez’s presence makes Ingram a secondary option in these situations, which is a much more appropriate role for him at this point in his career.
While it would be great for Lopez and his teammates to familiarize themselves with each other, the Lakers can’t risk furthering aggravating this back injury. If this problem persists into the regular season, it will have a significant and negative effect on not only the Lakers’ win total, but also on Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram, the two most important players on the roster.
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