Now that the Lakers roster is, basically, complete we’re going to start a short series of posts taking a look at a specific part of the team from an angle we find interesting. First up, the Lakers bigs.
The Lakers’ roster now runs 14 players deep. After Kawhi Leonard power-played his way to a Paul George partnership with the Clippers, the Lakers recovered quickly and, I’d argue, smartly in building out the rest of their roster with shooters, finishers, and some solid (to really good) team defenders to flank LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Kyle Kuzma.
The roster is by no means perfect, and like most rosters there is a path towards downside we must always acknowledge, but it offers both steadiness and a real upside to orbit around the superstar talents of James and Davis. It’s a time tested formula that typically produces strong results, if not championship level competitiveness. We’re a long ways off from seeing if that’s how good they are, of course. Walk before you run.
A key aspect of the roster GM Rob Pelinka has built, however, is where the concentration of playmaking and shot creation players are. Yes, the Lakers did re-sign Rajon Rondo – a player who is in the classic “pure point guard” mold of yesteryear. He is a player who thrives to set up his teammates and is a pass first, second, and third player. But, beyond him, the Lakers have built a roster where it’s their big men who can best carry the burden of being set up men and shot creators for themselves and their teammates.
While a recent report noted that the Lakers plan to start LeBron James at point guard, he is the best example of this. LeBron, whether he accepts it or not, is basically a PF at this stage of his career. The 1st Cleveland stint and the Flying Death Machine Miami version of James who was the elite wing player in the league due to his rare combination of genius level smarts and skill + off the charts athleticism only makes periodic appearances now. James is built like Karl Malone — by definition he is PF sized and his game has shifted to reflect that (or shifted as much as it will considering his roots as a wing player and the sensibilities of the current NBA).
So, in many ways, James is a big man. If you don’t believe me, put a point or shooting guard sized defender on him and tell me how you think he reacts. While I’m sure there’d still be plenty of attacking off the dribble from up high, I’d bet real money that he’d also just walk that player to the elbow or short post and demolish him with his strength and skill around the paint. So, call James whatever you want in terms of position — he’s a big man now. But he’s also someone who will be tasked with creating shots for himself and his teammates.
Something, I might add, he remains elite at. I mean, look at these passing highlights from last season:
Maybe you disagree with my classification of LeBron. Maybe you’ll say he’s still a wing. I can meet you halfway and say LeBron exists in an in-between world all to his (and probably Giannis’) own. That said, no one is going to mistake Anthony Davis for a wing.
Davis was billed as a generational prospect and someone who could contend for the “best PF ever” title the day he declared for the NBA draft 7 years ago. Today, in the ever evolving NBA, many would argue his best position is Center even if Davis might bristle at playing the position full time.
Still, Davis is, basically, a unicorn. He’s a 7 footer who sprouted nearly a foot in high school and went from playing guard to being a big man. His game, then, is very much guard-like or, said a different (and better) way, incorporates the skills of a guard into the body of a big man:
Davis, like he did in New Orleans, will likely carry a heavy burden as a shot creator — especially in lineups where he is in the game sans LeBron. Davis will likely be given the freedom to grab-and-go off the defensive glass and then flow into early offense opportunities, either in transition or pet actions against non-set defenses. Davis will also very likely be involved in hand-off situations and single-high sets for the bigs off ball reversals where he’ll be a primary decision maker as plays unfold in front of him.
Davis, too, will be asked to carry a heavy load as an isolation scorer from the low post all the way out to the three point line, where he’ll use an advanced off the dribble attack to beat players who simply are not accustomed to guarding players who are the same size as them, but move like Davis can.
And then, of course, we have DeMarcus Cousins. The achilles injury and then partially torn quadriceps during the playoffs influence our current view of Boogie. And rightfully so. Players as big as him with this type of injury history come with a “buyer beware” sticker and a “final sale, cannot be returned” disclaimer during checkout. So, parsing that out and then compartmentalizing what that means for him physically while still evaluating what his skill level will be can be difficult.
That said, Cousins is very much in the same mold as Davis and LeBron. In fact, he might be a weird blend of both. He is physically imposing and can be devastatingly overpowering, but also possessing a sometimes stunning ability to move and change direction with the skill of a perimeter player. Look at this highlight reel from last season. Some of these plays almost don’t seem possible for a player of his girth:
Even more than Davis, Cousins’ guard-like skills translate as a passer. For his career, he averages 3.2 assists per game, but has not been below that number since the 2013-14 season. He topped out at 5.4 assists per game the 2017-18 season, showing rare passing feel all over the floor for a player his size. Whether leading the break or picking out cutters from the top of the floor, the elbows, or low-post, Cousins is wonderful at making reads and rewards smart off ball movement by teammates.
In getting back to one of my earlier points, the Lakers have built a roster where the majority of their guards and wings are better as finishers instead of creators. This was probably a result of the free agent market as anything else, but how the team got here doesn’t really matter. What they’ve done, however, is complemented those finishers with big men who can reward them — not only as passers who can dole out assists directly, but as shot creators who draw enough defensive attention to begin the type kick-out, swing, swing sequences that punish teams who are forced to go into rotation.
Whether this is the smartest way to build a team is an open question. There are smart arguments that say the NBA, like the college ranks, has turned into a guard’s league (or, more specifically, a wing’s one) where shot creation from the perimeter and as a ball handler who initiates via P&R sets is of the highest value. The Lakers, for all their strengths, are not that.
What they do have, however, is a trio of uniquely talented big men players who are equipped to run their offense through from all three levels of the floor. I am as interested as anyone else to see if this is a philosophy that will pay off in the end. For the Lakers’ sake, they better hope it does.