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. Next up, we look at the guards.
When the Lakers traded away Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, and Brandon Ingram, they let go of three players who not only played most of their minutes in the Lakers backcourt last season (and would have projected to do the same this upcoming season), but they got rid of key defenders who offered versatility to guard up or down a position in conventional and switch schemes from the guard position. 1Remember, Brandon Ingram started at SG most of the year, slotted next to Kyle Kuzma and LeBron at the Forward spots.
Replacing core defenders is never easy, but in free agency the Lakers recovered well enough by adding (and bringing back) several players to soak up minutes at both PG and SG. And while this group of guards do not bring the same size and defensive versatility that Ball, Ingram, and Hart provided, this new crop does bring an ability to defend multiple positions — specifically the foursome Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Alex Caruso.
Regarding this versatility, the pivot point may be Danny Green. Green has long carried the reputation as one of the better defensive shooting guards in the game, earning 2nd Team All-Defense recognition in the 2016-17 season. And while Green doesn’t offer overwhelming size, at 6’6″ and 215 pounds he brings enough to capably guard his own position and the ability to slide up to guard small forwards too.
Green offers the wonderful combination of smarts, instincts, and timing while showing the necessary commitment to make the extra effort in rotation and recovery situations to impact plays. Long considered one of the best transition and rim protecting guards, Green has 7 seasons where he’s totaled more than 60 steals and 50 blocks in a single season. The only players with more such seasons are Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade (8 each). That’s some great company and reflects a type of defensive impact that will certainly help this team.
Green’s ability to guard SG’s and SF’s will matter a great deal, but what makes it especially important is that with LeBron planning to play point guard offensively, there will be a need to have players who may not play the position themselves, but can defend PG’s effectively enough to slot LeBron on the weaker of the SG/SF combo on the other team.
This is where KCP, Bradley, and Caruso come in.
Of this group, KCP is probably the weakest individual defender, but even he has his strengths. Over the course of his career, KCP has shown a strong ability to lock and trail when chasing point guards around picks and has a knack for shooting the gap and disrupting passing lanes. And while he can gamble a bit too much for my liking, this season those chances should be better covered up with Anthony Davis lurking on the back side to rotate and challenge offensive players who slip by. Overall, though, due to his only average height and build, KCP’s best defensive position is likely at the point guard spot, which should aid in the Lakers perimeter defensive flexibility next to LeBron and Green.
Similar to KCP, Bradley can defend either guard position, but unlike his new teammate has a reputation of being better as an on-ball guy than an off-ball worker. Bradley, while not as tall as Caldwell-Pope, is a more physical player at the point of attack and uses his long arms to disrupt the ball-handler’s dribble to force steals or cause deflections.
This physicality also helps when navigating ball screens, where fighting over the top to recover to your man was not a strength of at least one returning point guard (hi, Rajon Rondo). Further, he’s shown to have enough lateral quickness to slide with smaller guards but enough size to challenge and contest shots all over the floor.
Caruso may not have the defensive reputation of Bradley (or even KCP for that matter), but I really like the combination of size, instincts, and extra effort he brings to that end of the floor. He’s not the quickest defender, but he’s a better athlete than given credit for and uses his size and understanding of angles to wall off and body offensive players who try to attack him off the dribble.
Further, that size translates to an ability to defend either guard slot which, again, will prove useful in lineups where he might be slotted between LeBron and Green. Beyond that, his defensive competitiveness (like Bradley’s) will be useful in situations where the Lakers switch screens (be it when Davis is playing C or in late game situations where it’s more common in general) and need someone to pinch down to the paint to box out or gang rebound.
Now, everything I wrote above is fairly flowery and optimistic stuff. That is not lost on me. Additionally, posting a highlight reel of Avery Bradley getting steals and blocks or linking to a clip showing KCP effectively chase around top flight guards is not a full picture analysis of what they are as defenders.
And as someone who is always trying to look at both sides, I think it’s worth noting — and pretty definitively too — that none of the guys listed above (outside of Green) are consistently top flight defenders or should be seen as true difference makers on that end (at least at this stage of their careers). These guys have their flaws and will have their rough moments. With the NBA skewed towards offensive basketball now, that’s a given, but beyond that you’ll find metrics that paint these players as neutral defenders at best. 2Besides Green, who metrics love.
That said, my overall point isn’t that the Lakers signed a bunch of top flight defenders, but rather these are players — particularly Green, Caruso, and Bradley — who will compete hard on that end most every play and have shown a strong commitment to both individual and team defensive execution. Further, and more to the point, they all offer a specific type of defensive versatility which play into the construction of this specific roster.
This is a team that will revolve around LeBron and Davis, multi-position stars who promote lineup flexibility. Groupings with Davis at C can be constructed differently than ones where Davis is the PF next to DeMarcus Cousins or even, though I’d not recommend it, JaVale McGee. Lineups with LeBron at the point will lead to a different group of guys than if he’s slotted at SF or PF. With the backcourt players the Lakers signed/brought back in free agency, they’ve given themselves the exact type of flexibility they’ll need to compete defensively regardless of what kind of lineup their opponent has on the floor.
For example, if LeBron is playing PG and Davis is playing PF, the Lakers could easily slot in Green, Cousins, and one of KCP/Bradley/Caruso and compete defensively with everyone having a viable matchup that works for them. Swap out Cousins for Kuzma, and the same would be true with any of the aforementioned guards. Play with LeBron/Davis as the defensive PF/C duo and you could slot Green and two of the Caruso/KCP/Bradley trio together and feel comfortable defending the perimeter. Further, if you go to more bench focused units where point guards (and defensive liabilities) Quinn Cook or Rondo (or even Troy Daniels) are in the game, you can slot one of these more flexible defensive guards next to them in order to lessen their exposure to having to guard their own position.
Is this backcourt group as versatile as the super-sized group that was traded away? No, it’s not. That group allowed the Lakers to switch one-through-five and brought length and toughness all over the floor. But the unique positional versatility of this new group to defend PG’s and SG’s and, in Green’s case, to take on the best wing regardless if they’re a SG or an SF, translates well to supporting LeBron specifically and working in tandem with Davis too.
The Lakers now have the potential, from the guard to the center position, to create defensive lineups that can get needed stops all while not compromising the strengths of the team’s best offensive players. Last year, the Lakers could do the former, but could not achieve the latter. And that makes this team’s ceiling that much higher. Time will tell if they can put it all together to actually reach it, but I’m encouraged.