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 team’s combo forwards.
The era of position-less basketball is in full swing and the Lakers have two of the more versatile forwards who embody this idea most in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Lakers will slot both players, both offensively and defensively, all over the floor to either score or defend whatever positions make the most sense on any given possession. The result, hopefully, will be both players preying on mismatches to score points while deterring the other team from doing so.
Flanking players of this quality and versatility should be easy, but that’s not always the case. The Lakers may not have had Davis last season, but did have LeBron and instead of surrounding him with complementary talents they slotted him next to too many players whose strengths replicated James’ rather than complementing them. The team tried to rectify last season’s errors with a roster of shooters and defenders (especially at the guard position) who can better flank James, and now Davis, this year.
I’d argue the Lakers also did a good job of identifying the types of combo forwards that could best slide next to their two superstars in the front court. James and Davis are both, basically, PF’s who will play a fair amount of SF and C respectively. Finding the right type of combo forward, then, to slot next to and/or between both of them in an given lineup is of great import if trying to optimize success.
Enter Kyle Kuzma and Jared Dudley.
It’s no coincidence the Lakers prioritized keeping Kuzma among their group of young players when executing the trade for Davis. Yes, Kuzma’s low salary mattered in building a workable trade under league rules, but his skill set may matter even more. In his two years as a pro, Kuzma has shown he can perform several key skills that make him an ideal choice to play next to LeBron and/or Davis — particularly on offense.
First, is shooting ability. I understand Kuzma’s deep ball betrayed him last season to the tune of 30.3% from behind the arc. However, Kuzma shot 36.6% from deep as a rookie and did so at good volume (nearly 6 attempts a game). Work this off-season to adjust his release point and bring better consistency to how the ball comes off his hand will, hopefully, translate to more success.
Setting aside Kuzma’s accuracy for a moment, the aforementioned volume of shots taken matters too. A willingness to be a true floor spacer by firing away consistently when parked behind the arc can translate to gravity that goes beyond success rate. Kuzma leverages that respect into driving opportunities by attacking closeouts effectively to get to the rim. Add in Kuzma’s smarts as a cutter, someone who can read screen actions to slash to the rim, create his own shot enough to be a threat, get out in transition, and flash some passing skill and the result is someone who can score in bunches without being overly reliant on any one mode of attack.
In summary, then, Kuzma (at his best) possesses an offensive skillset that can lead to 1st option production but is best optimized as a 2nd or 3rd threat next to players who are better equipped to be primary shot creators and the focus of opposing defenses.
While Kuzma has the ability to be an ideal offensive player next to LeBron and Davis, Dudley offers some the defensive ability you’d want.
To be clear, no one is going to mistake Dudley for a pure wing stopper or an all-defense team member. He’s not the guy you’re going to put on an island against the top forwards in the league and tell him to lock down (though, he will hold his own more often than he’s given credit for). But, Dudley offers the right combination of versatility, smarts, and competitiveness to help boost the level of the team’s defense when he’s on the floor.
His basketball IQ, particularly in sniffing out team’s sets and then in being able to communicate and act on the fly, will be especially useful to a team that has as much turnover as this one while trying to learn a new scheme under Frank Vogel. Having a player on the court who not only knows what the opponent is trying to accomplish but is willing to take the necessary steps to counter them via his own movement and by making the extra effort 1This is where I’d differentiate Dudley from a player like Rajon Rondo who is also very smart, understands what opposing offenses are trying to accomplish, and is able to communicate it to teammates, but doesn’t always make the extra effort to help diffuse the play with his own action. is paramount to team success.
Dudley brings this in spades and it’s why he can, and should, be more than the mentor-type he’s been billed as for the latter part of his career. Sure, I hope to have Dudley chatting up Kuzma and rookie Talen Horton-Tucker on the bench during game situations and dropping pearls of wisdom in practices, the film room, plane and bus rides every chance he gets. But Dudley’s value add should extend to on-court situations as well, where he can capably fit next to LeBron and/or Davis as a combo forward willing to do all the little things that help those stars focus on the bigger tasks.
This extends beyond, defense, too. Dudley’s box score numbers will never pop off the page, but as a spot up shooting, extra pass making, screen setting role player he is the exact type of teammate top talents need to help elevate everyone on the court.
It’s often said that superstar players “make their teammates better”, but what often goes unsaid is how this is aided and boosted by players like Dudley who are most obsessed with making the right play than simply capitalizing on the extra attention drawn by players like LeBron and AD. That flare screen that gives a shooter like Danny Green just a second more to shoot after LeBron drives and kicks or that quick swing pass that catches a team in rotation after Davis draws a double team in the post and throws it out are the types of winning plays that Dudley makes.
Dudley and Kuzma, then, are two sides of the same combo forward coin. Kuz, with his ability to be a quasi-high usage player who can carry some offensive burden while still operating in the creases that Davis and LeBron open up; Dudley with his all the little things activity on both sides of the ball whose most important box-score stat may end up being in the plus-minus column.
The Lakers will need both, and likely in heavy doses, in the wake of DeMarcus Cousins torn ACL.