Arguably no team was more active transactionally over the last few weeks than the Los Angeles Lakers. In total, they made three different deals that added six new players to their roster.
With so much turnover taking place, one can’t help but wonder if the most storied franchise in the history of the sport now has a chance to rewrite their season and give the game’s newly-anointed all-time leading scorer another chance at a deep playoff push.
Did the deals actually make them better?
It must be stated that, prior to any of these acquisitions, the iteration of the 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers that appeared on the court was a deeply flawed bunch.
With this established, if one was tasked with the seemingly impossible chore of providing a cliff notes summary of their most glaring deficiencies, the three bullet points would probably focus on their poor spacing, lack of on-ball creation outside of LeBron James, and lack of defense around Anthony Davis.
So, when judging the success of their moves, we’re going to need to consider how much they shore up these three weaknesses.
We’ll start with the spacing. Earlier this year, when breaking down the Sacramento Kings’ dynamic offense, we proposed the three stages of modern-day spacing theory, with stage three being the best form of offensive spacing and stage one being the worst.
Wise readers probably guessed that the Lakers fall under the latter category, and unfortunately, said inferences would be correct. In stage one of the spacing spectrum, all offensive players are stationed in the proper places based on the team scheme (which varies depending on whether you’re playing a 5-out offense or a 4-out, 1-in alignment like the Lakers usually do). But the problem is that the team doesn’t have the shooting threats to make where they are standing matter to the defense.
Here’s an example from the Lakers’ opening-day clash against the Golden State Warriors:
The Lakers currently sit at 29th in the league in three-pointers made per game and 26th in three-point percentage. Adding the likes of Malik Beasley (career 37.9% three-point shooter on high volume) and D’Angelo Russell (who is converting 39% of his threes this year) should help remedy their shooting woes to a degree, and help the team graduate from stage one to stage two of the spacing totem pole.
(For those wondering, a stage two spacing team is one that has their players stationed in the proper places, and has the shooting to make said placement matter. A perfect example of this is the Harden-ball Rockets).
Next up is the creation problem outside of James. First off, 38-year-old James is really freaking good at basketball. Unlike Dwyane Wade and Dirk Nowitzki, he isn’t getting All-Star nominations out of respect for his greatness. He’s getting them because he’s still one of the 25 best players on the planet.
This year, when he’s on the floor, the Lakers have a 116.6 offensive rating, which would make them the eighth-best offense in the league if he played every second of every game (per Cleaning the Glass). The problem is that he can’t play every second of every game, and when he’s not on the floor, they fall to an offensive rating of 109.6, which is just a smidge above the 30th-ranked Charlotte Hornets’ offensive efficiency of 109.5.
Russell Westbrook shifting to a bench role helped mitigate some of the damage, and Austin Reaves has been a revelation as an undrafted pickup, but neither one of them has the on-ball bandwidth to truly pick up the slack when James was off the floor.
But you know who does? Reunion tour Russell (too corny?).
As now-former backcourt running mate Anthony Edwards made his leap into All-Stardom, Russell spent the year playing off him when the two shared the floor and filling his void when he was on the bench. According to PBP Stats, Russell saw an increase in scoring volume, scoring efficiency, and playmaking volume when he played without Edwards.
Now, the plan is that Russell transposes his production in Minnesota over to Los Angeles with James. He’ll be able to operate dutifully by his side when the two are out there together and keep the team from completely falling apart when The King needs a moment to shine his crown.
Lastly, the issue of defense around Davis. Similar to the on/off splits with James and the offense, the defense comes and goes as Davis does. When he’s on the court, they play like the sixth-best defense in basketball, and when he’s off it, they look more like the 28th (per Cleaning the Glass).
And if James can’t play every second of every game, Davis really can’t do it, as his entire stint in Los Angeles has been marred by a nagging assortment of injuries (he’s never appeared in more than 62 games in a season for the Lakers). So leaning on him to completely anchor their defense is even less feasible than asking the prehistoric James to carry their offense.
Outside of Davis, the old Lakers boasted very little by way of length and rim protection. Five of their top-8 players in total minutes stand at 6’5 or shorter (Reaves, Westbrook, Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schroder, and Lonnie Walker IV). And after Davis, the next highest block percentage among prominent rotational players was Wenyen Gabriel’s 1.7% (53rd percentile for his position, per Cleaning the Glass).
So naturally, it’s a huge plus that the team was able to add three players measuring in at 6’8 or taller in Jarred Vanderbilt, Rui Hachimura, and Mo Bamba.
Vanderbilt, in particular, gives this defense some much-needed fortitude. His contributions on that end have flown under the radar this year because of the Utah Jazz’s lack of defensive personnel. But people forget that he was the key ingredient in the Minnesota Timberwolves’ shockingly good defense last season.
Off the ball, he’s a defensive playmaking machine – picking off passes more frequently than the best free safeties in football (three straight seasons of being 93rd percentile or higher in steal rate).
And the on-ball, he’s a multi-faceted shutdown artist, capable of mirroring the movements of ballhandlers of all shapes and sizes.
He’s not an All-League defender, but he’s the next closest thing to it, and his addition surely bolsters this Lakers’ defense.
(Obligatory Vanderbilt sidenote: while not much of a shooter or on-ball creator, he still provides value on offense thanks to his offensive rebounding, screening, rim running, and vastly underrated passing – particularly on the short roll).
So how good are the Lakers now?
So the Lakers’ trades have addressed all their major weaknesses. Does that mean they are now title contenders?
As we said, this team was seriously flawed, and it’s going to take a lot more than a couple of deals at the trade deadline to fundamentally change that. Even with the three-point shooting they have added, opponents are still going to dare them to beat them from three. And even with their marksmanship, Beasley and Russell aren’t going to beat that dare on their lonesome.
On top of that, this is still a team placing a massive burden on their two best players. One of whom seems immune to staying healthy, while the other is two decades into his NBA career.
And last but certainly not least, they are integrating six new players into the fold. Even in today’s world of continuous player movement, continuity is still massively important. Look at the two conference champions from last year. The Warriors’ Big Three has been together for a decade. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart have been teammates since Tatum got drafted in 2017 (Al Horford, too, outside of a mini-sabbatical). Every team needs time to build chemistry and work out the kinks.
With that said, once this group starts to gain some familiarity, this new version of the Los Angeles Lakers is a legitimately good basketball team. Good enough to maybe secure a top-10 seed in the loaded Western Conference. Good enough to maybe emerge from the play-in tournament victorious. And good enough to maybe, just maybe, steal a series in the first round of the playoffs.