The Lakers Won With Defense And That Will Dictate Their Offseason Moves

The Lakers closed out a title on Sunday night with a dominant defensive performance in which they allowed just 36 first half points and effectively shut the door on the Heat by halftime. It was a sensational showing and a fitting end to a title run that was defined by their defense.

On their way to the Finals, L.A. was tasked with slowing down three of the Western Conference’s best offensive teams in the Blazers, Rockets, and Nuggets, all of whom have very different, but similarly effective, approaches, and did so thanks to their adaptability and versatility. The Lakers showed they can play great defense whether going big or small, equally adept at slowing isolation heavy offenses as well as pick-and-roll. In the Finals, they faced a Miami team that presented their own unique challenges, namely Jimmy Butler and a number of shooters on the perimeter, and they shuffled up their coverages to slow and frustrate Butler as best they could and force the ball to go elsewhere while keeping Miami’s best shooters from getting open looks consistently.

For so much of this season, dating back to the offseason, so much conversation was spent on whether the Lakers had enough shooting around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win a title. While there were some valid questions about their offensive firepower, what those role players were able to do defensively mitigated the need to have elite shooting because they could hold opponents in check and not need to be an elite shooting team — although they certainly got some big contributions in that area in the postseason from guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Coming off of this championship run, the Lakers enter an offseason with plenty of reason for optimism about their chances to repeat in 2021, but also with some key decisions to make and/or wait on from players on their roster. Anthony Davis is expected to land a supermax extension from L.A. this offseason, barring a stunning turn of events in which he actually explores the free agency landscape, but it’s the other player options on the Lakers that are most interesting.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee all have player options they can pick up this offseason, with KCP’s serving as the most interesting one. The others would all be welcomed returners, namely Rondo, who played a major role in their postseason success in the later rounds as he returned from injury, and proved he’s still an excellent 16-game player that is more than worth keeping around for another playoff run. But it’s hard to see a significantly strong market for their services elsewhere that would push them to ditching Los Angeles and another shot at a title. KCP, however, was often the third-best offensive player on this Lakers team and his player option of $8.5 million is probably a bit below market value given his play this postseason — although, that will be determined by any cap shakeup we get from NBA and NBPA negotiations. For all the complaints Lakers fans had about KCP at times in the regular season, his postseason showing was unassailable, and whether by way of a player option or in a renegotiation for a new, longer-term deal, one would expect him to be a priority for the Lakers this offseason.

If all four return, the Lakers would have 11 players under contract, with one — Quinn Cook — non-guaranteed if they want to open up another spot. Dwight Howard, should he be willing to return on another minimum deal, seems likely to be back on the roster after what he provided them in the playoffs. For the most part, that should mean the Lakers look a lot like what they did this year, but they’ll surely want to do some tinkering on the periphery to bolster their rotations and continue to find some upgrades in the form of vets willing to take minimums or exception deals to make a run at a title.

The biggest loss is likely going to be Markieff Morris, who one would assume played his way into more money than the Lakers will be able to afford to their buyout market pickup from this year. There will be plenty of shooters that line up to play alongside James, but as we saw this year, the Lakers will put a premium on players who can give them strong defensive effort and, preferably, some versatility on that end as well. They’ll need a Morris replacement, capable of spacing the floor as a three or a small-ball four next to Anthony Davis, with enough physicality to at least be an impediment to opposing power forwards, but L.A. enters this offseason in a really good position to be at the top of the list for veteran free agents.

Among those that would seem to be the most intriguing potential additions would be someone like E’Twaun Moore, a solid defender with switchability that is also an excellent three-point shooter, who might get bigger offers elsewhere but could see a shot at a ring and take it. Wesley Matthews seems likely to either pick up his player option in Milwaukee or re-sign there on a new deal, but he’s someone the Lakers would certainly make a push for if he explores other contender options. In the frontcourt, should they move on from Dwight or JaVale McGee decides to go elsewhere, Nerlens Noel could be an interesting option on the free agency market.

You will see every shooter on the market tied to the Lakers in some form or fashion, but they seem to have a very clear vision of what they want to do on the defensive end and any addition they make will have an eye towards the playoffs and need to fit what they want to do on that end.