The Los Angeles Lakers will enter the 2020-21 season looking to defend the NBA championship they won just over a month ago in the Orlando Bubble, and while LeBron James and Anthony Davis will still be the starring pieces, the roster around them will look quite different.
L.A.’s run through the Bubble playoffs was impressive, going 16-5 as they rolled past the Blazers, Rockets, Nuggets, and Heat en route to their first title in a decade. Such a run could have lulled them into a sense that all they needed to do to position themselves for next season was to bring back the same rotation players and add some on the periphery. However, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers front office recognized that their run to the title wasn’t perfect and also didn’t come up against the expected top teams in either conference, and with the possibility of those teams loading up to make a run at L.A., the Lakers had to be proactive.
The result has been an offseason overhaul that has seen a number of contributors from last year leave L.A. and new faces brought in with the hope of raising the team’s ceiling. Gone are Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and JaVale McGee, all of whom played fairly significant roles in the regular season, with Rondo, Green, and Howard all being key contributors in the playoffs. In their place, the Lakers have brought in Dennis Schröder, Wesley Matthews, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol, bringing a balance of savvy veterans and a touch more youth than the Lakers had a year ago, along with ensuring they re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and got Markieff Morris back on a minimum deal.
What’s most interesting about the Lakers moves is they hinge on the playoff readiness of two players who, to this point, are quite unproven on that stage. Schröder’s raw production in the postseason has been fine over his last three trips since becoming a heavy rotation piece in Atlanta and OKC, but the concern lies with his shooting. Last year was the best shooting season of his career, but in the first round loss to the Rockets he hit just 28.9 percent from distance on 6.4 attempts per game. Meanwhile, Harrell’s playoff woes from this past season with the Clippers were well documented, as he struggled mightily to match the productivity that made him the league’s Sixth Man of the Year as the other L.A. squad bowed out in the second round.
The hope of the Lakers is that putting those players around LeBron and Davis is enough to alleviate some of the pressure they may have felt that contributed to some playoff shakiness. Harrell, on top of that, was coming off of a personal tragedy and significant time away from the court, and may simply have not been able to regain his rhythm once he arrived in Orlando. Matthews and Gasol are the known commodities and will slide into the roles of Green and Howard, although Gasol’s skillset is wildly different from any of the centers the Lakers had on the roster last year.
If it all shakes right, they’ll be prohibitive favorites once again no matter what else happens with the Clippers and Bucks and the rest, but questions certainly persist. If Schröder’s shooting uptick from last year is real, he’s a massive upgrade in the backcourt. If not, he’s not really an upgrade from Rondo. If Harrell’s playoff issues were the result of his absence and not a referendum on him as an 82-game player compared to a 16-game one, he’ll inject some much-needed life into the bench unit. If not, he might find himself on a shorter leash than Doc Rivers provided a year ago. If Gasol’s shakiness at times in the Celtics series was simply a bad seven-game stretch and not signs of decline, he’s a delightful fit alongside LeBron as two of the great modern basketball savants. If not, Lakers fans will be pining for Howard’s athleticism as Gasol plods along.
I say this not to pour cold water on their signings, but to note that none of these moves are sure things. The Lakers hope that enough of them pan out to raise their ceiling, which we already know is tremendously high.
There is very real upside to all of the moves the Lakers made, and for that they are being rightfully commended for a strong offseason.
They were able to remove the rose-colored glasses in the post-championship fog and take real stock of their weaknesses as a roster, and for all the crowing about criticism of the team’s construction being over the top last season, this front office clearly recognized there was legitimacy to some of it. They needed more playmaking and added Schröder to the backcourt and Gasol to the frontcourt. They had to let a veteran 3-and-D wing go to make the Schröder deal happen and managed to pick arguably the best one up off the free agent market in Matthews. Howard’s presence last year was terrific, but he wasn’t as versatile as they’d like to be able to play against every team and so they let him walk to Philadelphia and landed Gasol, who won’t be the shot-blocker Howard was but gives them the aforementioned playmaking and shooting Howard couldn’t.
Because they are new players and different moves, it’s easy to point out the potential pitfalls, but running it back had the same, if not greater risks. Rondo was tremendous in the playoffs last year, but he was genuinely shaky in the regular season and for the money he was commanding, it would’ve been a hefty investment to try and bring him back. Howard looks revitalized, but the combination of he and McGee isn’t exactly guaranteed stability, and while Danny Green did a lot of things that go unnoticed because of the shooting woes, it might just be possible that he’s taken a step back as a sharpshooter. Had they run it back, few would’ve batted an eye, but it would’ve been risky in its own right.
As such, Pelinka and company deserve the praise they’ve gotten for the roster overhaul, because it’s so easy to rest on your laurels as the defending champs and assume you can replicate it with the same group. They recognized the danger in doing that and have done what they can to give this team a chance to get even better next season, which always should be the goal because every other contender is going to be putting in the effort to close the gap and pass you.
We’ll find out next postseason if the moves pay off, but the status quo wasn’t going to be enough for the Lakers and they certainly took advantage of their position as the top contender to lure in more talent.