Despite all of the scrutiny that the Los Angeles Lakers have undergone the past few seasons, they can now say that they’ve landed their top target in back to back offseasons. By trading for Anthony Davis to back up the LeBron James signing from last summer, the franchise has now put itself right back into the immediate championship discussion. This rise back to relevancy initially seemed inevitable after the addition of James, but that proved to not be the case after a bunch of questionable free agency signings (i.e. Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, Javale McGee, etc.) resulted in a season where they missed the playoffs and wasted a year of LeBron’s tenure in LA. Can the Lakers avoid the same mistakes they did last offseason and identify the right fits to surround LeBron and AD to take full advantage of their championship window? In order to narrow down potential free agency targets for the Lakers, it is vital to recognize what skills tend to compliment Davis and James in order to maximize their respective talents.
To start off, while AD and LeBron have certainly improved as 3-point shooters over their careers (33.1% and 33.9% from beyond the arc), it’s clear after looking at their respective shooting charts that attacking the basket is where they are truly special. Despite their injury-shortened seasons last year, both players finished in the top 7 in the NBA in field goals made per game from the restricted area. These numbers back up their performances from the 2017-2018 season, where they both actually finished in the top 3 in the league, and the results were Davis being able to reach the second round of the playoffs in the west while LeBron led the Cavs to the Finals for the fourth straight year.
With that being said, as has been the case with successful LeBron James teams in the past, the Lakers should invest to surround their two superstars with 3-point shooting. By adding floor spacers, the Lakers opposition, who will no question be doing all they can to prevent easy opportunities at the rim for Davis and James, will have to sacrifice leaving the Lakers “other guys” open on the perimeter. That decision becomes so much harder to live with if these open Lakers can consistently knock down threes, making the Lakers offense virtually impossible to slow down.
Another common characteristic for successful LeBron-led teams is the presence of an alternative playmaker when James wants to play off-ball or decides to take plays off. We’ve seen this work in the past when James was paired with Dwyane Wade in Miami and then Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, as both of those teams were championship-caliber to say the least. The common denominator between those two guys is that they each had a usage rate and an assist percentage of greater than 25% (the only exception was Wade during the 2010-2011 season, where he only had an assist percentage of 23.5%).
Wade and Irving are the only two players that have reached these numbers as one of LeBron’s teammates during the king’s illustrious 16-year career. There is no question that given his age and high usage rates James could stand to benefit from having this type of player by his side, perhaps now more than ever. There’s an argument to be made that Davis is already that guy, since he has shown recent improvement as a facilitator, which can be seen by him reaching his all-time high in assist percentage this past season at 19%. However, that level still doesn’t match the playmaking of Wade and Irving, as those two combined for an average assist percentage of 26.8% during the seasons where they won the title beside LeBron.
On the other end of the court, Given AD’s elite numbers as a rim protector and LeBron’s greatness as an on-ball and help defender, the duo has the potential to make the Lakers one of the top defensive teams in the league. With that being said, perhaps the biggest loss that the Lakers will suffer from their trade package to New Orleans is their perimeter defense. While Lonzo Ball’s broken shot was the trait making headlines during his time with the franchise, he had quietly developed into one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA, as the Lakers went from a middle of the pack defensive team with him off the court all the way up to the 3rd best in the league while he was out there.
Now, due to his absence, there’s a very sizable hole in the backcourt that needs to be filled if the new-look Lakers want to reach their end goal of a championship. This is especially the case in the western conference, as they will seemingly be tasked with slowing down the likes of Stephen Curry, James Harden, Damian Lillard and more all-star guards on the way to a Finals berth. If the Lakers want to advance as far as they hope, signing a designated perimeter stopper seems like a must.
Who Should the Lakers Target?
What the LA front office does the rest of the summer will have a major factor on if the new-look Lakers will win the franchise’s 16th NBA title this upcoming season. Given their remaining salary-cap situation, the Lakers appear to have a choice between one of two options: add a third star and hope to get lucky with signing role players to the minimum salary or focus entirely on signing quality complimentary players. Kawhi Leonard appears to be a pipe dream, as it looks like he is locked into a decision between the Raptors and Clippers, but other stars remain as possible targets. Kyrie Irving obviously has history with LeBron, and he checks the boxes when it comes to being an excellent 3-point shooter and playmaker, but he has shown his weakness as a perimeter defender as of late. The same goes for Kemba Walker, despite his dynamic offensive capabilities, as his small frame and height give opponents someone to attack if they can force the Lakers to switch on defense. Therefore, someone like Jimmy Butler may be the Lakers best bet if they want a third star that can help them in all of their apparent areas of weakness. Butler has long been known for his ability to lock down the best opposing player, but his recent playoff run in Philadelphia flashed his talents for setting up his teammates (22.8 assist%) while shooting enough 3’s (3.8 per game) to space out the floor for the likes of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons: two other stars who dominate the restricted area.
A tier below these group of guys are two high-end complimentary players that may move on from the Milwaukee Bucks this offseason: Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon. Middleton would fit the bill as a high-end 3-and-D guy to compliment James and Davis, but his struggles as a playmaker were highlighted during the eastern conference finals. Brogdon, a restricted free agent this summer, could prove to be the perfect third piece for the Lakers, since he can hide the weaknesses highlighted above while also filling the roster’s current hole at the point guard position. If Los Angeles decides to go with the role player route, the options become noticeably thinner. Patrick Beverley, Wesley Matthews, and Danny Green are players that come to mind, but all of them have weakness that can be exploited come playoff time.
That being said, the Lakers have all sorts of options in front of them when free agency starts on June 30th. Butler and Brogdon appear to be the best options if they want to hide their remaining weaknesses behind one player, but they could also try to fill these holes through the sum of the parts of a bunch of role players. Either way, with Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the same team, an inability to surround these two players with quality talent will be an utter failure for the prestigious Lakers franchise, as they cannot afford to waste this championship window after trading away their future for it.