The way 2019 free agency broke was particularly difficult for the Los Angeles Lakers, who saw nearly every big-name free agent fly off the board before Kawhi Leonard made his ultimate decision to move to Los Angeles, just not to the Lakers. As the Leonard news broke in the evening on July 5, the Lakers had to scramble very, very quickly in order to fill the $31.43 million in cap space they had, as that space was evaporating the next day. The consummation of the Anthony Davis trade was scheduled for July 6, which gave the Lakers less than 24 hours to spend that cap space before a significant chunk of it disappeared into thin air.
A lot of times, the biggest dominoes fall ahead of the smaller ones. The top free agents spend as much or as little time as they need to choose their next destination, then the rest of the market falls in line accordingly. This year, things went somewhat haywire, with nearly every big name not named Leonard off the board by midday on July 1. The three teams (Lakers, Clippers, and Raptors) in the Leonard derby mostly sat out the proceedings, though the Clippers had enough flexibility to make some moves during the five days preceding Leonard’s choice. Toronto, having already built a championship team, had no significant financial flexibility anyway, so playing the waiting game with Leonard was clearly the correct course of action. For the Lakers, however, Leonard’s decision and the way the market played out so quickly outside of him made things especially difficult.
The Final Roster
The end result is a 14-man (for now) roster that looks a little stranger than most on paper but should work together far better than the 2018-19 version of the team. After the one-year experiment of “surround LeBron with playmakers” went horribly, horribly awry (mostly due to poor recognition of which players would actually fill that playmaker designation), the Lakers are back to the tried-and-true method of filling out a roster next to the greatest player of this generation: put a score-first co-star next to James, surround those two with shooters at nearly every spot, and put the ball back in James’ very capable hands to run the offense.
Traditional positions are out of fashion in Los Angeles, where the Lakers are likely to not start a point guard at all. James will be the team’s primary playmaker, with Green and Caldwell-Pope spacing the floor around Davis and Cousins working pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop with James. In a departure from last year, all five of those players can shoot from outside to some degree, at least to the point that defenses have to show some respect and can’t just completely ignore those players spacing around James. Off the bench come further shooters in Daniels, Dudley, and Cook, all of whom are elite or near-elite spot-up threats.
How will the Lakers defend?
How the team lines up defensively will be of great intrigue. Green is clearly their best option against opposing point guards, but they may not want to see him expend a lot of energy chasing over screens nearly every possession during the regular season. They have a few other options, all of whom take something off the table in comparison to Green, but given the larger goals the club has for the 2019-20 season, it would surprise exactly nobody to see them change things up consistently.
Given the length they have in their starting unit, it will be very interesting to monitor the Lakers’ use of zone defense. Green and Caldwell-Pope along the perimeter would offer the team length and activity at the point of attack, while James’ preternatural instincts (when he chooses to deploy them) and Davis’s immense athleticism would hold the back line. Additionally, a zone would help insulate Cousins against high-level pick-and-roll ball handlers, which has been his key defensive weakness for most of his career.
Small-ball returns to Los Angeles
Another particularly interesting aspect of the 2019-20 Lakers is how often they’ll go small. Davis is at his best at the center position, as much as he hates to bang with the bigger bodies, which would give the Lakers a very different look. He’ll clearly play some 5 throughout the season, but how often they go to those looks and how successful they are early in the season may go a long way toward convincing Davis to do more of it as the year wears on. Of course, they’ll be very careful not to push him too hard during the regular season, as they have to keep in mind his injury history.
Outside of Davis and the two traditional centers (Cousins, McGee), Los Angeles has some other options if they want to go ultra-small. Kyle Kuzma played about 15 percent of his minutes at the 5 last season, which amounted to about 350 minutes. With a +1.1 net rating in that time, it was one of the Lakers’ better overall looks. Dudley’s played more center in the playoffs, but it’s a look the Lakers could break out from time to time in the regular season to get as much offense on the floor as possible.
Can Vogel get his best five players on the court at the same time?
If there’s one glaring issue with the Lakers’ overall roster construction, it’s that head coach Frank Vogel will have some trouble playing the team’s five best players together. Will they close key playoff games with Green, Kuzma, James, Davis, and Cousins as the team’s five-man unit?
How that lineup holds up on both ends of the floor is up in the air. Kuzma, Davis, and Cousins are all decent shooters for their positions, but if they’re hanging out at the three-point line, teams are going to leave them open in order to stop James and whichever of those three is serving as his pick-and-roll partner in that moment. Defensively, Green is the only player capable of defending opposing guards; teams with multiple high-level perimeter ball handlers would give them fits.
If it’s not that five, who jumps into the lineup? And perhaps more importantly, who sits on the bench in the key moments of the game? James, Davis, and Green are obvious shoo-ins as the team’s three best players. Kuzma was clearly made a priority by the organization over in their trade talks with New Orleans for Davis, so it would seem that they hold him in high enough regard to make him part of their closing group. Cousins has the long-term pedigree to join them, but may well end up as the odd man out as the team looks for more perimeter play on both ends of the floor. Time will tell how Vogel chooses to operate and the political fallout in the locker room from his lineup choices.
Made the Best of Free Agency
For a team that was forced to mostly sit out free agency, the Lakers rebounded about as well as could have been expected in those circumstances and have put an interesting and far better team around James than they did last year. Obviously, having a secondary superstar in Davis helps matters tremendously, but it goes well beyond that – their choice of role players to fill out the roster had a clear, specific purpose in mind. They have a final roster spot available, which they may be holding for Andre Iguodala, who is still in Memphis for the moment but could be on the open market soon. They may also look to use that last spot on a big man, as Cousins doesn’t have an exemplary health record and he and McGee are the only true 5s on the roster. As for their financial flexibility, they don’t have anything past the minimum to sign another player.
The one-year blip of 2018-19, at least in terms of roster construction, looks like it was just that for the Lakers. Whether or not it works in the 2019-20 and beyond will be down to the health of their superstars and consistency of the role players they’ve chosen, but at least the team is going into the year with a roster that makes sense and has multiple interchangeable, positive contributors, which was clearly not the case this time last year.