The Los Angeles Lakers had a busy 2019 NBA offseason spent revamping nearly their entire roster.
They cashed in most of their young assets when they traded Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and three draft picks to the New Orleans Pelicans in exchange for Anthony Davis. Then, with the duo of LeBron James and Davis as their foundation, they attacked free agency looking for the right players to put around them.
It was then that a major shift in the team’s thinking became evident. In the previous summer when James first arrived, then-president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka opted to buck the trend of surrounding James with shooters, targeting Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley.
As teams around the league chuckled at the team’s decision making, it became clear that Johnson and the front office were hoping to take the pressure off James to create all of the offense. Unfortunately, the plan didn’t work, and James wound up being heavily leaned upon until a groin injury forced him out of action.
This time around, with Pelinka in charge (plus plenty of influence from James and Davis), the Lakers pivoted towards players who could provide shooting and defense. James-led teams have typically had success with this combination, and that should apply to the new-look Lakers as well.
With this in mind, they added Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, Dwight Howard, and Troy Daniels while bringing back Rondo, McGee, Alex Caruso, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Perhaps most importantly, new head coach Frank Vogel is known for his defense-first approach and will play a big role in shaping the team’s identity.
The team’s All-Star players have already bought in with Davis claiming that he will hold everyone — including James — accountable on the defensive end while setting the personal goal of winning the 2019-20 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award. It’s a refreshing take for a superstar-level player, where flashy offense tends to lead to more endorsement dollars than playing smart team defense does.
Meanwhile, Bradley, McGee, and Howard are already drawing rave reviews for their defense in the first few days of 2019 NBA training camp with Bradley on a mission to prove that he’s the best perimeter defender in the league after a few down seasons due to injuries (and perhaps being a Los Angeles Clipper didn’t help either).
Bradley has proven to be so talented on the defensive end that Vogel has advised the team’s guards to stop trying to dribble against him and to instead pass the ball. If that tenacity translates to the regular season, it’s easy to envision a scenario where Bradley becomes an integral 3-and-D guard for the Lakers in the mold of Patrick Beverley.
The currently injured Kyle Kuzma has also made defense a priority, and the Lakers will need him to take a step up with his perimeter defense given the lack of true small forwards on the roster. While he recovers, Dudley — who is similarly locked in on getting stops — may see a bigger role.
As excited as everyone is to see the devastating potential of a James-Davis pick-and-roll while Green and Cook splash in three-pointers and Caruso tip-dunks opponents into oblivion, it’s becoming clear that their foundation will be built upon getting stops.
An offense takes time to develop, particularly when the team has to integrate as many new faces as the Lakers do. For the time being, they will rely on James and Davis to create open looks and keep things relatively simple, knowing they can integrate more complex schemes as the season progresses.
However, the defense can be at least solid from the get-go. There will be some wrinkles to sort out in the form of coverages and miscues figure to pop up from time to time, but getting stops should come naturally to players like Davis, McGee, Howard, Green, Caruso, and the rest.
A solid defense can also turn into transition offense, where teams typically generate a much high points per possession rating than they do in a half-court offense. In that way, having a stout defensive system can actually help mitigate any offensive growing pains.
The 2019-20 NBA season brings with it the potential for the Lakers to once again be a championship contender. More often than not, it’s going to be up to the defense.