With two of the very best players in the league on board, the Lakers prioritized veterans who could shoot and defend at a high level.
So far, the results have been positive as the Lakers have jumped out to a 7-2 record early in the 2019-20 NBA season, though their defense deserves far more credit than their shooting (26th in three-point percentage but second in defensive rating). The fact the Lakers have managed to win as much as they have despite their somewhat alarming lack of success from the perimeter is a testament to just how good they have been elsewhere.
For the moment, it would appear the Lakers are lacking a third player who can step up and be a scoring threat without the presence of James and/or Davis or even knock down shots with them. That could be a challenge moving forward, particularly should either All-Star player suffer an injury or simply need a night off.
While Danny Green, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Troy Daniels, and the rest can all provide plenty of positives, creating shots isn’t one of them. The offense tends to stall out when James — in particular — is off the floor, plummeting from an offensive rating of 108.8 to a terrifying 89.7 with him on the bench.
That means that most of the time, the Lakers are praying their bench defense can be good enough to keep opponents from ripping off a major scoring run because they aren’t capable of keeping up on the offensive end.
Fortunately, the pending return of Rajon Rondo may help with this. While Rondo isn’t a prolific scorer, he can organize an offense and run the high pick-and-roll, which can generate looks for either the Lakers big rolling to the rim (hello Howard lobs) or shooters like Cook, Daniels, Caldwell-Pope, and the rest when the defense collapses.
Rondo’s presence could yield some positive movement in terms of bench scoring, but he isn’t the offensive dynamo the team needs — nor should he be expected to be.
The elephant in the room is the third scorer for the Lakers is supposed to be the sole survivor, the one young core player they didn’t deal in the Davis trade: Kyle Kuzma.
In just five games, Kuzma is shooting 40 percent from the field and 20 percent from the three-point line while picking up 0.4 assists with 1.6 turnovers, which won’t get the job done.
Of course, Kuzma’s struggles aren’t his fault. He suffered an injury with Team USA over the summer and as a result, he needs time to knock the rust off. Of course, that doesn’t help the Lakers in the here and now, but the hope is he can eventually become the third player they need in order to allow for an occasional off night from James or Davis.
In order for Kuzma to become the piece the Lakers need him to be, he’s going to have to get a lot more comfortable in the offense, which means finding ways to score efficiently as a cutter and shooter. Every now and then, the Lakers may even need Kuzma to show off his passing chops, which can be effective in the paint when defenses commit.
Defensively, Kuzma needs to be passable — or better — in order to stay on the floor for head coach Frank Vogel. He has the size and quickness to be a good defender but his decision making has been an issue. Between Jared Dudley — who has designs on taking Kuzma under his wing — and the team’s coaching staff full of defensive minds, the hope is that improvement will come sooner rather than later.
Until things start clicking for Kuzma and to a lesser extent when Rondo returns, the Lakers are in a holding pattern of sorts, forced to rely heavily on James and Davis to create both shots for themselves and the rest of the team.
As fans have seen, a team that leans heavily on James and Davis almost exclusively can still be extremely good and a legitimate championship contender. However, at some point, a consistent third scoring threat will have to emerge if their goals of an NBA championship are going to come to fruition.