Will Lackluster Lakers Backcourt Be Their Downfall?
I heard an interesting Lakers proposition on the radio during my drive to work yesterday. The discussion topic was whether the new look Lakers had a legitimate chance at winning it all this year. My Laker hometown bias led me to blurt out “hell yea they do”. However, one dissenter’s argument gave me reason for pause. His argument against the Lakers was simple. In the new age of guard dominated basketball, the Lakers would fail because the roster is devoid of a single all-star worthy guard, let alone any guards worthy of a starting spot. This one actually got me thinking. In hopes of putting my mind at ease, I thought I would take a minute and break this one down.
The Case Against The Lakers:
As much as I hate to admit it, there’s probably some merit to this claim. Over the past several seasons we have witnessed a transition to a guard dominated league. Whether we like it or not, gone are the days of big men dominating the post, from the McHales and Kareems to the likes of Ewing, Olajuwon and Shaq. Analytics has persuaded teams to push the pace, shoot threes, and shoot them at will. This has, in turn, altered the formula to forming a championship roster.
Since the end of the Shaq/Kobe era in 2010, eight of the last nine NBA champions have rostered an all-star guard as either the 1st or 2nd option (with the outcast being the feel-good story of the 2010-11 Dirk led Mavs, who still had aging HOFer Jason Kidd). Yes, Lebron was able to lead the Heat and the Cavs, but he did so with a little help from future HOFer Dwayne Wade and infamous world navigator Kyrie Irving. Even the 2013-14 Spurs who still had Duncan were actually carried by Kawhi, along with a little help from Parker and Ginobili (Duncan was the 3rd or arguably 4th option at that point in his career).
This recent history is certainly cause for serious trepidation for the outlook of the Lakers 2019 season. After the excitement of bringing AD to Los Angeles and reuniting him with Rondo, Cousins and Co., is our newfound excitement misguided? Are the new look Lakers destined for yet another year of mediocrity? Is a big three comprised of Lebron, AD and Boogie nothing more than an outdated homage to the basketball days of yore? Now before Laker’s fans start taking deep breaths into a brown paper bag, let’s take a look at the case for this year’s Lakers squad.
The Case For The Lakers:
Conversely, maybe there is a method to the madness that surrounds the Laker brain trust. While they’ve had an offseason of drama worthy of a Bravo reality series, this team may in fact be ahead of the curve. Hear me out on this before you hit that back button.
First, the NBA has not become a guard dominated league. Rather, it has become a position-less league, as more and more players have developed guard-like skill sets (ball handling, passing, 3pt shooting, etc.). While your team needs to excel in most of these areas, it doesn’t have to be the guards getting the job done.
For example, take a look at the previous pairing of Boogie and AD in New Orleans. They turned a 34-48 team into a 48-34 team in just one season together. I wouldn’t consider either player a point guard (and if you do, I have a whole lot of questions), but both bigs are more than capable ball handlers, shooters and distributors as evidenced by Cousins 5.4 ast per game in 2017-18 and AD’s 3.9 ast per game this past season. Were it not for Cousin’s season ending Achilles injury, the Pelicans may have had a deep playoff run in them rather than a 2nd round exit. And to think… what could they have done with a better supporting cast than Jrue Holiday and co? Well folks, this may be the year we get to answer that question.
In my humble opinion, the supporting case in New Orleans pales in comparison to what the Lakers will bring to the table this year. Is the 2017-18 supporting cast of Jrue Holiday, E’twan Moore, and Niko Mirotic anywhere close to Kuzma, Danny Green… oh and that LeBron guy? The answer is an emphatic no.
Not only do AD and Boogie now face less pressure as they become the 2nd and 3rd options, but the Lakers provide vastly improved perimeter defense via the likes of Green, Avery Bradley, KCP, and a likely (hopefully) motivated Rondo who played for both teams. Consequently, the Lakers don’t require an all-star guard to defend another all-star guard. Per NBA.com advanced stats, in 2018 Green came in at 36th and LeBron at 40th in the entire NBA in Defensive Win Shares (31st and 35th respectively. That is if you only include players with at least 50 games played). In 2017-18 the only Pelicans to crack the top 50 were Holiday and AD. One of those two now plays for the Lakers.
Secondly, in addition to the Lakers now having quality players to defend the perimeter, they have improved by surrounding LeBron and co. With more 3pt shooting, a glaring hole for this team just last season was filled. The addition of 3 and D players like Green and Jared Dudley (yes the same Jared Dudley who looks out of shape even for the Big3) will actually provide reliable spot up shooting. They also bring along with much needed veteran leadership and locker room presence. Even a specialist like Troy Daniels should be able to carve out a few minutes for some added scoring punch in the current “shoot threes, and shoot them at will” era we live in.
Lastly, while the Laker dissenters appear focused on how the Lakers will stop the Currys and Lillards of the NBA, they fail to address the converse situation. How do other teams plan to handle the size, strength of speed of the Laker’s frontcourt? Traditional centers are too slow footed. Small ball centers simply can’t bang inside against the size and strength these twin towers bring to the table. If there was an easy answer, AD and Boogie wouldn’t be two of the few remaining and most dominant big men in today’s game. It will be interesting to see how teams approach this conundrum. Their ongoing dominance in this allegedly guard driven league appears to show us that there is no easy solution.
In the end, may be it’s my Laker bias. However, it may be just my desire to see a return to glory for one of the NBAs most historic franchises. I expect this 3-headed monster to “tower” over the competition this upcoming season. Alas, as with most things in life, only time will tell. But in the meantime, we can enjoy a lively debate. You have my thoughts… so what are yours?