It’s never all that fun or interesting to pick the reigning NBA champions as favorites to repeat, but after a few days of maneuvering in the free-agent market, the Lakers are leaving us little choice. Take a team with two world-beating superstars coming off a relatively easy romp to the title, add a few upgrades at key positions on the roster, and a title favorite is what you have.
Sunday saw the culmination of a series of roster moves that have left LeBron James and Anthony Davis with a much stronger supporting cast than they enjoyed last season. Gone are Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, JaVale McGee, and Danny Green; joining the party are Dennis Schröder, Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell, and Wesley Matthews.
None of these new guys really qualify as stars, and they weren’t necessarily the most sought-after players in this year’s market. But each of them brings to the Lakers something they needed in order to become an even more dangerous version of last season’s team. Where once AD and LeBron were surrounded by players severely lacking in dimensional skillsets, there are now dimensions all over the floor.
Instead of having to put backup ball-handling duties into the experienced but limiting hands of Rondo, the Lakers can turn to Schröder, a lively combo guard who averaged 18 points per game last season while helping to anchor one of the most dynamic backcourts in the league in Oklahoma City. Rather than relying on a semi-mummifed Green to creak his way into the corner and wait for a kick-out pass from LeBron, the Lakers now have a, well, OK, also pretty mummified Matthews to step into that role. He’ll at least know what to expect, having spent all of last season spotting up for passes from a rampaging Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It’s in the front court where the Lakers have really improved, though. McGee and Howard were on the team to do little more than get in the way and jump high, but now the Lakers have two of the most uniquely talented big men in the league to toss into their rotation.
Harrell has never been much of a defensive specialist, but he just won the Sixth Man of the Year award thanks to being impossible to stop in the pick-and-roll. It’s always a boon to add big man who scored 18 points in 27 minutes per game, but when he’s replacing Dwight Howard, a guy whose best games were those in which he managed to grab a few rebounds and severely annoy at least one opponent, the change is all the more pronounced.
Gasol is a similarly souped-up version of the guy he’s replacing. He won’t run as hard or as fast as McGee, but he will provide the Lakers with another elite interior defender and rebounder to pair with Davis (Nikola Jokic is so screwed) as well as some of the best passing vision and touch that can be found at the center position.
More important than any individual skill these new players possess is what they bring as a collective, which are options. For as good as the Lakers were last year, they spent whole stretches of games slogging through swampy offensive possessions that often ended with one of their many lackluster role players throwing up a maddening shot. It’s much harder to imagine that happening as often next season. LeBron needs some rest? Just give the ball to Schröder and let him run things for a bit, either by creating his own shots or ripping the defense up in pick-and-rolls with Harrell. Davis looking a little gassed on the second night of a back-to-back? Give Gasol the ball on the elbow and watch him orchestrate the offense like he used to when he was a stud in Memphis.
Think back to the summer of 2019, when you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a pundit or analyst willing to express their grave concern about how thin the Anthony Davis trade had left the Lakers’ roster. It’s not so much that those concerns were unfounded, but that Davis and LeBron proved themselves great enough to start building a new dynasty without much scaffolding. Now they’re heading into year two of the project with a roster that was assembled with time and consideration rather than on the fly. Good luck to the rest of the Western Conference.