The Los Angeles Lakers went big, small, ran, plodded, plowed and finessed their way to a championship last season. Their versatility provided an answer to every question.
The Houston Rockets stocked up on stocky shooters, pushing small-ball to a new frontier. The Lakers threw lobs over their head. Anthony Davis pressed up and closed out on perimeter shooters, knowing that Dwight Howard, another rim protector, was hanging back, ready to help.
The NBA is flattening out dimensionally. Playmakers are getting bigger. Bigs are getting shorter, speedier, sometimes heavier. Everyone’s searching for the next positionless wonder, a Draymond Green of their own.
The Lakers even have Talen Horton-Tucker, “the league’s heaviest (234 pounds) and longest (7-foot-1 wingspan) player for his height (6-foot-4),” according to The Ringer, who is playing an increased role.
But in free agency, they sharpened their Swiss Army knife attack with two positionally conventional signings: Dennis Schroder, a skinny 6-foot-1 no-doubt-about-it point guard and Marc Gasol, a burly 7-foot definitely center.
As players’ dimensions funnel toward the middle, it helps to be very big. The Lakers are learning it also helps to be very small.
Attacking the mismatch
Schroder has started every game for the Lakers, and he leads them in crunchtime minutes. Against the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, Davis spurned a post-up on Kevin Huerter despite having 50 pounds on him, to give Schroder a chance to go to work against John Collins.
Collins is agile and smart enough to keep up with 80% of the players he gets switched on to, but Schroder’s speed makes him part of the other 20%: players who are designed to beat switches because they specialize in things the average defender just can’t stop. Boston Celtics’ defenders Daniel Theis and Jayson Tatum can keep up against most guards, but they aren’t going to win a foot-race against Schroder.
Against the Celtics on Saturday, Schroder doesn’t recognize the mess his very presence in the pick-and-roll has created, as both Kemba Walker and Theis home in on him, leaving Caldwell-Pope open. But the Lakers take advantage of a switch earlier in the possession, and Davis makes a shot over Marcus Smart.
Schroder uses position to take advantage of a positionless league. On defense, he stops opponents from doing that to the Lakers.
Both Caruso and Schroder, with underrated strength, can switch and provide enough friction to hold their ground against mismatched bigs for long enough to allow contingencies to position themselves, which allowed Schroder, Caruso and Caldwell-Pope to finish alongside James and Davis against the Hawks in crunch time (Harrell slid in for Caldwell-Pope against the Celtics).
When Schroder gets stuck on Jaylen Brown, he gets low and gets help from — who else? — Horton-Tucker.
Spacing with 7-footers
Lakers coach Frank Vogel ran through a Rolodex of failed options to stop Hawks star Trae Young. Young carved up Gasol in pick-and-roll, faking floaters into lobs and lobs into floaters. He blew by Caldwell-Pope and nullified traps with quick behind-the-back passes away from his defender’s encroaching arms. Young, like Schroder, takes advantage of the modern NBA’s lack of an answer for him.
Vogel’s options fizzled out and filtered into Schroder taking a traditional approach. Small, shifty guards typically can’t guard each other. But Schroder’s speed translates laterally. He stopped Young the old-fashioned way, guarding him one-on-one, slithering through picks, making himself felt with some light, workaday fouling, shooting gaps and accelerating to catch up when he’s behind.
“His speed is a problem for opposing teams,” Vogel said. “It’s a problem for guys like Kemba Walker and Trae Young to get into the lane when you’re trying to beat him off the bounce, it gives us that defensive presence.”
The Lakers lose some verticality by replacing Howard and JaVale McGee with Gasol, but they gain intelligence, spacing and reliable rim protection that can likely withstand more resistance in the postseason.
With Davis and Gasol, the Lakers have a unique advantage of starting two defensive-minded 7-footers who can space the floor and see above defenders. James is often just a backdoor cut away from an open shot at the rim.
Schroder and Gasol make James’ life easier on offense, cutting down his usage and generating easy looks. Schroder, who has dished a team-high 17 assists to James, handles workaday ballhandling responsibilities while Gasol (16 assists to James) is the eyes and ears.
Last season, James was assisted on 28.9% of his baskets. This season, it’s 37.8%, the highest it’s been since 2016 when James played alongside All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.
Here, Gasol uses James’ gravity. He sees how much attention James is attracting to the middle of the floor and guesses — correctly — that if James gives him the ball, signaling a handoff, the defense will suck in even more. The second the ball touches his hands, Huerter sags off Caldwell-Pope even more, and Gasol rifles the ball to him.
They make up the NBA’s most diverse, lively ecosystem. In the (almost) empty Staples Center, you can still find 7-footers dominating while running around with speedy guards.
The Lakers are still discovering different combinations, unearthing new layers of what they have. Caruso shifts out for Caldwell-Pope, Caldwell-Pope for Harrell. Davis slides from the four and five. Sometimes they play multiple ballhandlers, sometimes multiple shot blockers.
At the center of it all is LeBron James, who can morph for any required skill set, plug any hole.
Every day, the Lakers grow scarier, more versatile than they were the day before.
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