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The Lakers Don’t Have a Big Three, but They Have Plenty of Third Options

Who is Los Angeles’s third-best player? Depends on the night. While a third star has its obvious advantages, the absence of one has left opponents guessing.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Flash back for a second to about this time last year. The NBA season was days from starting and there was palpable excitement fueled by uncertainty. The league had title favorites, but there was no superteam on the chessboard. A refreshing scent of parity was in the air, and there was one clear theme: This would be a season of duos, not Big Threes like in years past.

As the season progressed, another theme became clear: The Lakers possessed, without a doubt, the best duo in the league. Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis put together MVP-caliber seasons; both ended up on the All-NBA first team. No other franchise can say the same, and only the Rockets had two players in any of the three All-NBA teams.

But the doubt with the Lakers was never really about the chemistry of their two stars—it always lay with whoever else needed to share the court with them. On paper, the rest of the roster looked paltry, misshapen, and certainly not befitting of a title team. Was Kyle Kuzma going to take the leap? Could Danny Green reprise his role on the title-winning Raptors? Would the Lakers make a midseason trade to get that third star for the stretch run?

Ultimately, the answers to those questions haven’t seemed to matter thanks to the sheer potency of the LeBron-AD wrecking ball. Then again, the Lakers’ supporting cast has not torpedoed the team’s chances, either. In fact, it’s bolstered them.

So, who has been the Lakers’ third-best player in the playoffs? The answer is more complicated than just a one-name response, but that fact in and of itself has worked to the Lakers’ advantage. While everyone scanned their roster and the market for a third option, they went ahead and plowed through the playoffs on the strength of LeBron, Davis, and whichever other Laker stepped up on a given night. Every game is like an episode of Chopped: The ingredients aren’t always known prior to tip-off, but the Lakers have nonetheless made the recipe work. Now they are on the doorstep of a title.

If you want to judge the Lakers’ various third options by points, then the answer is Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Pope has been the third-leading scorer or better nine times in the Lakers’ 18 playoff games—twice as often as the next Laker on the list, Kyle Kuzma. And in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals against the Nuggets, KCP scored 18 points, which was more than LeBron.

KCP’s stats in the regular season closely mirror his postseason production: around 10 points a game, 38.5 percent from 3, and between 41 and 46 percent from the field. His shot distribution, though, has changed. He’s taking nearly 20 percent fewer 2-point shots, which has led to the brunt of his attempts coming from beyond the arc (64.6 percent of them in the playoffs as opposed to 47 percent in the regular season). His percentage from deep has remained the same, but the volume has made all the difference.

KCP has not only been the most frequent third scorer, but he’s also transformed from an occasional eyesore during the regular season to exactly the kind of role player LeBron needs. This season has showcased LeBron’s playmaking, and the fact that he averaged an NBA-best 10 assists per game with this crew is a minor miracle (the Lakers were a bottom-10 3-point-shooting team during the season). But in the postseason, I’ve already lost track of how many times LeBron has cut through a defense with a pass that finds KCP in the corner for a knockdown 3. Case in point: KCP is shooting 47.2 percent from the corners in the playoffs. It’s become as close to automatic as any Lakers shot this season, or at the very least, it’s come in the moments when it’s mattered most, including late in Game 4 of the Finals.

Aside from KCP and Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Markieff Morris, and Danny Green have each been the third-leading scorer on the team at least twice this postseason. That should give you an idea of the kind of roulette the Lakers play each night. In any given game, any number of cast members could step up; the only guarantee so far has been that someone will.

At the same time, scoring cannot be the only criteria by which we evaluate the Lakers’ third-best player. KCP has been crucial, not just as a shooter but as a defender who has more than held his own. Caruso has been essential on that end too, while providing energy and keeping the ball moving on offense. Rondo has been a secondary floor general and steady veteran presence, which nobody except for LeBron and Rob Pelinka thought he’d ever be again, and both Morris and Green have had their ups and downs, but their ups have come at the right times.

The lesson of this season’s Lakers—beyond, you know, that having two of the best five players in the league is pretty good—may be that that third star can be a collective as opposed to an individual. With the league’s financial future up in the air, it will be a lot easier to build around a star duo than a Big Three and stay under the cap. In addition, no NBA star seems to be imminently available this offseason unless you believe Victor Oladipo or Bradley Beal will demand out. And so executives will have to hope they can strike on the margins.

The scary twist on this whole scenario is that the Lakers can and likely will improve their likely title-winning supporting cast this winter. No one is on long-term contracts, and the free-agent market will be ripe with peripheral talent even if money might be scarce. Want to play alongside LeBron and Davis, boost your numbers, and have a chance to win a ring? How does that and this one-year deal sound, Jerami Grant?

This season, LeBron has shown he’s still got it. He can still make teammates shine, and now he’s got a sidekick that’s smack-dab in the middle of his prime. Both of them can make being the third option possible for anyone wearing purple and gold.

An earlier version of this piece misstated which Morris twin plays for the Lakers; it’s Markieff.