If we’re calling LeBron James’s first season with the Lakers a gap year, the 2020 title puts him ahead of his usual trajectory with a new franchise. It took James a whole two seasons to win a championship with the Heat and Cavs, and in Miami, it took two offseasons just to assemble enough credible role players to fill out a rotation gutted to sign the Big Three. But the Carusos and the Playoff Rondos were able to thrive alongside the James–Anthony Davis pairing, and though the Lakers missed out on adding Kawhi Leonard and assembling an historically good Big Three, the short-term deals they signed instead now provide all sorts of pathways toward a title defense.
The most thrilling option on the board was aggregating all of the expiring contracts and mild sweeteners needed to assemble the caboose of the Banana Boat and land Chris Paul. Instead, it appears the Lakers were more intrigued by Paul’s backup. When the moratorium on trades finally lifts on Monday, the Lakers, according to reports, are expected to agree to send Danny Green and the no. 28 pick in this year’s draft to the Thunder for Dennis Schröder, the runner-up for last season’s Sixth Man of the Year award.
Though a loose translation of an interview Schröder gave last week to a German sports podcast—a phrase that can exist only in an NBA offseason—suggests he didn’t want to play for either Los Angeles team, it’s hard to find a better fit for his skill set. The Lakers’ biggest need since the Davis trade has been what we’ll call a “Kyrie”—a ball handler who can run the offense when LeBron sits and play off the ball when LeBron plays. Rajon Rondo successfully and improbably filled that role during the playoffs, but there’s no telling if that version of Rondo will show up during the regular season, or at all given the 34-year-old is widely expected to opt out of his contract and seek a deal above his minimum. Schröder is a much more accomplished scorer than Rondo ever was—he averaged 19 points and a career-high 38.5 percent from 3 last season—and he’s used to playing off a Hall of Fame distributor, having teamed with Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to form an absolutely scintillating three-guard lineup.
The question for the Lakers is whether last season’s Schröder was an aberration. The 27-year-old has a reputation of being a prickly sort, someone who dogged it for the Hawks until they happily off-loaded his salary for a draft pick. An upgrade back to the starting lineup could solve any reluctance the guard may have about going West, but being LeBron’s teammate means falling in line and staying there; history isn’t kind to those who don’t. Then there’s the shooting. While Schröder indeed scorched the net from 3 last season—particularly in the kind of catch-and-shoot opportunities that will be available to him by the barrel-full next to LeBron—he’s shot 34 percent there through his career and may be due for some regression. Schröder pales in comparison to Rondo as a playmaker, but it doesn’t take peak Havlicek to lob it up to Davis (a free-agent-to-be who will presumably re-up with the Lakers sometime this week) against second units; the real concern is if the Lakers just added another subpar 3-point shooter in the same deal in which they sent away their best in-theory 3-point shooter.
Green, though an elite-level podcast guest, appeared damn near cooked in the postseason—he moved like he had ankle weights on defense and his 3-ball was shaky long before the botched game-winner in the Finals. But he’s also a career 40 percent 3-point shooter, and like Schröder, he’s bound for some regression to the mean. Given OKC’s recent track record of injecting life back into reclamation projects, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Green rehab his 3 and maybe his D enough to have some value at the trade deadline—thus reaping Sam Presti yet another draft pick for a collection that’s already approaching the level of a mid-’90s Beanie Baby hoarder. The Lakers, however, are dumping Green—along with his useful expiring contract—like he’s dead weight.
At the very least, the Lakers have created a new need, this time on the wing. The New York Times’ Marc Stein reported the Lakers have “interest” in signing Wes Matthews away from the Bucks—whom The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor reported were also in the Schröder derby. (It may be too early to assign offseason winners and losers, but Milwaukee chasing facsimiles of Malcolm Brogdon, the combo guard they cheaped out on last offseason, while dangling Eric Bledsoe, the combo guard they chose to re-sign, isn’t exactly an airtight sales pitch to your two-time MVP that your organization’s got this.) But perhaps the answer is baked into this deal as well:
Lakers will gain some valuable flexibility when it comes to their $9.3M midlevel exception:— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) November 15, 2020
Pick 28- $1.964,780
In other words, the Lakers will almost certainly have the non-taxpayer midlevel exception available to spend this offseason. In a barren free-agent market in which only a few bad teams have money to spend, that could be enough to get in the mix for some of the top available veterans—a stretch big like Marc Gasol, Aron Baynes, or Serge Ibaka; maybe a versatile forward willing to take less for a shot at a ring like Danilo Gallinari; or someone to shore up the wing like Jae Crowder or Justin Holiday.
There’s still work to be done after the Schröder deal to make all of the pieces fit. The scary part is the reigning champs have plenty of options to do so, and will almost certainly be better than they were last season when they’re done maneuvering.