The reigning champions are a very different team this season. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are still in Los Angeles, but many of the players who helped them win a title in the bubble are now gone. The additions of Dennis Schröder and Montrezl Harrell, the top two finishers in the Sixth Man of the Year voting, give them more offensive firepower. But it comes at a price on defense.
That end of the floor was the Lakers’ biggest problem in their 116-109 loss to the Clippers on opening night. It was unrealistic to expect the champs to play with the defensive intensity that defined them last season on the night they received their rings, especially given how short the offseason was. But it might be just as unrealistic to expect them to flip that switch later this season. They no longer have the personnel to suffocate offenses. That doesn’t mean the Lakers can’t repeat, or that they shouldn’t be the favorites. This group just has to win a different way.
Schröder and Harrell weren’t bad on Tuesday. The former had a near triple-double with 14 points, 12 rebounds, and eight assists, while the latter chipped in 17 points and 10 rebounds off the bench against his old team. Los Angeles had no one who could provide that type of scoring punch in a secondary role last season. Everyone in their supporting cast depended on LeBron and Davis to draw defensive attention and set them up. They never know who their third option would be on a given night. It was a constant juggling act that forced their two best players to do everything on that side of the ball.
The upside came on defense. The Lakers made up for what they lacked in skill with size and speed. They were one of the biggest and most athletic teams in the NBA, with lockdown defenders at every position. There were no weak links on defense, especially in the bubble. Their worst defenders in the regular season—Rajon Rondo and Kyle Kuzma—turned it on when it mattered most.
The weak spots this time around can’t be fixed with effort alone. Their new starting lineup has two glaring ones in Schröder, an undersized point guard (6-foot-1 and 172 pounds) who has never been known for his defense and can’t match up with players at other positions, and Marc Gasol, a 35-year-old former Defensive Player of the Year whose inability to move his feet becomes a bigger issue with every season. He picked up five fouls in 12 minutes against the Clippers, who got whatever they wanted against him in the pick-and-roll. It didn’t get much better when Harrell came in. He has the exact opposite set of defensive issues. Harrell can run and jump with almost anyone, but doesn’t have the size to hold up in the post or the awareness and mindset to anchor the defense.
Gasol and Harrell represent a major change from the two big men who manned the middle last season: JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. Both were defensive-minded role players who protected the rim and didn’t do much on offense beyond set screens, roll hard, and catch lobs. They aren’t better players than Gasol and Harrell. The Lakers were at their best when they benched them and played Davis at the 5, the key strategic move in their title run. But they still played an important role in the regular season, taking the pounding at the position to keep Davis fresh. None of the big men on this version of the Lakers can do that.
Davis will have to tweak his game to make life easier for his new frontcourt partners. He used to space the floor for McGee and Howard and then play closer to the basket when the Lakers downsized. Now it’s the reverse. Playing with Gasol, a stretch big, will allow him to run more pick-and-rolls with LeBron in the starting lineup, while he will have to play on the perimeter to create that same room for Harrell. The good news is that Davis can thrive in almost any role. It’s just a matter of what skills he chooses to emphasize.
The biggest strategic decision for Lakers coach Frank Vogel this season is how much to play Davis at the 5. There wasn’t much opportunity cost to benching McGee and Howard last season. They were veterans near the end of their careers who bought into their roles and played without ego. Harrell is in a different situation. He’s a 26-year-old who took less money in free agency (two years and $19 million with a player option for next season) to sign with the Lakers. He’s too good of a scorer to take a backseat on offense, and he needs plays run for him to be effective. Harrell will always give up points on defense. The key is putting him in enough pick-and-rolls to get those points back.
This year’s roster is more volatile than last season’s. Schröder, like Harrell, is playing for a new contract. He already made a splash before the start of training camp by announcing that he wanted to start after spending the last two seasons coming off the bench in Oklahoma City. But basketball-wise, it makes more sense to stagger his minutes with LeBron to always keep one high-level playmaker on the floor. Vogel will have to juggle his lineups to keep his new point guard happy. Schröder isn’t Rondo. He’s not at the stage of his career where he can expect to get paid off veteran leadership and playoff experience. And he should get more in free agency than the contract Rondo signed (two years and $15 million) with the Hawks.
All the pieces fit together perfectly in Los Angeles last season, on and off the court. Everyone accepted their roles. The ball went through LeBron and Davis. The supporting cast played defense and spotted up on offense. Most of them were in their 30s. Kuzma was the only one playing for a big contract, and even he had to prove that he could succeed in a smaller role after spending his first few seasons with the Lakers just jacking up shots whenever he felt like it.
But it’s hard to blame Los Angeles for not running it back. The downside of an older team is that most players will get worse instead of better. Rondo played like an All-Star in the playoffs, but there’s no guarantee that he could do it again this year at 34. The same is true for Howard (35), McGee (32), and Danny Green (33), all of whom looked their age at various points in the playoffs.
The structure of the unprecedented new season also made keeping the band together less appealing. The Lakers opened training camp a little over a month after leaving the bubble, and face a compressed regular-season schedule. Last season’s formula worked only because LeBron and Davis rarely took nights off despite carrying a huge burden on both ends of the floor. They will need more rest this season to be fresh for the playoffs. Vogel limited Davis to 31 minutes and LeBron to 28 on Tuesday, a trend that will likely continue. That’s where Schröder and Harrell become important. This version of the Lakers has third and fourth options who can play like first and second ones when called upon.
The question is how much the Lakers can get back to their defensive identity in the 2021 playoffs. They still have the bones of the lineup that ran the Heat off the floor in the NBA Finals, with Davis and LeBron flanked by three 3-and-D wings (Green, Alex Caruso, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope). Wesley Matthews can fill Green’s role, while the emergence of Talen Horton-Tucker, a second-round pick in the 2019 draft, gives them a wild-card who can do a little bit of everything on the perimeter. Add Markieff Morris and Kuzma to those six and they should have the defensive versatility to cover for Schröder and Harrell in most playoff series.
But there might come a time when their prized newcomers have to play less. That could be in a battle of Los Angeles against the Clippers, or a Finals matchup with the new-look Nets, who looked incredible on opening night, or an improved Bucks team. Vogel and LeBron showed they know how to make the right chess moves last season. But they also didn’t have to worry as much about keeping their supporting cast happy in the process. Those considerations are important. That’s why the Clippers let Harrell walk in the first place.
Losing to the Clippers, who had issues of their own on Tuesday, doesn’t mean much in the big picture. The Lakers still have two of the best players in the NBA, as well as a more versatile offensive team that should allow their superstars to conserve energy in what will be a bizarre regular season. But the cost of adding players who can help them get deeper into the playoffs is what might happen once they get there. Schröder and Harrell, to borrow a phrase from Draymond Green, are closer to 82-game players than 16-game ones. The Lakers needed both in the offseason, and it was hard to check both boxes given their lack of financial and roster flexibility.
They have earned the right to be favorites. LeBron and Davis proved last season they are the best Big Two in the league. Their ability to dominate on both ends of the floor can cover up a lot of issues. But the favorite doesn’t always win. Only five teams have repeated since the turn of millennium: the Kobe-Shaq Lakers (twice), the Kobe-Gasol Lakers, the Big 3 Heat, and the KD-Steph Warriors. LeBron has gone 1-for-3 when he has gotten the chance. What happened on opening night is a reminder of how hard the task can be. Repeating the same formula is rarely an option. And there’s no guarantee the new one will work, either. All we know right now is that the Lakers aren’t the same team they were in the bubble. It remains to be seen whether they have gotten better or worse.