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The Lakers’ New Beginnings Are Even Better Than Their Championship Finish

Rather than run it back, the Lakers chose to make a mostly fresh start. Now with Marc Gasol and Dennis Schröder in the mix, the champs’ starting lineup is far and away the best in the NBA.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For all their gilded halls and charmed extravagance, the Lakers sealed the 2020 title through an aggressive commitment to simplicity. Frank Vogel never let the tantalizing possibilities that come with coaching LeBron James and Anthony Davis get in the way of, well, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The game plan was unambiguous. Put the ball in the hands of the most accomplished playmaker in the history of the sport. Fill out lineups with as much size as possible and mash any opponent who dares to seek out the rim. Count on the immensely talented big no one on earth can match up with to swing any game or series as needed, moving him across positions and around the floor until the path to victory reveals itself. None of this is to say what Vogel and the Lakers did last season was easy—only that they made a challenging, unprecedented run through a sterile competitive environment as straightforward as it could be.

Yet when given the chance to do it all again, the Lakers—pointedly, conspicuously—went another way. Championship teams are predisposed to retention; there’s no need for a front office to agonize over what a contending roster might look like when one just bounced out of Disney World carrying the trophy. The Lakers willed themselves back to the drawing board anyway, and replaced roughly half their rotation in the NBA’s whirlwind offseason. Then and now, it looked like a fit of ambition. Why overpay an aging Rajon Rondo when Dennis Schröder could be had for a modest price? Why settle for two rim-running centers who couldn’t hold up in the Finals when more skilled bigs (like Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell) are willing to take their place at a discount? At a certain point, the desire to keep the gang together becomes its own kind of impracticality.

This explains how a top-seeded team that tromped its way to the title ended up with two new starters this season, though it doesn’t quite get at how the Lakers’ new opening lineup found its rhythm almost immediately. James, Davis, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope remain. Gasol took the place of JaVale McGee, a wrench filling in for a hammer. Schröder replaced Danny Green, though functionally he did more to relieve LeBron in running the offense. After a rocky season debut against the Clippers, it took all of a few days for the Lakers to start rolling over teams, and for the reimagined starters to assert their claim as one of the most effective lineups in the league:

Lakers Starting Lineups: Then and Now

Lineup Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Lineup Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Lakers 2019-20 starting lineup 114.0 101.4 12.6
Lakers 2020-21 starting lineup 127.2 102.0 25.2
Data courtesy of NBA.com.

There is a comfort to this new starting group, born of the fact that no player on the floor is straining or shrinking to fill a role. It is Caldwell-Pope’s inarguable destiny to chase shooters and space the floor. Schröder has the latitude to run the show, albeit with one of the greatest players of all time hovering as his safety net. There is rarely any pressure on Gasol to score, which frees him to swing the ball, spot up for 3s, and position himself as a roadblock for any opposing drivers. A brilliant offense has come from that blend, with a balance that defies its limited time in action. The ball doesn’t fly around the floor; it just finds its way. Some of the Lakers’ best possessions come from shows of restraint. Where other teams might be compelled to swing the ball again and again, a player like Gasol will simply wait a beat, settle the spacing, and repost Davis. Vogel has given rave reviews of Davis’s own passing out of trouble and a “night-and-day” evolution from where the starring big man was even last season. The best outcome for Davis is often a simple pass away—so long as he gives himself time to read the play unspooling in front of him.

“I’ve been learning a lot from Marc as far as passing bigs from the top, the elbow, from the post,” Davis says. “Just trying to figure out ways to kind of steal that from him, and also Bron. He’s been talking to me about that as well over the past couple of years.” Even that little jolt of inspiration goes a long way. Having this level of collective playmaking on the floor to start games works as an antidote to an opponent’s game planning. Every team that shows up to play the Lakers does so emboldened by scouting and strategy. The Lakers’ starters have moved the ball well enough at times to invalidate all that preparation within minutes. Any defensive lean toward James or Davis leaves itself exposed to Schröder—one of the NBA’s quickest players with the ball—to attack off a single, well-placed pass.

The starting lineup weaponizes those sorts of routine feeds. Only a few other regularly used lineups have a more favorable assist-to-turnover ratio, and only one (Denver’s own starting five) has scored as consistently, according to NBA Advanced Stats. If we didn’t know better, this would look like a team safe in its time-worn habits rather than a group of talented players sight-reading their way to contention. “There’s not much practice time,” James says, “but we use the plane, the bus rides, and the meetings that we have on the road … and we just continue to build. We continue to hold each other accountable.”

We find the yield of those efforts on the court, in a lineup that radically changed its composition but has thrived on both sides of the ball. Schröder and Gasol are very nearly the polar opposites of the champions they replaced, and yet they’ve already forged new, high-functioning synergies with the holdover starters around them. There are moments when the balance tilts and wobbles—when Schröder swerves into a wild runner, when Caldwell-Pope gets ahead of himself and turns down an open shot, or when Gasol fails to chase a fellow stretch big out to the perimeter. Yet the miracle of the Lakers starters is that to see them in action is to see a kind of continuity that feels like it should be impossible.

James and Gasol are geniuses of the sport, but it seems ambitious even by their standards that they would be the single most effective on-court pairing in the NBA at this point in the season. (The top pairings, overall, are largely just shuffled combinations from the Lakers’ starting five.) Perhaps this in and of itself is an expression of continuity—like a pizza that cooked and crisped in minutes, but only after a brick oven first spent hours climbing to 800 degrees. The slow-burning work was already done. James and Davis have been pushing toward this point for more than a year, forging an on-court bond that would lend itself to anything. Gasol and Schröder (and if we extend to the bench, Harrell and Wesley Matthews) are only the latest ingredients.

It should go without saying that it doesn’t always work this way, even for other teams in the league’s elite. Milwaukee saw just as much turnover in its starting lineup (trading Eric Bledsoe out for Jrue Holiday, and promoting Donte DiVincenzo after losing Matthews to the Lakers) but hasn’t been able to replicate the integrity of its stonewall defense. That’s normal—especially for a team that isn’t just adjusting who plays, but how they play:

Bucks Starting Lineups: Then and Now

Lineup Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Lineup Offensive rating Defensive rating Net rating
Bucks 2019-20 starting lineup 109.7 90.7 18.9
Bucks 2020-21 starting lineup 116.0 104.9 11.1
Data courtesy of NBA Advanced Stats

For the Bucks, the starting lineup doubles as part of an ongoing endeavor to find its best five for when it matters most. It’s given that Holiday, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Khris Middleton will be on the floor when a playoff game’s on the line. Brook Lopez isn’t suited for every matchup, but has more to offer against the best teams in the league than anyone off Milwaukee’s bench. In the last remaining spot, Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has toggled between DiVincenzo and backup wing Pat Connaughton; according to NBA Advanced Stats, those six are the only Bucks to see the floor in crunch time this season. Whenever one of those lineups is in play the Bucks are negotiating an ongoing adjustment to the spacing of their offense, evaluating whether their drop defense can hold up to the needs of the moment, and working in an entirely new point guard in Holiday. It’s the murky middle ground between the team they’ve been and the team they could be.

These things are supposed to take time. It’s not quite fair to compare the starting lineups of the Lakers and Bucks at this juncture, even as they meet for a marquee game on Thursday; these are two elite franchises looking for very different things. The Lakers can roll out their new starting five not only with the surety of a champion, but the safety in knowing that Gasol will play big minutes only against opponents he’s suited to defend. Markieff Morris and Kyle Kuzma are plausible big-game alternatives in ways that Milwaukee’s D.J. Augustin and Bobby Portis just aren’t yet—to say nothing of the fact that Davis, though starting at power forward, can shift over at any time to become the NBA’s best center. Baked into the numbers of the Lakers’ formidable starting lineup is the protection of not having to play any more than it should.

Still, Vogel has given that group an extended run at the start of the first and third quarters, longer even than the opening stints of the starting lineup last season. In some games they haven’t had to look very hard to find dominance; what makes the Lakers’ league-leading net rating so daunting is the way they’ve sailed through long stretches only to still wind up with the game in hand. It helps when the starters can bar opponents from some of their easiest points; even after giving up some of the smashmouth sensibility that drove last year’s team, the Lakers—and the starting five in particular—have dominated the defensive glass and reduced the flow of second-chance points to a trickle. An opponent’s viability depends on whether they can push past the pressure on the ball and beat the layered help of Davis, Gasol, and James for a one-off attempt. When those efforts fail, the Lakers’ two superstars—who are at their most efficient when sharing the floor with Gasol—can turn a few baskets into a suffocating run.

This was the Lakers’ gambit: that with a few considered changes, they could not only better equip themselves to get through the season, but bring on the kind of supporting talent to catalyze what was already a championship operation. Within those moves was its own equilibrium. Add too many Schröders and the offense might completely misfire. Add too many Gasols and the supporting cast would defer into oblivion, a team of facilitators trying to hold open the same door for one another. With the right mix, however, the role players around James and Davis can be as insistent and accommodating as they need to be. They can make a new lineup feel lived in.