Grading the Lakers Supporting Cast
After landing the world's biggest free agent this summer, the Los Angeles Lakers immediately went from the lottery to having championship aspirations. That's just what happens when LeBron James is in town. As we've seen throughout his career, however, teams have failed to surround him with a roster that fits just right and anything short of having two all stars at his side has culminated in no better than a 2nd place finish. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh... it's hard to see anyone on this team on par with any of those guys. This team isn't devoid of that kind of potential, it's simply far too young. Unlike past LeBron lead teams on which we saw an established supporting cast, this teams' fate rests on the shoulders of 2nd and 3rd year players who, in their early twenties, have simply not yet shown us what they'll look like at their best. That's where this summer's whirlwind of speculation and daydreaming hypotheticals got its fuel. Imagining each of the Lakers' youthful prospects in a vacuum had many of us projecting leaps and bounds for some or being pushed towards the lonely end of the bench for others. Examining these players on their lonesome can be a valuable exercise but as I said earlier, LeBron changes everything about a team and how you have to think of its individual parts. The truth is, you can be a future all star with the potential for being a teams' number one guy but if you don't fit well with the top dog now, you are ultimately disposable. With all that being said, here is how each of the Lakers are thriving or diving alongside their game altering teammate.
Let's start with the clear favourite. Kyle Kuzma has looked like the perfect offensive partner for LeBron with his floor spacing, cutting, and ability to resist killing the ball movement and collapsing defenses with the over-dribbling that troubles guys further down this list. In his last 6 games he has scored 23, 22, 27, 20, 33 and 24 points, establishing himself as the Lakers' second best scorer and cementing his spot in the starting lineup.One that L.A. may struggle to keep when Brandon Ingram eventually returns to demand control of that spot (sorry Josh Hart) once again. The On/Off stats show that when Kuzma is on the court the Lakers' offensive rating is at its best (of players playing meaningful minutes. Unfortunately, their defensive rating is also their worst. And while that seems troubling, Kuzma's play on that end has begun to trend upward as chemistry builds and he learns from one of the best strategic defenders the game has ever seen.
Though referees seem to take his mere appearance on the court as a personal foul, Josh Hart has fit like a glove on this fast moving offence. The Lakers often struggle in the half court and anyone who can knock down perimeter shots as their scoring begins to stagnate is viewed, to me, as essential. Since becoming a starter the Lakers have played their best ball and it is no coincidence. Hart plays hard every night and might just be the perfect man for this daunting job.
JaVale has had something of a renaissance this season and even garnered some 6th man of the year buzz in the opening weeks. His rim running, speed and wonderful defensive timing at the bucket made him the perfect center for Luke Walton's pace pumping vision. Now that, as we could have expected, the Lakers have deviated from that vision and veered towards the "LeBron is basketball Hercules" offence, his effectiveness has dwindled. JaVale is still an efficient bucket getter and provides sportcenter worthy blocks on a nightly basis but his ability to drop to the basket uncovered has been snuffed out by opposing defenses and his potency in the pick and roll isn't enough to make up for it.
Arguably the most talented player next to LeBron, Brandon Ingram was expected to quickly establish himself as the Lakers' second option and clear co-star in the King James band. This hasn't exactly been the case. It's fair to point out that Ingram has dealt with injury, and a 4 game suspension after starting an altercation between the Lakers and Rockets in the second game of the season, but when we look at his fit next to a star, it's just not great. Ingram seems to thrive with the ball in his hands and when you have LeBron, Lonzo and Rondo on the court your chances of running a possession dwindle quickly. Off ball he often halts any ongoing action and pounds the ball for a contested (barely) mid range jumper. His mid range shots have fallen at an acceptable rate but beyond the arc he is more than hesitant to take the open shot, often taking the dribble into an open but long 2 point try. In this league, that's like taking a chocolate bar at the store, breaking off a third and paying the full price.
I'll just start by saying that if Lonzo could finish at the rim and even threaten the odd floater, his game would be perfect for this squad. His defensive footwork, spacial awareness and keen eye for the ball make him an absolutely essential part to this team's transitional identity. Lonzo often initiates the break with look ahead passes, steals or simply by disrupting the offence. While his defense has elite potential and is sorely needed on this team, his impact on the other side of the ball is such that his efficiencies (passing and movement) are diminished by the fact that opponents can cheat off of his shot and easily persuade him to give up the ball on every drive. Deferring on open three pointers or kicking out on nearly every single attack makes him predictable, and missing wide open layups is just unacceptable. Sure, it's only his second season under the brightest of lights but without an improved finish it is unclear if Lonzo can be the point guard of the Lakers' future.
It is no coincidence that the Lakers' bench unit was upgraded from dismal to serviceable by the addition of Tyson Chandler. The center position, up until that point, was a one man show in JaVale McGee with Kyle Kuzma playing the impostor big man substitution at times and LeBron James slotting in reluctantly at others. Chandler has provided defense and incredible screen setting that leaves defenders concussed and ball handlers free of their defender.
Kentavious Caldwell Pope
After starting the season in a slump KCP has recently shown where his value lies. Often thought of as a "3 and D" wing, Caldwell Pope had the feel of someone overrated on principle of what we think he should be. He can hit threes, there is no doubt about that, but at an above average clip? Barely. Defensively he is alright but again, barely better than average. What he can bring is what the Lakers need, but with recent rumours surrounding Trevor Ariza's potential Laker reunion it is becoming clear that KCP may just not be the impactful and steady player this team prefers.
Rondo is a tough player to analyze in that he has played the fewest games of any of the core Lakers. He has supplied the second unit with a steady hand and is able to direct play on both ends of the floor. With this particular team and this particular star, all you need is a bench mob capable of holding steady and keeping leads/preventing runs. As a floor general for the reserves Rondo suits the Lakers nicely, in minutes with the starters, less so.
This team started with a deficiency at center and got Tyson Chandler. Their next biggest need has been shot making floor stretchers who can defend. What is the best version of Svi? Exactly that. While his shot hasn't been anything quite like his summer league dominance, the potential is there. His slow improvement has been encouraging through the first part of the season but he still has a long way to go before really impacting this team's outlook. That being said, Svi is probably the second best player in the league. I don't know how he could possibly be any better. I love him.
Lance will make 'em dance... before he jacks up an ill advised shot or tries to dunk from mid court. "Born Ready" is an absolute thrill but lends very little to the way the Lakers play basketball. In terms of fit, yuck. In terms of garbage time antics? Sign this dude to the max... now.
As the trade deadline nears and we reach December 15th (the date players signed in the summer can be traded) this lineup will undoubtedly change. One thing that will not is the fact that this team, however young or old, will succeed on the shoulders of the most important man in the league. Rome wasn't built in a day but if you talk to some Laker fans it should have been. Patience is key here but the delicate balance between young talent and an aging LeBron has everyone wondering how quickly it can all come together.