The winning ingredient missing from the Lakers championship recipe

In LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers not only have two superstars, they have two of the most dominant, versatile and big forwards in the NBA.

LeBron, however usually a small forward, often evolves up to power forward in closing lineups and played about half his minutes last year at center amid a season full of injuries and a game of big man inconsistent with the rest of the team. Davis, meanwhile, can play the 4 or 5 with great aplomb, changing positions depending on matchups or time and scoring situations that influence where he needs it most.

Building their team this way, with their best players mostly roaming the frontcourt for most of their minutes, the Lakers are one of the most unique teams in the league and, from my perspective, certainly the duo of most unique stars of the set. NBA. They defy the classic big/small or wing/wing superstar pairing in favor of a hybrid and versatile big/big model, and there really is no other NBA team that can claim to have a pairing quite like this. -this.

In a team built around high-level malleability in the frontcourt, it is therefore counter-intuitive to say that one of the most important positions to fill in a team with these two specific players is up front, but it is also absolutely true for these Lakers as it was for last year. Even though LeBron and AD are both natural forwards, the lineups that work best usually have another forward (type) of player to place between them, both maximizing their own versatility and creating matchup issues. for their opponents by swiping up or down. a position where they can leverage their unique combination of skill, size, and athleticism.

One need only look back to the 2020 title-winning side to see how important Markieff Morris, Kyle Kuzma and Danny Green were as hybrid forwards and wingers who helped their superstar teammates in those exact ways. Add to that strong defensive guards and just enough shooting, and you had the ingredients to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the season.

Fast forward to this season, however, and a cursory review of the roster shows that this team lacks that crucial forward and/or winger who has proven to complement Davis and James best. This is important for many reasons – to balance the roster, to be able to create more sustainable lineups when Bron or AD are sitting, etc. – but mostly because the absence of that specific player archetype means all the things they would typically be responsible for. other players on the list. Especially in defense.

And, on this Lakers team, that means either throwing that burden back on LeBron and AD for longer stretches or asking the heavy roster of guards to play bigger than them. None of these solutions is ideal.

On that last point, while the Lakers have better defensive guards available this season than last, it’s a major ask for one of them to protect themselves as often as this Lakers roster expects them to. will need. Even for Patrick Beverley — whatever he tells you about his ability to do so — being a full time wing defender against some of the best players in the game (and most physical players) is not something I’m happy to rely on for a full season.

Make no mistake, Beverley will compete hard and win her share of battles against even the best wings in the league, but the physical toll of her primary defensive role is bound up with her long history of getting banged. and, finally, missing games.

And after Pat Bev, custody options only get more worrisome. Do you think Kendrick Nunn will hold out and win enough of these physical battles? Can Dennis Schröder?

Austin Reaves is bigger than either of them and has gotten stronger this offseason, but I don’t think he’s to the point where he can be relied upon to keep those players as a primary option. Russ is probably the next guard best suited to move on and, with a (seemingly) fresh attitude and encouragement from Darvin Ham, he might even be eager to give it a try. But his defensive habits have been poor for years and he’ll have to prove himself a trustworthy defender again before I believe that’s going to happen.

Which brings me back to LeBron and AD.

During the Lakers’ championship season, both players were two-way monsters whose defensive focus and intensity were key drivers of the team’s success on that side of the ball. Of course, they were powerfully supported by Green, Kuzma, Morris and even Alex Caruso to take on their opponents. upper wing assignments. Of course, during big moments or critical matchups, Bron and AD would take on those duties for long stretches or full matches as primary defenders (i.e. against Jimmy Butler in the finals or in those marquee matchups against Giannis and the Bucks). But, for the most part, both players were able to face lesser individual matchups to affect the game via more assist-oriented roles within the team’s defensive structure.

I find it hard to believe that can be the case this season, especially if the Lakers are going to be as good on defense as their head coach wants them to be. In Friday’s press release after practice, Darvin Ham said the main starting group at this stage of training camp were Russ, Nunn, LeBron, AD and Damian Jones.

Imagine this group against the Clippers, Pelicans or Celtics.

Who is defending Kawhi and George, Zion and Ingram, or Tatum and Brown? In a game against the Nets, who defends KD and Simmons?

Initially, it looks like those tasks will fall (in most cases) to LeBron and AD. Now, maybe that’s exactly how it should be. After all, they are the Lakers’ best defensemen (along with Beverley) and asking them to carry that load is part of the example. And, if the Lakers are going to do anything in the playoffs, both will have to be top defensemen in the toughest matchups.

But, LeBron is in his 20th season and AD is still one of the NBA’s elite defensemen. I can imagine many scenarios where these types of requests are not fair or not ideal in the context of the whole team concept defensively. Yet roster limitations may simply force them into these positions more than ever.

Which leads to focus on more questions about minutes and managing the two stars in a way that encourages them to be their best when their best is needed.

On Media Day, in response to a question about LeBron and AD minutes, Ham said, “I don’t need Bron or AD playing playoff minutes in October, November and december. Once we’ve established our rotation, let’s look for different ways to minimize the load on their body, as much as possible. »

This, of course, is the responsible response and is the ideal way to approach both players – particularly after back-to-back seasons with injuries limiting their availability. Ham went even further by adding that he would coordinate players’ playing and training schedules to promote the health of its stars and the rest of the regiment.

Rob Pelinka, in response to a question about his guards’ potential to defend a position, was quick to explain how Juan Toscano-Anderson and Troy Brown Jr. will have to play critical roles on the wing defensively. That too is a reasonable answer and I’m here with Rob to acknowledge the importance of both guys.

But, if we’re being honest, these steps can only go so far. Of all the players mentioned, only Beverley plans to play a major role in the rotation heading into the season. A lot of the best players on this team are guards, so the Lakers may have to choose between building rosters big enough or talented enough. In fact, that could mean choosing to optimize LeBron and AD at the expense of the supporting cast, or the supporting cast at the expense of maxing out LeBron and AD’s power.

Unless the roster changes in a way that brings a better balance before the deadline, it looks like LeBron and AD will have to fill more of those gaps than we’d like.

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