Who is the Lakers' most important role player?
After a disappointing, injury-riddled end to their title defense season, the Los Angeles Lakers have regrouped and retooled with the hopes of adding their 17th championship, which would tie the Boston Celtics. They’re all-in on the big three of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook to make it happen. A lot now depends on the cadre of role players they’ve brought in around those three.
For LA, It’s championship or bust, so any role player will ultimately be judged by how they can perform in a playoff environment. Let’s take a look at what the Lakers need most and identify which of their new additions best fit the bill.
SECONDARY PLAYMAKING IS A LUXURY
As last season showed, it is perilous to rely on LeBron James to do all the playmaking. Whenever he rested or was out injured, the Lakers' offense went into a complete tailspin. Bringing in Westbrook and other offseason moves seemed tailored to lessen that particular weakness.
Rajon Rondo is likely still the best playmaker among the Lakers' role players and it is also a strength of Talen Horton-Tucker. If something goes wrong and either LeBron or Westbrook misses significant time, this skill could prove essential, However, if all goes to plan, secondary playmaking will have less value to this team than most.
THE LAKERS' BEST ROLE PLAYER MUST BE A SHOOTER
The Lakers added a bevy of shooters: Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony, and Kent Bazemore.
Playing in a lineup alongside James, Davis, and Westbrook means that their most important skill set is shooting. And specifically, spot-up shooting. Any additional ability to act as a movement shooter coming off screens or shoot off the dribble is an added bonus.
Monk is probably the best pure shooter of the group, shooting over 40% last season, with a decent amount of it coming off the dribble. Kendrick Nunn shot 38%. Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, and Kent Bazemore are all on the older side, but are solid shooters as well.
DEFENSE IS THE LAKERS' CALLING CARD
This is the deciding factor. The Lakers won their most recent title on the back of their smothering defense, and if they’re to do it again they’ll need the same formula.
While some of their role players will hold up fine as regular-season contributors, many are likely too deficient on that end to play meaningful playoff basketball. Nunn has been a damaging defensive player in his short career so far, Monk has been far too inconsistent, and you’re never sure exactly what you’re getting from Rondo on a night-to-night basis.
Only one Lakers role player can provide everything they need without taking anything off the table: Kent Bazemore. Bazemore is still a great defender, he can shoot, and he doesn’t need the ball in his hands to be a threat. Even at 32, he showed he still has the juice to pressure ball-handlers and blow up weak side actions with his anticipation and decisiveness, but without the costly gambling of flashier defensive players.
Bazemore was also entrusted on many nights to guard the opposing team’s best wing player for the Golden State Warriors last year. How successful was he in that role? Well, the Warriors were 20th in offensive efficiency and missed the playoffs - but they were a sterling fifth in defensive efficiency. While the Lakers will certainly have a much better offense than those Warriors, they will be hoping to avoid serious defensive slippage despite the massive changes to their roster construction this year. Bazemore, because of his commitment on that side of the ball, experience, and feel can be a piece of that puzzle.
While Bazemore is only a solid 35.6% 3-point shooter for his career, that number has been trending up in recent years, peaking at 40.8% with the Warriors last season. Given that his shot quality should be relatively similar to that of last season, there’s reason to hope that number isn’t too far off what he produces in 2020-21. And critically, he’s a wing, capable of playing both the shooting guard and small forward spots.
Bazemore might not be the best at any one aspect of what the Lakers need, but his unique combination of shooting, defense, and positional scarcity make him the Lakers' most important role player.