Lakers' next challenge? Building around LeBron James, Anthony Davis

NBA.com Global on Jun 25, 2019 06:40 PM
Lakers' next challenge? Building around James, Davis
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 18: LeBron James #23 of Team LeBron chest bumps Anthony Davis #23 after winning against Team Curry during the NBA All-Star Game as a part of 2018 NBA All-Star Weekend at STAPLES Center on February 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com

The Los Angeles Lakers have LeBron James and a reported deal in place to acquire Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans. In the quest for a 17th championship, two of the best players in the league is a great start.

But, with free agency set to begin at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, there remains a lot of work to be done in regard to the rest of the Lakers' roster, which will be left pretty barren in the wake of the Davis trade. Here are the details, according to multiple reports...

Lakers receive: Anthony Davis
Pelicans receive: Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, the No. 4 pick (De'Andre Hunter, later sent to Atlanta), the Lakers' first-round pick in 2021 (top-8 protected), the right to swap picks in 2023, and the Lakers' first-round pick in 2024 (that New Orleans can defer to 2025).

On July 1, the Lakers will have eight players under contract. Three of those eight will be sent to New Orleans and three of the five remaining -- Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones and Mo Wagner -- have a total of 709 minutes of NBA experience. That leaves a lot for the Lakers to consider going forward ...

Remaining cap space

The Lakers would have more cap space before the trade than they would after it, because Davis' salary is far greater than the combined salaries of Ball, Hart and Ingram. But if they fill all or most of that extra cap space (by signing free agents) before the trade is officially made (and wind up over the salary cap after the trade), they would need to include the salary of the No. 4 pick in the deal (so the outgoing salary comes close enough to matching that of Davis). In order to do that, they would have to wait 30 days after Hunter is signed to his rookie contract.

They could do it before Hunter is signed if they expanded the deal to include the contracts of Bonga, Jones and Wagner. And they would likely need an additional team (or teams) to take on those contracts.

If they can't delay the trade or find takers for those contracts, they could make the trade as is, but they wouldn't have the cap space needed (about $33 million) to offer a max contract to a free agent with seven to nine years of experience (like Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Klay Thompson, Nikola Vucevic or Kemba Walker).

Of course, when talking about the Lakers' cap space, we can't forget that $5 million of it is being taken up (for each of the next three seasons) by the stretched contract of Luol Deng (who they signed in that disastrous summer of 2016). Should they not delay the trade or find takers for those three extra contracts, that $5 million is the difference between the space they need to sign one of the above players to the max and what they'll actually have (about $28 million if they get Davis to waive his trade kicker, which he may not do anyway).

A new star combo

James and Davis appear to be an ideal fit. James is one of the best playmakers in NBA history, while Davis is one of the best finishers in the league. He's one of three players (and James is one of the other two) who have shot better than 70 percent on at least 2,000 attempts in the restricted area over the last five years.

Davis has been assisted on about two-thirds of his field goals over his career. James, meanwhile, ranks fourth with 8.8 assists per game over the last three seasons.

But Davis is a different kind of offensive star than James has typically teamed with, in that he's more of an interior scorer than a perimeter one. Over the last three seasons, only 40 percent of James' assists -- which is the 59th highest rate among 106 players with 500 total assists -- have been on shots in the restricted area. Still, over those three years, James' teammates have shot better in the restricted area with him on the floor (64.3 percent) than they have with him off it (61.4 percent).

Last season, Davis scored just 1.02 points per possession as a roll man, according to Synergy play-type tracking. That ranked 19th among 22 players who averaged at least three roll man possessions per game and was down from 1.18 (fourth among players with three per game) in 2017-18.

James should help Davis achieve maximum efficiency as a roll man. But "roll man" possessions include pick-and-pop jumpers, and Davis hasn't shot as well from outside the paint over the last two seasons (35.2 percent) as he did over the previous three (41.1 percent).

He's made up for that drop somewhat by increasing his 3-point rate, but this season, he still took 1.6 times as many mid-range shots as 3-pointers. Though that was the lowest rate of his career, it was the seventh highest rate among 218 players who took at least 200 shots from outside the paint. (Only 23 of those 218 players took more mid-range shots than 3-pointers.)

Davis' effective field goal percentage from outside the paint (40.9 percent) ranked 209th among those 218 players. James' (48.1 percent) ranked 137th. So, while one is an elite passer and both are elite finishers, they're not a perfect fit in regard to scoring inside and out.

Shooters needed (and soon)

Wagner might remain as a back-up big, but the Lakers' post-trade depth chart doesn't go beyond Davis, James and Kyle Kuzma. (About Kuzma: His effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint -- 44.5 percent -- ranked 187th among those 218 players with at least 200 field goal attempts.) That's a terrific and versatile frontline, but the Lakers have no depth and no backcourt whatsoever. Reggie Bullock, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson are all unrestricted free agents, none of whom appear to be obvious candidates to return.

Whether or not the Lakers can get rid of those three smaller contracts, they might be better off spreading their remaining cap space around (rather than using it on a third star). With James and Davis, they need to add as much shooting as possible. In James' first season in L.A., the Lakers (33.6 percent) ranked last in catch-and-shoot 3-point percentage, with Kuzma having the third-worst mark (31.7 percent) among 101 players with at least 200 attempts.

The good news? Six of the top nine catch-and-shoot 3-point shooters (minimum 100 attempts) from last season are free agents. Additionally, 20 free agents this summer shot 40 percent or better on at least 100 catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts. Four of those 20 are Irving, Leonard, Thompson and Kevin Durant, but the Lakers should find some realistic targets among the remaining 16.

Another playmaker?

Last year's strategy of putting playmakers (instead of shooters) around James didn't work. The 2018-19 Lakers were the lowest ranked offensive team -- they ranked 24th at 107.4 points scored per 100 possessions -- that James has played for in his 16 seasons. (The 109.0 points per 100 possessions they scored in the 55 games that James played in would have ranked 19th, which would have been the second-lowest that any James team has ranked.)

That doesn't mean that next season's Lakers don't need some playmaking beyond James, who will be 35 years old in December. Taking some of the offensive burden off his shoulders would allow him to (maybe?) exert more energy on defense.

If the Lakers are looking for both shooting and playmaking, the most interesting option would be D'Angelo Russell (whom the Lakers traded to the Brooklyn Nets two years ago). Russell shot 39.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts last season and also had the most assists (563) among free agents.

Russell is a restricted free agent, but if the Nets choose to upgrade to Irving (as has been widely reported) at point guard, they may let Russell walk. And he probably won't command a maximum starting salary (about $27.3 million for a player with 0-6 years of experience).

Brogdon would be another dual-threat guard, though also a restricted free agent and likely tougher to pry away from the Milwaukee Bucks. Unrestricted options could include Patrick Beverley and Darren Collison.

Still need to get stops, too

Beverley, Brogdon or Collison would help make up for the loss of Ball on defense. The Lakers ranked a respectable 13th in defensive efficiency last season. But they were seventh (106.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) at the time of Ball's season-ending injury and ranked 22nd (112.4) thereafter. They allowed 102.7 per 100 with James and Ball on the floor together, but 107.9 per 100 with James on the floor without Ball. (He will now team with Jrue Holiday in what may be the league's best defensive backcourt.)

Davis ranked low in high-volume rim protection rankings, with opponents shooting 63.9 percent at the rim when he was there to protect it. But with his length and athleticism, he should be able to make up for James' defensive issues more than any guard.

Last season, Davis averaged 1.69 steals + blocks per personal foul. That was down from 1.94 the season prior, but was still the highest rate among players that played at least 1,000 minutes. He was one of two players (the Indiana Pacers' Myles Turner was the other) that played at least 1,000 minutes and had more blocks (135) than fouls (132).

The Lakers will still need perimeter defenders. Even if they get a point guard like Beverley or Collison, they'll need someone to defend opposing stars. There are 17 free agents who defended the league's five leading wing scorers last season (James Harden, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Devin Booker and Leonard) for at least 150 total possessions:

- Al-Farouq Aminu
- Trevor Ariza
- Harrison Barnes
- Reggie Bullock
- Jimmy Butler
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
- Kevin Durant
- Dorian Finney-Smith (restricted)
- Danny Green
- Justin Holiday
- Wesley Matthews
- Khris Middleton
- Iman Shumpert
- Garrett Temple
- Klay Thompson
- * Noah Vonleh
- * Thaddeus Young

* Possessions defending Antetokounmpo account for more than 85 percent of their total.

Four of those guys -- Butler, Durant, Middleton and Thompson -- are players that the Lakers probably can't afford. Bullock and Caldwell-Pope are the Lakers' own free agents. Barnes, Green and Matthews are also on the catch-and-shoot list above.

The trade market?

In regard to filling out the roster (and filling cap space), the Lakers aren't limited to just free agency. They could also make trades beyond the deal with New Orleans. Alas, with all the draft picks and young players they're sending out for Davis, they're pretty limited in what they can offer other teams in exchange for useful players.

Acquiring Davis was obviously a big step toward contention. But the trade will leave the Lakers with a difficult path toward surrounding their two stars with a capable supporting cast.

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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