Alex Caruso


The Los Angeles Lakers always like to kick the offseason off with a bang, for better or worse. It wasn’t too long ago when midnight stuck on July 1st only for the Lakers to reach quick agreements with Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Last winter, the first domino to drop was the Lakers making the move to acquire Dennis Schröder from the Oklahoma City Thunder for Danny Green and the 28th pick of the 2020 NBA Draft (which eventually became Jaden McDaniels of the Minnesota Timberwolves). General Manager doubled down once the marriage with Schröder began to go downhill, trading for former MVP Russell Westbrook from the Washington Wizards in a package that includes Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and the 22nd pick of the 2021 NBA Draft (which eventually became Isaiah Jackson who is heading to the Indiana Pacers). It isn’t a perfect marriage between Westbrook and the two superstars the Lakers currently employ in LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the move was one worth making to get the best out of the 28-year-old Davis, which is what the goal of this offseason seems to have been.

Let’s start with Russell Westbrook. The fit with him next to James is where his deficiencies as a shooter and off-ball cutter will come to a head at some point this season and likely fester throughout the entirety of it. Westbrook is literally one of the worst three-point shooters in NBA history when accounting for volume. He’s a career 30.5% three-point shooter and hasn’t shot less than three a game since the 2010-11 season. To make matters worse, Westbrook is nothing as a mover, screener, or cutter either. Once Westbrook gives up the ball he typically chills out and watches the play go on. When you aren’t a good shooter, not moving makes it so much easier for the defense to ‘guard’ him and neutralize possessions when his team has the ball. Heck, if anyone knows about those holes in Westbrook’s one would be the Lakers who actively went out of their way not to guard him when they faced the Rockets in the bubble in 2020.

But if there’s anything Westbrook provides, he allows the Lakers to preserve their identity as a transition behemoth and unleash Anthony Davis as a roller when LeBron is not on the floor. The Lakers hoped to get something resembling that from Schröder. We saw it in glimpses, but he is nowhere near the playmaker Westbrook is. Davis is athletic a big man the NBA has to offer and often loves to leak out in transition when he forces a miss on the perimeter. When the opposing team shoots free throws, Davis almost always camps out on the other end of the floor in hopes to get a quick mismatch. Rajon Rondo sought those transition oop opportunities any time he could when he was a Laker, while Schröder typically tried to do it himself and missed some of these chances. Not only can Westbrook do a little bit of both, but he will also bring zip and playmaking in the halfcourt that neither of those two could. According to the B-Ball Index via Alex Regla of Silver Screen and Roll, Westbrook ranked in the 99th percentile at ‘getting to the rim,’ ‘box creation,’ and ‘high-value assists.’ Essentially, Westbrook is still really damn good at getting to the rim and feeding bigs with dump-offs or kicking out to shooters. If Westbrook can Daniel Gafford is getting these types of looks, then imagine what he can do with Anthony Davis.

Getting an upgrade from Dennis Schröder to Russell Westbrook as a second playmaker is one way to maximize Davis, but another is to get more shooting around him. I love the holdovers from the 2020 Championship team and appreciate all their contributions over the years, but they often left hands holding their breath with the hope their open threes would go in. They made up for it and more with great effort and tenacity on defense (more on that in a bit), but the shooting was inconsistent, to put it nicely. The Dwight Howard signing aside, amongst the Lakers free agent signings of Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn, only one of those new Lakers additions have made so far shot worse than 38% a year ago and only two hit threes at worse than a 40% clip. All the additions are far better shooters on catch-and-shoot and wide-open threes than the discarded Lakers of a year ago. Davis should feast with more room to operate. Perhaps he could even be used differently; maybe he gets more chances to operate out of dribble handoffs that can lead to him either keeping the rock himself & driving into open space or dishing to teammates. Davis is not a great passer out of the post but certainly a good one. On top of it all, he’s a total mismatch with the list of players actually capable of guarding him 1v1 is about as many as the number of fingers on a human body. Better playmaking and more space to facilitate that playmaking should make life all the easier for Davis to dominate the paint.

The last two seasons of Lakers basketball may have been frustrating when it comes to perimeter shooting, but they hung their hat on defense. Despite the fact that LeBron James and Anthony Davis, two of the best defenders in the NBA, missed a boatload of time to injuries last season, the Lakers still finished with the best defense in the NBA. It was their identity. Alex Caruso (now depressingly a member of the Chicago Bulls) is legitimately one of the best defensive guards in the NBA and the Lakers will miss his help and feel on that end of the floor. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled against bruising wings but was very good at chasing around guards off screens. Kyle Kuzma transformed his reputation from scoring chucker to a guy that could hang with some of the best scoring wings the NBA has to offer. No one is going to mistake the Lakers’ new additions with the quality of defender those guys, but the Lakers should still be fine on that end of the floor as long as Davis and James are on the floor and Davis plays more at the center spot. Both Jovan Buha of The Athletic and Brad Turner of The Los Angeles Times has reported that Davis will play more at center this season. Signing Dwight Howard is a fine depth move, but he was mitigated to the bench during the Lakers’ title run in 2020 save for banging with Nikola Jokic. He and the incumbent Marc Gasol are the only centers on the Lakers’ roster so far. Even if Davis didn’t want to play center, he has to play more of it this season, and the Lakers typically dominate and modernize when he does. I still don’t suspect he will play center exclusively with Gasol still on the roster, but it should be more than what we’ve seen from him so far. We’ve seen centers be able to anchor a mediocre cast of defenders surrounding them to remain amongst the top of the NBA, and Davis is right up there with the best of them. The Lakers’ defense kind of hinges on Davis’ dominance, but he’s shown he’s up to the task.

The Lakers trade for Westbrook was a gamble, but after the dust has settled on the moves that surrounded that big trade, it looks like the risk was worth it. With the overhaul of playmaking and shooting, life should come much easier for Anthony Davis offensively. It shouldn’t be overlooked any time a team attempts to go all-in for their star(s) and brings in someone that can help them on the basketball floor, and that’s what the Lakers have done. For the first time since Davis arrived in Los Angeles though, the Lakers have questions defensively. Davis can answer a lot of them himself, however. This season we could be the best version of Anthony Davis we have seen yet, and he’s already been damn good. We’ll see if that holds up to be true.

Luke Walton cannot escape the scrutiny of fathers of his current players, apparently. After dealing with the LaVar Ball fiasco in Southern California, this predicament has followed him up to Northern California after Marvin Bagley III’s father, Marvin Bagley Jr., tweeted he wanted the Kings to trade his son during last Saturday’s game against the Houston Rockets. Though the tweet has since been deleted, like Luke Skywalker once said: no (tweet) is ever really gone. Since then, this saga has now crescendoed to franchise star De’Aaron Fox’s father also tweeting that he, not his son the basketball star, wants the Kings to trade Bagley III. It’s just the latest in line of mishaps that have befallen the woebegone Sacramento Kings franchise.

Let’s start with Marvin Bagley III. He didn’t ask to be one of the two players taken before already perennial MVP candidate Luka Doncic, already All-Star Trae Young, and future All-Star Jaren Jackson. But through two seasons and six games, it’s been more than fair to say that Bagley III has not lived up to the billing of his draft pedigree. Though last season and this season will not play the custom 82 games of normal NBA seasons, Bagley has yet to even reach that number, playing in just 81 games so far in his career. During the aforementioned game on Saturday against the Houston Rockets, Bagley III wasn’t even on the floor to close the game as the offense sputtered to score just 19 points in the 3rd and 4th quarter of that game, with Richaun Holmes playing in his stead. Though Bagley III starts games, he wasn’t there to close that one. Head Coach Luke Walton instead opting to play smaller with Cory Joseph and Kyle Guy to play more perimeter options. With all due respect to Holmes, Joseph, and Guy, if your second overall pick is not on the floor in the minutes that matter, something is wrong.

Something is wrong, however. Marvin Bagley III has his strengths going back to his days at Duke as an athletic rim runner with a super quick second jump to smash the offensive glass and solid post-up player, he had his limitations back then that has haunted him to this day. He’s a rim-running big that plays alongside another rim-running big in the aforementioned Holmes. See a problem there? That situation could be feasible, however, if Bagley III could stretch the floor, but that isn’t his game. In 81 NBA games he’s only shot 131 threes, and has converted a ghastly 29% of them. Bagley III hit nearly 40% of his threes in Durham, but shot just 62.7% from the free-throw line, a more sticky suggestion of where one is at as a shooter (Bagley III is a career 69.7% free-throw shooter).

His most glaring weakness, in particular, has come on the defensive end of the floor. His offensive shortcomings could be more manageable if he were more stout on this end of the floor, but alas. You’d think an athletic big like him would be able to switch on the perimeter against guards, but he routinely gets dusted off the floor when asked to do so. He isn’t ready yet to anchor a defense whatsoever. With the NBA having teams play opponents twice in a row on certain road trips to better handle travel in the days of COVID-19, the Kings’ played Houston on Thursday before playing them again sans James Harden on Saturday. In both games, they attacked Bagley III mercilessly and got just about anything they wanted. In six games so far this season, the Kings’ defense squanders 12.3 points per 100 possessions more when Bagley III is on the floor as opposed to him off the floor. While the difference hasn’t been as stark in the previous two years, the Kings’ defensive rating with him on the floor has hovered above bad as well. There’s a reason he isn’t on the floor to close games.

However, I do see the Bagley side of things here as well. Though things haven’t gotten off to the start I bet he imagined coming into the NBA, he still is super young, as the age clock will only tick toward 22 in March for young Marvin. He’s been unlucky when it comes to nagging foot injuries, though surely concerning for a big man. After Sacramento went 39-43 and blitzed the league at a blistering pace in Bagley III’s rookie season, the Kings decided progress was not enough for then-head coach Dave Joerger to retain his job, hiring Luke Walton to map the future of the franchise instead after he was fired as Head Coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

That decision was curious at the time (purely from the basketball perspective of things, not even including the sexual assault allegation levied upon Walton at the time) and hasn’t aged much gracefully since. The Kings regressed last year and would’ve finished at a 35 win pace had the world not turned upside down from the fallout of COVID-19. The Kings went from the 3rd-fastest team in the NBA in 2018-19 under Joeger to the 11th-slowest under Walton. I do understand some of this; teams figure others out in the NBA, and learning how to better execute in the halfcourt is beneficial for a young team still figuring the league out. Still, it does seem strange for a coach to step in and fairly drastically change what was working pretty damn well. This same episode we’re seeing now with Marvin Bagley III strangely was on display a year ago with Fox’s backcourt running mate in Buddy Hield after Hield, the current champion of All-Star Weekend’s Three-Point Shootout was spectating watching the offense sputter while trailing by…  three points! This led to frustration from Buddy Hield, taking to social media to voice, or in this case like, his displeasure with the team.

Neither has player development. As a Lakers fan, the talent and potential of all the team’s previous draft picks were always on display, but neither one was groomed into what they are now. There are many reasons for this: almost none of these picks were finished products by any means with the exception of probably Larry Nance Jr., circumstances changed the instant LeBron James walked into the building and were exacerbated once the Anthony Davis trade rumors shot a dart through the confidence levels of the young players. However, it was quite damning that nearly every player has improved even in a short timeframe from leaving Walton’s stewardship. Brandon Ingram literally won an award for it, now personifying the lethal three-level scoring potential we all envisioned him being. D’Angelo Russell became an All-Star (albeit in the Eastern Conference) for the Brooklyn Nets. Lonzo Ball’s jumper from deep improved from the lower 30 percent mark to 37.5% a year ago. Jordan Clarkson went from a daring chucker to useful sparkplug off the bench for two different playoff teams. Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant both have emerged as starting centers, albeit with drastically different strengths and weaknesses. Larry Nance Jr. never averaged above 2.4 assists per-36 minutes as a Laker; he’s never dipped below three the last two seasons as a Cavalier. Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso emerged as pivotal pieces for a championship team, with the latter literally being the difference-maker in the starting lineup of a closeout Game 6 to win the Lakers a title. Others have come and gone Lakerland during Walton’s tenure, but what does it say that a player the Lakers drafted after Walton was let go, Talen Horton-Tucker, has now fought his way into the rotation of a championship contender, was thrown into the fire in the playoffs against the Houston Rockets, and now has scouts (not affiliated with the Lakers, mind you) buzzing that Horton-Tucker could, in their words, average 20+ points per game *right now as a 20-year-old* on a rebuilding team? Neither Ingram nor Russell could manage to do that under Walton’s watch. Walton and his staff are supposed to elevate the games of their players. That didn’t happen in Los Angeles all that often and it isn’t happening right now with Bagley III.

What does this all mean? Are the Kings really going to give up on a guy they just drafted second overall not even three years ago? Unlikely (even if they wanted, his value isn’t at a spot to get what I imagine they’d want back in return), but maybe? Are the Kings going to fire *another* coach? Well, you can’t put anything past them, which is much at the root of what ails the Kings. 

They’ve been the laughing stock of the NBA this side of the New York Knicks with meddling and impatient ownership stepping in the way of incompetent management. Not exactly the combination you want, but get with Vivek Ranadive running the show. This cycle has repeated itself again to where we are now. Luke Walton wasn’t the Head Coach when the Kings drafted Bagley III. Current GM Monte McNair wasn’t in the building when that selection occurred either. Neither of those two owes it Marvin Bagley III or his family to see this thing through. But in order for the team to take the kind of steps the teams of other players in his draft, like the Grizzlies, Suns, Hawks, and Mavericks, have taken the last couple of years, the two sides need each other to help Bagley III become the best version of what he can be. If that happens, perhaps the Kings become what we thought they had a chance of being after the 2018-19 season. If not, they’ll be the same-old’ Kings: churning through another head coach and general manager, another missed draft pick, and perhaps another disgruntled star counting down the days to escape the NBA purgatory Sacramento has found itself to be for nearly the last two decades.