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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.

The notion that the Green Bay Packers ‘wasted’ the prime of all-time great quarterback Aaron Rodgers has irked me as a fan of the Packers. Rodgers has had more playoff losses come from the last play of that certain game than not. He’s always had a stellar offensive line and at least one All-Pro caliber receiver to throw to for just about all his tenure. He now has a running game after years without one. The Packers’ defense has stabilized into competence at the very least, but not good enough to get over the hump. That was a big reason why they couldn’t get past the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game earlier this January.

Yet there surely were seasons that Aaron Rodgers dragged the Packers single-handedly into places they didn’t belong. The 2016 season is a prime example. After starting the season 4-6 with a running game so barren that Rodgers trailed converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery by just 88 yards for the team’s most rushing yards on the season and a secondary so decimated that poor LaDarius Gunter was forced to shadow cover the great Julio Jones, which went about as well as the Hulk trying to fight Thanos in ‘Infinity War.’ Despite it all, Rodgers still carried that team to the NFC Championship, where they got routed by Julio and crew by a final score of 44-21. That Packers team had no business being there, but in a results-oriented business, success buys you time. Rodgers dragging that team (and the next couple of Packers teams after that in seasons where Rodgers didn’t get injured) into the playoffs bought then-head coach Mike McCarthy and the late general manager Ted Thompson extra seasons despite hindsight suggesting they should’ve been gone long before. 

Which gets us to Portland. It would’ve been very easy for the Portland Trail Blazers to fire now-fired head coach Terry Stotts in the summer of 2018 after the Anthony Davis-led New Orleans Pelicans wiped the floor with them in a dejecting four-game sweep despite being the lower seed in that series. Reports suggest Stotts nearly was in fact canned after that series but survived the flames after Lillard went to bat for him. Lillard’s faith in Stotts was repaid with a trip to the Western Conference Finals, but they were swept there too against a Kevin Durant-less Golden State Warriors squad despite holding a lead in every fourth quarter of that series.

Things have stagnated drastically since then. It isn’t much of a surprise; the Blazers have a predictable, pick-and-roll-laden offense without a competent defense to back it up. Portland’s possessions were consumed by pick-and-rolls at the 7th-most frequent rate during the regular season, according to NBA.com. They have been in the top ten in that department in every season since the 2015-16 season. Now, it does make sense to play to your players’ strengths, and Lillard is one of the best we have in the league today at slicing defenses in the pick-and-roll, but more variety has been needed, especially without much of a defense to hold the Blazers’ offense down. Since the 2015-16 season, the Blazers have finished with a top ten defense just one time and that was the year they got swept by the Pelicans in the first round. This season they finished 29th in the NBA in defensive rating. If you’re asking yourself if it is bad that only one team was worse than you in something, I’d like to entrench in your brain that yes, that is very very bad.

To be fair, the Blazers have tried to bolster their defense. Trading for Jusuf Nurkic to anchor the rim worked out at first, but he hasn’t been anywhere near the same on that end since breaking his leg. They signed Derrick Jones Jr. using their midlevel exception in the 2020 offseason, but he (strangely) got worked out of the rotation. The Blazers traded two first-round picks for Robert Covington, but I never understood that move either. Covington had routinely been hunted in his previous playoff expenditures. Despite averaging more than a steal and a block a game, Covington is not an elite 1v1 stopper, which is what the Blazers. Trading two first-round picks for him was like an NFL team asking a safety to go shadow an opposing team’s best wide receiver. The fit just wasn’t there, and Covington’s arrival did not help the Blazers’ defense much at all, which is a shame because just a couple of players who would’ve been available with Portland’s first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, to name a few) could’ve helped in this regard immediately while still having the talent to develop. Trading Gary Trent Jr. for Norman Powell seemed like a lateral move in this regard too. Once Jones Jr. starting racking up DNP-CDs, there was no one left on Portland’s roster that they could count on to get stops. It was all too evident in the Blazers’ first-round series against a decimated Denver Nuggets roster. Sure, it is difficult to stop presumptive MVP Nikola Jokic, but once he’d get Jusuf Nurkic in foul trouble (which happened in every game the Blazers lost in this series), there’d be nothing left to stop Jokic from steamrolling through everybody, freeing up opportunities for his teammates. It would be one thing to get burnt by Jamal Murray; Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris, and Austin Rivers doing it to ya is completely unacceptable.

That leads me to the Blazers’ front office. I don’t feel like GM Neil Olshey has gotten enough heat for the Blazers’ yearly underachieving outside of Lillard. So many pieces on this team are redundant: what do Norman Powell and Anfernee Simons provide that they don’t already have in Dame’s backcourt running mate in CJ McCollum? How is it satisfactory to think a Carmelo Anthony – Enes Kanter frontcourt can get enough stops against anybody to think it’s a good idea to pair them together. With how valuable first-round picks are, is Robert Covington really worth two of them? I haven’t even mentioned how Olshey signed Evan Turner, Meyers Leonard, Maurice Harkless, and Al-Farouq Aminu to big, cap-draining deals in the summer of the cap spike in 2016. His drafting has often missed the mark for me as well. Trading up to acquire Zach Collins in 2017 has turned out to be a great move (he traded the picks that became Justin Jackson and Harry Giles III to get Collins); it isn’t Olshey’s fault that Collins has been perpetually injured. But drafting Anfernee Simons, for as talented as he is, as a turbo-charged scoring combo guard when you already have two players starting in that mold was puzzling instead of emphasizing defense. Do you think Robert Williams III, Mitchell Robinson, or De’Anthony Melton wouldn’t be useful there? Olshey did also draft Gary Trent Jr. in the second round, but still. The 2019 Draft wasn’t exactly rosy either. Five-star top ten recruit Nassir Little fell farther than he probably should’ve in that draft, but the book on him was that he was a very raw prospect. A team that looks at itself as a contender doesn’t have time to develop raw players like Little, especially since the Blazers don’t have a G League team. Keldon Johnson, Kevin Porter Jr., Daniel Gafford, and Terance Mann all got drafted after Little, and all except for Porter Jr. (who would also be quite redundant on this team) contributed towards their teams’ efforts of competing in the postseason. The urgency to surround Lillard with players that fit around him and fix the glaring holes of the roster has been nonexistent. Terry Stotts did not do enough to get the job done as the head coach, but he also always had to deal with a flawed roster from the start of seasons. That isn’t his fault. Olshey has to do better or else he’ll be the next to go (if he even gets the chance that Stotts didn’t get).

The Blazers are down their 2021 first-round pick but will have all their picks after that. The Blazers are already capped out with contracts due to Norman Powell and Zach Collins or risk losing them for nothing. Only Anfernee Simons could have positive trade value on their roster outside of CJ McCollum, but there aren’t many paths to getting an upgrade at the talent and fit without dealing extra assets alongside McCollum himself. If McCollum’s trade market proves cool, would Portland seriously consider their franchise icon in Damian Lillard? It probably wouldn’t come without Lillard himself asking out, but he’s been hell-bent on staying in Portland up to this point. I don’t think it’s impossible, however. It would be a crushing blow if that were to happen. But no one would blame Lillard for making that move. Portland has done little to nothing right to bolster his surrounding cast. The path to a championship looks as arduous as walking a tightrope that is connecting two cliffs with miles of separation in between. It might (likely?) never come for a player who has given his all for that team and that city.

The Trail Blazers need change. The change probably should’ve come a few years ago but is coming now. More should be forthcoming. Damian Lillard has dragged the Portland Trail Blazers into the postseason for multiple years now. The Blazers need to give him a better cast to help him compete deep into the playoffs. Failing to do so will mean squandering the great gifts and talents their franchise icon possesses.