Full disclosure

I was in the middle of writing a completely different piece, but saw that LeBron and the Lakers just agreed to a contract extension. Given that, it made me think that a Russ trade may be coming soon. With that in mind, I felt it was more important to prioritize the messaging in this piece.

In a world of rivalries, it’s difficult to admit when your chief rival is succeeding where you are not. It may even more difficult to take the blinders off and try to learn what they are doing well and copy it. Rivalries are emotional, yet removing bias from our thinking can provide a clear path forward. The Lakers/Celtics rivalry is no exception to that.

In terms of championships, the most avid Lakers fan might point out the Celtics haven’t won one since 2008 and, prior to that, none since the 1980s. The Lakers have won 3 championships since that Celtics title in 2008, the most recent in 2020. So by that measure, the Lakers have been clearly superior.

But when examining the current state of each team’s roster, it’s clear that the Celtics have a greater probability of winning a championship next season unless the Lakers do something brilliant.

What roster advantages do the Celtics have?

  1. Depth built around 2 very good wings in Jaylen Brown and star player, Jayson Tatum.
  2. The reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, who may not even be the best defensive player on his team.
  3. A starting 5 that includes 2 bigs (Al Horford and Robert Williams III) who are among the top 10 defensive players in the league (see screenshot below from our Leaderboards Tool).

What roster advantages do the Lakers have?

  1. Two guys who, when healthy, are 2 of the most dynamic superstars in the game in LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
  2. Russ’ expiring contract.
  3. I think that pretty much covers it.

Much has been made about the Lakers (and all NBA teams, for that matter) needing defensive wings, especially if they can shoot. You look at the Clippers for example, with Kawhi, Paul George, and the duo of Nic Batum and Robert Covington, 3&D Wings covered in our recent BBall Index Podcast, and can’t help but consider them a favorite next season.

What about the Celtics am I recommending the Lakers copy? Get more wings like Brown and Tatum? Not gonna happen. There’s a supply and demand issue with wings in the NBA.

Maximizing Skills That Matter

No, instead my recommendation is to look at the 2-center lineup with Al Horford and Robert Williams. Emulating this will go a long way toward vaulting the Lakers defense near the top of the standings. Before I get pushback, I do want to share that I compared every defensive metric available (on-ball defense, steals, defensive rebounding, help activity, off ball chaser, etc.) and found that the one stat that has a strong correlation with a high defensive impact (via D-LEBRON) rating is Rim Protection, as we can see in the chart below from our Headshots & Scatter Plots Tool:

Plot out any other metric on defense and you won’t see the strong relationship that rim protection has with defensive impact (via D-LEBRON). My conclusion is that Rim Protection is the single most important defensive stat when it comes to building successful and versatile defensive schemes.

If we try this same exercise with On-Ball Defense, the relationship between that skill and defensive impact is nowhere near what we see with Rim Protection:

At the risk of being repetitive, I will encourage you to again look at the top 10 players in D-LEBRON (below) and notice how many of them are rim-protecting Bigs. Robert Covington, the one non-Big on this list, still ranks in the 80th percentile in Rim Protection in the entire NBA (and 89th percentile when compared to starting wings).

When you look at the 2 non-anchor bigs, you will see 2 familiar names: Al Horford and Robert Williams III. When we dig into the stats, we find out why the combination of these guys makes them successful.  And as you’ll see, there is something that is better than rim protection or on-ball defense – being able to do both!

Al Horford

With Al Horford, the one thing that surprises me is that he was a poor post defender this last season. But maybe that’s not terribly important given how NBA offenses have moved away from traditional post play (unless you’ve got a Joel Embiid on your roster). What makes Horford successful is his rim protection combined with his mobility. This mobility translates to the perimeter, where he is also an elite on-ball defender as well as being excellent at ball screen navigation.

From the Player Profiles tab in our Leaderboards Tool:

Robert Williams

Now we move to Robert Williams III. I remember during the 2018 draft, looking at his measured 40 inch vertical, 6’10”, 240 lbs. muscular frame, and 7.5” wingspan and thinking, “This dude basically has the measurements of a young Dwight Howard. He should be a defensive monster.” While Williams clearly didn’t have the immediate impact that a young Dwight had, he plays an absolutely critical role in the construction of Boston’s elite defense.

As you can see in the data below, Williams is a better post defender than Horford, a super elite rim protector, and easily matches Horford’s mobility. In fact, when you review all of the perimeter stats, you can make an argument that he is an even better perimeter defender than Horford.

What this combination of players enables is a highly versatile defense. When one big has to jump out of the paint to rotate and/or guard the perimeter, the other can remain in position to provide elite rim protection. It makes it difficult for opposing teams to drive to the basket and either score or create some sort of mismatch/open shot due to a collapsing defense. The perimeter defenders can stay up on their guys and guard the 3-point line while being less concerned about blow-bys because they have 2 elite defenders covering for them.

And when one of them is beat on the perimeter, the other can step up to defend the rim behind them as the original defender peels off with size and rim protection ability to recover to potential dump offs in a way you don’t see when it’s a much smaller player peeling off the on-ball player.

Laker Daydreaming

Imagine if the Lakers could say that: the perimeter players can stay up on their man because they have 2 elite defenders covering for them. They do already have Anthony Davis, a perennial NBA Defensive Player of the Year candidate when he’s healthy. Davis is an elite rim protector and highly mobile. It’s insane watching him jump from the paint to the perimeter and back to the paint again in a matter of seconds on the defensive end.

So who am I recommending as the 2nd big to pair with Davis? Is it Thomas Bryant? When Bryant was first drafted by the Lakers, he was 6’10” with a 7’6” wingspan and some ability to hit 3-pointers. The idea was that he would develop into the modern NBA big – an elite rim protector who could hit threes. That sounds extremely valuable, especially next to Anthony Davis, who can punish opposing players inside on the offensive end. Unfortunately, the theory of Thomas Bryant hasn’t played out in reality yet (primarily due to injury, I believe). I was pleased to see the Lakers resign him this summer, but to expect him to suddenly have a massive defensive impact when he previously hasn’t is unrealistic and unfair to him.

Am I talking about pairing Damian Jones with Anthony Davis? I like Damian Jones. He has some defensive talent (including elite rim protection) and will be a valuable player on this roster, but he is only in the 79th percentile in D-LEBRON – very good, but not very great.

There’s also one key limitation with Jones – his offensive spacing skill set. Playing alongside Jones, AD needs to play PF. That’s been a position his teams have performed worse in offensively compared to him as a Center. Unless either Jones or AD magically become a credible 3-point shooter at a decent volume, there’s a limitation here.

The Perfect Candidate

So who am I talking about as the Lakers 2nd big to pair next to Anthony Davis? Let’s (for the 3rd time) look again at the top 10 in D-LEBRON (below). Who is number 4 on that list? Myles Turner. By now, anybody who has been paying any attention to Russell Westbrook trade scenarios knows that one of the potential options involves a trade for Myles Turner and Buddy Hield.

Myles Turner is the elite defensive center I recommend putting next to Anthony Davis. I wrote about this trade previously here. Like I mentioned, I was working on a completely different article this morning and then I saw that LeBron agreed to an extension with the Lakers. Concerned that a Russ trade might be coming any minute, this was my last ditch plea for the Turner/Hield trade. This current article makes the argument from a different perspective than my previous one, so hopefully you will find any repetition to be minimal.

Turner is not only an exceptional defender (see stats below), but is a decent enough 3 point shooter to open up the floor for Davis, and a good enough post player to let Davis step outside. Turner’s C grade 3PT Shot Quality (and very long distance 3s) can be improved.  With a tweak that pushes him more towards stationary catch & shoot 3s and fewer pull-ups and movement 3s, you can get valuable spacing from him.

Because of what they also bring on the offensive end, I would consider a pairing of Turner/Davis to be superior to Horford/Williams III. In fact, I’d consider a front court of Turner/Davis/LeBron to be the best front court in the league, which would put significantly less stress on the rest of the roster.

Pairing AD with a player that can play PF offensively and Center defensively has been the best way to optimize him in his career. We saw that with Marc Gasol a few years back. It also makes LA’s lack of trustable wing defense easier to stomach, with strong rim protectors behind that front line and also opening up AD to take on some Wing Stopper duties when needed.

Quite honestly, without the defensive versatility of this frontcourt and the ability to jump start the offensive by adding Turner and Hield, I don’t see another realistic trade scenario that would enable the Lakers to compete with Golden State, the Clippers, Phoenix, Denver, Milwaukee, and Boston. But with these additions, it would be much easier for Coach Darvin Ham to develop defensive schemes that have a better chance of neutralizing what opposing offenses are trying to do.

Lakers executives, this is my final plea for this trade. In fairness, I do not know what trade options you actually have on the table, but based on what has been reported (including a potential trade with the Nets), Turner/Hield feels like the superior transaction to make.

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