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The New-Look Lakers Guards Are Balling

Oh, how it must feel to have a competent guard play in Los Angeles if you’re a Lakers fan. For the majority of this season, Los Angeles touted a backcourt rotation that featured Russell Westbrook, Patrick Beverly, Dennis Schroder, Lonnie Walker, and Austin Reaves. They’ve since upgraded that rotation to D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley, Austin Reaves, and Dennis Schroder, with Walker falling out of the rotation.

To say it’s been a revelation might be an understatement. The Lakers have won 7 of their last 10 games. They have the 3rd-best defense post-All-Star break. They’re finally beginning to shoot the ball with commendable efficiency. And they’re right in the mix to at least compete in a play-in game this April, even with LeBron James out for an extended period of time. 

The play of Anthony Davis has been absurd since the unofficial midway break of the season, averaging 25.3 points on 62% true shooting, nabbing 13 rebounds, and blocking over 2.5 shots a game. Jarred Vanderbilt has been remarkably effective at being Jarred Vanderbilt since being acquired by the Lakers. That is to say, a long, defensive-minded, rebounding-machine, weak-side deterrent, who is going to try and guard your best player on the court, Jarred Vanderbilt. And Rui Hachimura has been a solid contributor, feasting on a healthy diet of mid-range jumpers and playing commendable defense.

But without the new-and-improved Lakers guard rotation, those three would be lost in the wind. To widely varying degrees, all three of Davis, Vando, and Hachimura serve as play-finishers for these revamped Lakers. But the Lakers’ guards allow for their ecosystem to flourish. Beasley as the incumbent floor-spacer. Reaves and Schroder as secondary creators and connectors. And perhaps most importantly, the floor managing and pick-n-roll play of D-Lo.

In the end, it all comes down to space.

I recently watched the Bill Russell documentary on Netflix (would recommend it if you like hoops history as I do) and among the many things the great Russell understood, particularly on a basketball court, was that the game was simply… geometry.

More space means more room to operate. Better for offenses. At its core, that’s what these new Lakers guards provide.

Russell is shooting 47% from behind the arc on 6 attempts a night. Malik Beasley is having a down year knocking down only 33% of his threes but he’s a career 38% shooter who will get his fair share of respect from defenses. Reaves is hitting 38% of his threes this season on low volume and has been hitting 46% of them since the All-Star break.

You have to respect these guys as shooters and so, it’s much easier, geometrically, to run a pick-n-roll between Davis and Russell than it is with Westbrook in Davis’s role.

For example, a side PnR with Westbrook and Davis from February.

And now a high PnR between Russell and Davis from their game on Sunday versus the Knicks.

Look at the sheer cubic difference in space. What Russell provides as their primary floor general without LeBron on the court is ultimately the swing factor for these Lakers.

Russell’s own ability to space the floor and put pressure on defenses with his own scoring gravity provides a plethora of opportunities for Davis… but it also helps open things up for everyone. He can bend and manipulate defenses. His probing style helps him find an optimal shot, most of the time.

Watch this play. First a PnR with Vando and D-Lo, then Russell maneuvers into a PnR with Davis, and with the defense focused on those two rollers, he dishes it to Schroder who times an excellent ram cut for the finish.

What makes Russell’s play even more important to the Lakers is that he can oscillate between multiple different responsibilities without really compromising playing time for the rest of the guard rotation. He can be your primary ball handler, or he can be off-ball spacing the floor for you.

And it’s great because the rest of the Lakers’ guard rotation can do the same. (Outside of Beasley who has an entirely different role as a spot-up threat that can stretch the defense even more).

In fact, just to touch on Beasley quickly — his role will be even more pivotal when James returns. As a movement shooter who can work off of DHOs, spot-up, or relocate on a broken play and attack a closeout with some purpose, he has all the makings of being a perfect LeBron James teammate. But he’s also essential to this pace & space style they’re playing right now. In fact, he is an enabler.

At the same time, Schroder is as offensive-minded as a guard can get. Just like in that play you watched his primary objective when he’s out on the floor is to put pressure on moving defenses. And while his shot selection leaves a lot to be desired at times, he provides a punch off the bench.

He too can probe, bending defenses with PnR actions or he can be off-ball, ready to attack a lackadaisical closeout or hit an open shot.

Schroder’s exploits are well-documented. It’s Reaves where things get really interesting.

The 2nd-year guard has mostly been a connective piece for the Lakers since arriving in LA. He’s fared extremely well next to LeBron James as a guy who’s been willing to make the extra pass, fight through screens and do all the dirty work. But as of late, his game has expanded… especially offensively.

Reaves has been honing his craft as an off-ball player, attacking closeouts and making quick decisions out of his opportunities. But this season Darvin Ham has put the ball in his hands more, asking him to make reads out of the pick-n-roll, look for and create his own shot, and most importantly: pose as a threat offensively.

He’s excelled in that department, averaging 15 points and 5 assists post-all-star break and as mentioned above, he’s knocking down a lot of his threes.

So Reaves can come off a pin-down into a pick-n-roll with Wenyen Gabriel and dump it off to him for the finish.

Or be the ball-handler in these staggered screen actions with Russell and Davis and have the passing chops to connect on this alley-oop.

And it helps that he can put the ball on the floor and do this.

So between Russell, Reaves, Schroder, and Beasley the Lakers have 4 guards who can handle the ball, play off-the-ball, create shots for themselves (and in the case of 3 of them, create shots for others) while also being able to shoot at a proficient clip.

What that ends up resulting in is a high-octane offense, built off the back of dribble penetration, pick-n-roll advantages, and potent pull-up shooting and so far, the Lakers guards have delivered. I mean just ask the Raptors who let those 4 combine for 73 points last week in Los Angeles.

What potentially makes this even more interesting is how it all looks when the Lakers’ incumbent star returns. This is probably the most offensive firepower he’s had from the guard spot in his time in Los Angeles and I don’t think it’s particularly close. LeBron has always been at his best with multiple ball handlers and shooters who can work off of the advantages he creates while also creating shots for themselves and now… the Lakers have that.

Let’s see how far it can take them.