Finding the Best Lakers' Free-Agent Targets for LeBron James, Anthony Davis

Preston EllisContributor IJune 18, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, right, smiles as he walks past New Orleans Pelicans' Anthony Davis during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Dec. 21, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Shortly after the conclusion of the 2019 NBA Finals, the Los Angeles Lakers came to terms with the New Orleans Pelicans on a mammoth trade that paired LeBron James with superstar running mate and fellow Klutch Sports Group client Anthony Davis.

But where do the Lakers go from there? 

Much has been made over the planned execution date of July 6. But with the expectation that Davis will decline to forego his $4.1 million trade kicker, the Lakers may have only $23.7 million in available cap space to build around him and James, albeit with the room exception ($4.76 million) and veteran minimum deals as additional resources. 

Keeping in mind which players the Lakers can afford, let's analyze the types of fits they should target. 

           

The Backcourt Playmaker

As I previously wrote for Bleacher Report, Davis thrives alongside playmakers capable of facilitating and breaking down defenses. They give him the freedom to take one or two dribbles en route to crashing the glass, falling into a baseline fadeaway or taking a mid-range shot. Creating his own looks is not a tool that best accentuates Davis' talents. In 2018-19, 87.5 percent of his shots came with no more than two dribbles, and that number stood at 90.0 percent in 2017-18.

Let's dig a bit deeper. 

In 2017-18, inarguably Davis' best season, he often shared the floor with Jrue Holiday, Rajon Rondo and DeMarcus Cousins, each of whom averaged at least 5.4 assists. He was more efficient than ever (55.2 effective field-goal percentage) while assisted on 71.5 percent of his makes, even though he converted just 28.5 percent of his unassisted shots.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 22:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans and DeMarcus Cousins #0 of the New Orleans Pelicans walk of the court during a NBA game against the Chicago Bulls at the Smoothie King Center on January 22, 2018 in New Orleans,
Sean Gardner/Getty Images

His usage rate would have been the lowest since 2014-15 before Cousins' untimely injury saw it spike from February on, and his true shooting percentage dropped from 63.0 to 59.2 as a result.

Davis already has one of the game's best playmakers in James. LeBron has dished 6.8 or more assists per game every season since 2013-14. His 30.9 usage rate put him fifth in the NBA last season behind James Harden, Joel Embiid, Devin Booker and Giannis Antetokounmpo. 

James will put Davis in position to succeed and will execute divine pick-and-rolls that see Davis soar above the rim. But as we mentioned earlier, the Lakers need more.

They'd like to add someone of Kemba Walker's ilk but will not have the necessary coin unless they can convince Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin to wait until July 30 to execute the trade and, in doing so, prevent the summer league participation of the fourth overall draft pick. 

Rajon Rondo seems a natural fit to return. Two years ago, he quietly enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career alongside Davis, at least from a shooting perspective. His 51.8 effective field-goal percentage in 2017-18 was the best of his career, and he averaged 8.2 assists to just 2.3 turnovers—his lowest rate in a decade. 

Veronica Dominach/Associated Press

Plus, Rondo wants to come back.

Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times recently discussed the point guard on ESPN LA 710's Mornings with Keyshawn, LZ and Travis (h/t Silver Screen & Roll's Harrison Faigen):

"In the case of Rondo, because he played for them last season, he would be difficult for them to bring back. I think first they want to look to other players, like Seth Curry, for example. Someone like that. There's a lot of guys out there that they would look at, but Rondo is the one that I'm sure they want to bring him back because he played with AD in New Orleans, he played with LeBron James, he improved as a 3-point shooter, and he's a leader, and he's a winner, and he wants to return."

Rondo shouldn't cost much of Los Angeles' available spending power. He earned $3.3 million from the Pelicans in 2017-18 and $9 million with the Lakers in 2018-19, but he should probably land somewhere in between. The room exception ($4.76 million) should do. 

         

The 3-and-D Wing

Let's begin with defense.

Davis and Jrue Holiday abruptly ended the Portland Trail Blazers' season in 2017-18 using perimeter traps on both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, coupled with the rim-protecting help defense of the big man. Holiday and E'Twaun Moore would funnel the playmakers to Davis, who would use his impressive length and leaping ability to swallow shots within 10 feet. 

Rondo is limited defensively at this stage of his career. His minus-1.43 defensive real plus-minus, per ESPN.com, put him 79th among point guards in 2018-19. Even the year before, he was granted a reprieve in New Orleans, regularly assigned to weak jump-shooters such as Evan Turner and Kyle Anderson while Moore and Holiday shouldered much of the backcourt burden.

BOSTON, MA - FEBRUARY 7: Rajon Rondo #9 of the Los Angeles Lakers defends Jayson Tatum #0 of the Boston Celtics on February 7, 2019 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

However, the Lakers' defensive lapses in 2018-19 didn't stem from Rondo alone.

Placing him back on the Staples Center court next season could bring similar problems, but let's not forget how the Pelicans' defensive rating improved under his supervision in 2017-18. They allowed 108.3 points per 100 possessions before the All-Star break when he played in only 43 of the team's first 57 games, and that number improved to 104.9 while he suited up in 22 of 25 contests after the break.

For reference, a yearlong defensive rating of 104.9 would have made the Pelicans the league's fifth-best defense in 2017-18. Nikola Mirotic and Emeka Okafor may have had something to do with the overwhelming improvement, but Rondo's play-calling and veteran instincts contributed in their own right.

Still, he can't have a similar effect without help in the backcourt. The Lakers need to invest in a perimeter defender with the size and power to overwhelm Harden and keep pace with Lillard. 

Now, let's shift to shooting. 

Defenses must constantly account for the backdoor alley-oop when Davis rolls toward the rim, and that gives corner shooters the breathing room they need to make their opponents pay.

Moore and Darius Miller were able to do that for the Pelicans with Davis on the floor in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. In fact, Moore opened the season with a ridiculous 64 percent eFG, including 49 percent from three through the first 14 games, before a lower leg and left quadriceps injury limited his effectiveness.

Meanwhile, Miller was shooting 38.6 percent from beyond the arc before he slipped under 34 percent for the remainder of the season after Davis' trade demand on Jan. 28. He shot 41.1 percent from deep in 2017-18, including 43.8 percent from the left corner

Ben Margot/Associated Press

Danny Green is the perfect candidate to alleviate both needs.

Green enters free agency after winning his second title alongside Kawhi Leonard—this time with the Toronto Raptors—and he checks all the boxes for Los Angeles. His 2.09 DRPM put him third among all guards, behind only Jimmy Butler and Chris Paul, and it would also place him eighth among all perimeter defenders. 

Additionally, the 31-year-old was second to Joe Harris among all qualified players in three-point shooting (45.5 percent). He shot over 47 percent from both corners and even made his above-the-break attempts at a 42.2 percent clip. 

Like Davis, Green is at his best when benefitting from the creation of his teammates, and more than 80 percent of his buckets came off assists in 2018-19. He's the perfect complementary player to space the floor and do the dirty work in Los Angeles. 

     

The Floor-Spacing Big

While LeBron may eventually man the 4 while Davis occupies the 5, the Lakers would be better off starting a natural center on opening night. 

Davis has spent a good portion of his career alongside Cousin, Okafor and Omer Asik, among others, and he has been known to be resistant to the constant banging of heavy-bodied players such as Steven Adams: 

Physical play in the low post is not the skill for which Davis is celebrated. He's a jump-shooting slasher with the size and length to alter shots on the defensive end and reach over defenses on the offensive side.

In order to maximize his talents, the Lakers will need a big who can bang down low on the opponent's side and space the floor along with Danny Green—or another sharp-shooting free-agency addition—on the offensive end. 

Mirotic should be the first to attract the Lakers' attention.

He isn't considered a natural 5 on defense, but his effectiveness in the pick-and-roll—both offensively and defensively—makes him a fit alongside LeBron and Davis. He can attack closeouts with ferocity when the defense bites on his pump from the corner and will make them pay if they don't; he shot 39.6 percent from the corner this season. Then again, he may be deadliest from above the break, where he hit 36.1 percent of his 263 shots.

Like both Davis and Green, Mirotic needs a bit of help getting his looks. He required assists on 82.8 percent of his made baskets this year, 63.8 percent of his looks came in catch-and-shoot situations and he took 79.3 percent of his shots without dribbling.

While a more natural 4, Mirotic could be interchangeable with Davis and James on the wing, giving the Lakers three lethal options from which they could choose on each end. But most importantly, he's not afraid to take the physical toll Davis may resist.

Mirotic is also a solid rebounding big and shot-blocker, but his main responsibility would be setting picks, boxing out and drilling threes.

A player such as Brook Lopez may be a better fit, and Los Angeles does have reported interest in a reunion, as ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin reported on The Hoop Collective podcast (h/t Silver Screen & Roll's Sabreena Merchant). But ESPN.com's Malika Andrews reported in late May that bringing him back into the fold is a "priority" for the Milwaukee Bucks

All statistics from NBA.com, Basketball Reference or ESPN.com unless noted. 


Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix joins Howard Beck on this week's Full 48 podcast to discuss the Lakers' monumental trade for Anthony Davis, and the league's new balance of power. 

     

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