When the Los Angeles Lakers acquired veteran point guard Dennis Schroder from the Oklahoma City Thunder this past offseason, there was cautious optimism that he would improve an already stellar roster for the reigning champions.
Sure, Schroder was below average as a shooter in the three seasons prior to his 2019-20 re-breakout, but he'd shown an ability to score dynamically in a number of different team contexts.
Giving up a first-round pick and Danny Green—a reliable, plug-and-play wing who could hit threes and bother the opposition's top offensive threats—was nothing to sneeze at, but the idea of Schroder piloting non-LeBron James minutes was intriguing.
In 2019-20, he thrived in a similar situation. In the 1,000 minutes he played without Chris Paul for the Oklahoma City Thunder, Schroder averaged 23.3 points and 5.8 assists per 75 possessions, while shooting 38.0 percent from three.
If that version of Schroder showed up for the Lakers, this would be a match made in heaven. Things just haven't quite clicked in the way they did last season, though.
Differences between LeBron and Paul don't seem to be an obvious culprit. Schroder is actually getting more drives per game (and per 36 minutes) in 2020-21 than he got in 2019-20. His assist percentage is up too.
Yes, LeBron's recent absence probably has something to do with those boosts, but the point is that Schroder is being trusted with plenty of the offense.
It may seem overly reductive, but the biggest reason for the drop from career highs set in 2019-20 in both box plus/minus and true shooting percentage to marks closer to career norms with L.A. may simply be shot-making.
It is, as they say, a make or miss league.
In context with the rest of his career, Schroder's numbers from deep last season were out of character. His attempts and percentage in 2020-21 are pretty much in line with what he did prior to his run with Paul.
One possible solution to the regression may be hunting more catch-and-shoot opportunities for Schroder. Last season, he took 3.6 catch-and-shoot threes per game and made 41.4 percent of those looks. This season, his marks there are 2.4 attempts with a 37.6 three-point percentage.
It may seem counterintuitive to pursue that, given the decrease in accuracy, but even 37.6 percent on threes yields significantly more points per shot than Schroder's current 46.3 two-point percentage.
More intentional staggering of he and LeBron's minutes might help too.
Prior to the latter's ankle injury, Schroder had a minus-2.3 box plus/minus. For context's sake, Basketball Reference defines a minus-2.0 box plus/minus as "replacement level." Players with a career box plus/minus right at that level include Tyler Hansbrough, Marcus Banks and Anthony Carter, just to name a few.
Since LeBron left the rotation, though, Schroder has a plus-1.2 box plus/minus, thanks to averages of 16.4 points, 7.4 assists, 1.5 threes and 1.5 steals. His 42.9 three-point percentage in those games certainly helps too.
And this difference in production isn't confined to just the past few weeks. Over the whole season, Schroder has been much better when LeBron isn't in the game.
Of course, that's in reference to individual play. The Lakers' net points per 100 possessions tanks whenever LeBron sits (true for each of his three seasons there).
So, it doesn't make sense to scrap Schroder-LeBron minutes altogether. All of LeBron's teammates deserve a little bit of that net rating boost. But going forward, finding more time for Schroder to really run the show could be the key to unlocking the 2019-20 version of the point guard.
If that means eventually moving him to the bench, that could be a hard sell.
"I did this off the bench stuff already for two years with OKC," Schroder said before the season. "I think I will try to move forward, and I think with AD and LeBron, I can be helpful as a starter at the PG position so that LeBron don't have so much stuff in his mind."
The thing is, Schroder has experienced more team success as a reserve. In 2014-15, he backed up Jeff Teague for the 60-win Atlanta Hawks. Last season, he was the runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year. The ability to come in and feast against second units can be a good thing. And, as has been said many times, not starting doesn't have to mean not finishing.
Like he did in OKC with CP3 and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Schroder could still be a fixture of closing lineups for the Lakers.
This isn't to say that LeBron can't coexist with ball-dominant creators. He obviously made it work to the tune of a championship with Kyrie Irving. But Schroder isn't Kyrie, and a lower-usage, better-shooting nominal point guard might make more sense in the starting lineup.
All this may seem a little nitpicky. L.A. is plus-13.3 points per 100 possessions when LeBron, Anthony Davis and Schroder are all on the floor. If they're all healthy for the postseason, the Lakers could very well cruise to a repeat.
But Schroder is in the final season of his current contract. His future with L.A., which has plenty of cap space committed to LeBron and AD for the foreseeable future, is far from set in stone. At 27 years old, this offseason may be his chance to cash in on what winds up the biggest contract of his career.
Would he take a bit of a discount to stay with LeBron and one of the most storied franchises in sports history? Or, will he continue on the upward trajectory he's established in LeBron's absence and prove he's not a discount player?
With about a fifth of the regular season and playoff run ahead of him, there's a lot on the line for the Lakers' point guard.