Welcome to the opening day of the 2021-22 NBA season, Lakers fans.
As we get ready to watch the Lakers take on the Warriors tonight in game number one of the regular season, I wanted to analyze which players on the team would have the most impact on their title chances this year.
And this is, in fact, a ranking of “impact” as opposed to “talent”. These 14 players are ranked based on the total impact that I think each player could have on them winning a championship. I may think a player ranked 10th is better overall than a player ranked 6th, but in a perfect world of these players meeting (or exceeding) the expectations of their roles, I think the 6th-ranked player will have more of an impact than the 10th-ranked player based on the construction of the roster.
Enough explaining. Onto the rankings, starting with the Laker that I think will have the least amount of impact on the Lakers winning it all.
15. DeAndre Jordan
Although DeAndre Jordan may have some positive impacts on the Lakers this season in the form of being a great teammate in the locker room, I don’t foresee him having a substantial impact on the court this year.
Sure, he does provide a lob threat at the center position that the team did not have last year. However, DJ has definitely lost nearly all of that other-worldly bounce that he had in his Clippers days. Adding to that, he might be the worst defender on the team — a team that includes Wayne Ellington, Carmelo Anthony, and Russell Westbrook.
Even if he surprises and can be a net neutral defender at the least, he seems destined to receive nearly zero playoff minutes in a potential playoff run given the 2020 NBA Playoffs that saw similar things happen to Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee.
14. Avery Bradley
He was just signed back to the team yesterday, so excuse me for having limited thoughts on him. He comes to the team on a non-guaranteed deal, with the Lakers needing to decide by January 7th whether or not they want to guarantee his deal for the rest of the season. Although I do think he could have an impact early on in the season given the current minor and major injuries to the team’s guards and wings, I also foresee the team releasing him prior to January 7th to try and get someone in the buyout market who is more a wing than a guard.
13. Rajon Rondo
Look, I know what you’re thinking. I’m doubting the impact of “Playoff Rondo” once the early summer months come around in 2022.
However, there’s just little-to-no opportunity for that super Saiyan form of Rondo to appear in the 2022 NBA Playoffs this season. The door was always open on the 2019-20 roster, but this roster has a new player you guys might have heard of in Russell Westbrook.
Frank Vogel already likened Rondo to being this team’s Jared Dudley, saying he could be a player that impacts the team with leadership while not playing as much. I’d argue that if Rondo does have a substantial, positive impact on the team’s play while earning a decent amount of minutes, that will have meant that many of the upcoming names were either injured or fell extremely short of Rob Pelinka’s expectations. That would more than likely spell doom for the team’s title chances.
12. Wayne Ellington, 11. Austin Reaves, 10. Malik Monk, 9. Kendrick Nunn
I’m going to talk about the above four players all at once, as I’m just not sure which players will have more impact on the team compared to the other. Aside from Wayne Ellington (3rd percentile in D-LEBRON last year per B-Ball Index), I believe all three players can be serviceable for Vogel’s defense.
I especially struggled with Ellington’s place in this entire list. He easily presents the most drastic difference in possible offensive contributions (career 38.2% from three with a 42.2% clip last season) and probable defensive deficiencies. Given his extremely poor defensive metrics and this being a team led by Vogel, I feel mildly comfortable with him at 12.
However, just as I think the players at spots 9-11 could switch around from how well they pair together defensive efficiency and three-point shooting, I could see Ellington making me regret his spot on this list if he proves to be a decent cog in Vogel’s defensive system.
I put Nunn in front of Monk and Reaves due to him being faster than those two, as I think he could do a nice impression of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with chasing opposing scorers as they run around screen-after-screen.
8. Carmelo Anthony
The most important thing to me from all of the Lakers’ role players is that they don’t hurt the team on the defensive end (the players in spots 4-7 are players who I think could positively affect the team’s defensive performance).
I do think Carmelo Anthony will hurt the Lakers on the defensive end more than the names at the 9-11 spots preceding him. However, I have him at 8th above those players due to Trevor Ariza’s injury that will keep him out until he’s re-evaluated in six-to-eight weeks. Given the fact that Ariza is 36 years old with plenty of mileage on his legs, I could see his absence lasting even longer than expected.
That causes an immense need for Melo to provide some quality defensive minutes at the four position. Other than LeBron James and Anthony Davis, Frank Vogel does not have other options at the four aside from Melo. He will play heavy minutes there with Ariza out, and if he plays poorly on defense like he did in the preseason, there will be a lot of points scored on the Lakers early in the season.
Even with the defensive worries, Carmelo probably does deserve a spot higher than his predecessors on this list due to the fact that Carmelo is a BUCKET (shout out Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen & Roll). Even when Ariza returns and Carmelo’s minutes are slightly reduced (I think Carmelo has a large role even with Ariza’s return), there’s a good chance that Carmelo erupts at least once during a playoff series. With that possible scoring outburst, Carmelo could single-handily steal a game in the Lakers’ favor. That type of scoring ability should not be taken for granted in the playoffs, even if the defensive limitations are there.
7. Dwight Howard, 6. Trevor Ariza
I think the above two players are perfect at the 6th and 7th spots of this list due to the baseline of their defensive abilities.
Dwight Howard will be needed this season at times against some of the West’s best centers such as Rudy Gobert and DeAndre Ayton, as Anthony Davis cannot spend a considerable amount of time banging with those fellas in the post. This idea is shown prominently if you go back and watch the Lakers’ Western Conference Finals series against the Nuggets, as Dwight was a godsend for Vogel to have against Nikola Jokic.
Although he is old, I do think Trevor Ariza could thrive in Vogel’s defense once he returns. If it wasn’t for Ariza backing up doubters’ thoughts on his abilities to finish a season unscathed, I might even have him in the 4th spot due to his defense in the past few years (something I wrote about for Silver Screen & Roll).
5. Talen Horton-Tucker
Before the preseason started and THT had surgery to repair a torn ligament in his thumb, Frank Vogel went out of his way during Spectrum SportsNet’s “Lakeshow” podcast to glowingly talk about the 20-year-old player coming into his third season.
In the podcast, Vogel said THT was being “challenged” on the defensive end, even going as far to say that he might be tasked at times to cover the opposing team’s best player.
This gave hints as to what position THT would mostly play in the season when combined with the way the roster was constructed. Rob Pelinka loaded the team at the 1 and 2 positions with Russ, Rondo, Nunn, Monk, and others, as the team immediately looked light in the wing position. However, THT could make the wing his home this season with his insane length and weight, sporting a 6’4″ height, 234-pound weight, and an insane 7’1″ wingspan.
He has the physical tools to be an adequate wing defender, and if he is that or more, that would quickly dispel worries for a Lakers defense that lost a lot on the perimeter in the offseason. Sadly, we’ll have to wait to see if THT is up to the challenge, but if he is, we will be singing his praises at a possible trophy ceremony in the future.
4. Kent Bazemore
Kent Bazemore’s claim as the most impactful Laker role player can be seen in everything I’ve previously said regarding this team’s defense.
He’s the player I’m most confident in defensively aside from Anthony Davis (more on him soon). I’ll just let his Perimeter Defense metrics from B-Ball Index do the talking.
He also might be the second-best three-point shooter on the team behind Ellington as he ranked in the 86th and 92nd percentiles in the entire NBA last season in catch-and-shoot and above-the-break three-point shooting, respectively (also per B-Ball Index).
If he follows through with what Pelinka and Vogel expect of him, I expect Bazemore to be the player most often starting and closing games along with the three players left on this list.
3. Russell Westbrook, 2. Anthony Davis, 1. LeBron James
Are you surprised about the remaining three names on the list? Probably not. Are you surprised about their order? Probably not, but I could have got cute with these final three. The argument would have been that an extremely successful season from Russell Westbrook or Anthony Davis could end up being the x-factor for the Lakers winning a championship.
I personally think that line of thinking comes from a place of assumption that LeBron James will continue to be what he has been as a Laker in year 19. Sadly, nothing is for certain.
Just as fans salivate at the idea of players like Carmelo Anthony getting easy looks due to playing around LeBron, Davis, and Westbrook, I believe the same type of additional easy looks will happen for LeBron with Westbrook now in tow.
If LeBron can stay healthy and play with the same assertiveness, tenacity, and efficiency we’ve seen from him in three seasons with the Lakers, that will always be the trump card the team holds over teams in their way.
But again, it’s not a guarantee anymore that LeBron can stay healthy. His two worst injuries of his career have come in his time as a Laker with the groin injury in the 2018-19 season (20 games missed before being shut down for rest of season) and the right ankle sprain last season (26 games missed). You can say that they were freak injuries, but they’re probably more indicative of a man with over 50,000 NBA minutes on his body.
Although it’s only the preseason (something LeBron really doesn’t care about), Lakers fans can take solace in his final game prior to the regular season. In that loss against the Kings, LeBron had 30 points, six assists, and six rebounds in only 30 minutes played.
Anthony Davis still has to return to his 2020 NBA Playoff ways — on offense AND defense. The team still has to figure out how to unlock the offensive spacing so Russell Westbrook can be the Russ we’ve seen accumulate triple-doubles in recent years.
But still, I think the Lakers can afford to not have the above at times throughout the season.
They need LeBron to be the LeBron we’re accustomed to. At nearly all times.
Now, if all the above hypotheticals happen with the three players, especially throughout the entire 2022 playoffs…then the Lakers will probably finally get that parade.