After LeBron James lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs last season for the first time in his career, big changes were bound to come to the Los Angeles Lakers. The splashiest, of course, was the blockbuster acquisition of former MVP and all-time triple-double leader Russell Westbrook. But Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo also returned to the team on one-year deals after contributing to L.A.’s 2020 title run, and all three will spell and support the star duo of James and Anthony Davis.
But this collection of drivers and big men needs some perimeter firepower. Enter another new Laker: Carmelo Anthony.
The 18-year veteran enters this season ranked 10th all-time in league scoring and ready to bolster the Lakers’ second unit with his catch-and-shoot game. He set a career-low scoring average last season with the Portland Trail Blazers at 13.4 points per game, but he also registered the best overall 3-point percentage of his long career (40.9). The Lakers have lacked that range — they’ve ranked no better than 21st in outside shooting percentage since James came to town, and their 3-point shooting dropped even further during last year’s playoffs, from 35.4 to 29.9 percent.
As the team pursues an NBA-record 18th banner, easy buckets inside will be the Lakers’ bread and butter. Including the playoffs, James averaged 13.6 drives per game en route to his fourth ring two seasons ago, but that figure fell to 10.2 last year. Davis’ regular-season scoring average last year (21.8) was his lowest since the 2013-14 season, his second as a pro. During L.A.’s 2020 postseason run, Davis kept defenses honest by shooting 45 percent on jumpers. That figure fell to 24 percent in his 2021 playoffs, which were marred by a groin injury.
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Davis wasn’t alone in that regression. The Lakers’ collective field-goal percentage on jumpers last postseason fell to 29 percent from 37 percent during their 2020 title run. Relying on an array of drivers and finishers will certainly carry L.A.’s offense far, but effective frontcourt floor-spacing can only aid its playmakers in dissecting defenses.
Anthony, who enters this season with the highest point total among NBA players without a Finals appearance, has been pensive about helping his new team return to championship form.
“Every year, we all come in saying we want to win a championship,” he said during the NBA’s media day last week. “I am coming in with a championship on my mind. I think we all know this is the one thing that I am missing. This is the one thing that keeps me up at night; it motivates me, because I don’t have it. I want to experience the ups and downs of a championship team and a championship season.”
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As he has transitioned to a bench role, Anthony has adjusted from an iso-heavy scorer to a solid catch-and-shoot 3-point threat in recent years. His efficiency on such shots last regular season and playoffs (41.7 percent shooting) was better than the Lakers 25th-ranked mark as a team (35.8).
He should get plenty of help from his teammates in finding that shot. James, Westbrook and Rondo all rank in the top 14 on the league’s all-time assists list. Over the last five seasons, including the playoffs, only James Harden has assisted on more catch-and-shoot 3-pointers (931) than James (848) and Westbrook (844).
In the vein of knocking down catch-and-shoot threes, Anthony can help his team by maximizing possessions without dominating the ball. Among 195 players with at least 2,000 touches across last regular season and playoffs, he ranked 39th in points per chance (1.058) but 105th in average touch length (2.86 seconds). Anthony’s nimble footwork from the moment he catches the pass and balance on his shot are key to his quick and efficient maneuvers around contests. In Game 5 of Portland’s first-round series against Denver, he illustrated this skill by side-stepping Markus Howard just in time to avoid Austin Rivers’s help defense.
In the following game, CJ McCollum split a Nuggets’ double-team before finding Anthony and his quick release in the corner, where he sported a higher 3-point percentage (39.8) than Stephen Curry (39.3), Tim Hardaway Jr. (37.9) and Duncan Robinson (33.1) last season.
It will likely take some time to work out Anthony’s specific role on the team. With Westbrook in the fold, James will probably be able to rest more during the regular season, and head coach Frank Vogel will have opportunities to gauge which lineups best balance ball movement, two-way interior presence and creating open looks from deep. The Lakers used 12 regular-season starting lineups en route to their 2020 championship, but that figure ballooned to 25 during their title defense.
Though the Lakers’ collective age and big-name personalities concern some observers, Anthony is confident that clarity on roles and expectations will make the team a cohesive unit.
“I think we are all ready to take on whatever roles that are needed,” he said. “I think people forget at the end of the day that it is all about basketball, people have to be able to play basketball, and we all know what we are here for.”