Usually, when an NBA team wins a championship, it brings back just about everybody who played a role. Teams usually adhere to the age-old adage of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Barring a star player deciding to leave, championship squads sometimes add some players on the fringes, but that's about it. The top eight or 10 players stay put more often than not.
The Los Angeles Lakers have already bucked that trend this offseason. It started when they traded Danny Green and a first-round pick for Dennis Schroeder ahead of the 2020 NBA draft, presumably preparing for Rajon Rondo's departure. Free agency was when the Lakers really got going. After the floodgates opened at 6 p.m. ET on Friday and free agents were able to sign, the Lakers inked Montrezl Harrell and Marc Gasol after letting Dwight Howard leave for Philadelphia and trading JaVale McGee to the Cavaliers.
McGee and Howard gave the Lakers 34 minutes per game combined at the center position last season. Rondo averaged 20 minutes per game. When a title team is forced to replace that many minutes at important positions, it usually results in a downgrade. But the Lakers actually got better in some respects despite the unusual roster turnover for a squad coming off a title run.
Losing Rondo and Avery Bradley (along with Green) will put a lot of pressure on Schroeder, but he can deliver — offensively, at least. He's a more talented creator than any of those three players at this point in their careers, and the Lakers need that shot creation very badly for when LeBron James sits. The team's offensive rating dropped seven points with LeBron on the bench, and while that isn't a big deal when The King is playing 38 minutes a night in the playoffs, Schroeder will be the key to keeping the ship steady otherwise. That feels like it will be especially important this year after everybody else on the team will get only two months of rest before launching into the regular season again following a deep playoff run. Balancing LeBron's minutes while still winning games in the regular season will be much easier with Schroeder rather than Rondo or Bradley.
The Gasol/Harrell combination at center isn't as straightforward. The Lakers clearly do not mind adhering to Anthony Davis' requests to play power forward next to a traditional center for all but the most important minutes. Gasol fits in well for that role. He isn't the same player he was even two years ago when he helped the Raptors win their first NBA championship, but he still has the size to body up with centers on a nightly basis. He's also a great passer and much better team defender than either Howard or McGee. Harrell, on the other hand, is an interesting choice. He's better off as a small-ball five playing next to four wing players, but the Lakers already have the best small-ball five in basketball with Davis. Harrell can play the traditional center role alongside the Lakers superstar, but he'll have to take on the bigger centers in defensive matchups if Davis wants to avoid the wear-and-tear that comes along with that role. Howard and McGee were perfect for that, but Harrell? Not so much.
Defensively, it feels like the Lakers got worse. That isn't a huge deal. They were the best defensive team in basketball last season, and dropping from the top slot to a top-five or top-10 defense isn't that bad when you can rely on LeBron or Davis to make the plays when it counts most. But without Bradley, Rondo, or Green, they'll be heavily relying on Schroeder to at least hold his own on that end, which he has not been able to consistently do throughout his career. Gasol might be a better team defender than the two centers he's helping replace, but he isn't as good one-on-one as McGee or Howard at this point in his NBA life. If Gasol gets hurt and has to spend a good chunk of time on the shelf like he did this past season, the Lakers are suddenly a small team with Harrell at the five and their defense will suffer accordingly.
But, overall, the Lakers fixed their biggest weakness (creating offense without LeBron or AD) without giving up too much otherwise. The personnel turnover might result in some ugly basketball in the early goings as the newest members of the team get acclimated, but overall, it should be for the best if all goes according to plan. That is not often the case when the reigning champs choose to replace two or three starters.
But such is life when you have the luxury of relying on Anthony Davis and LeBron James to fill in any of the cracks. The Lakers have reloaded, and have a good chance to defend their title in 2021.