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Dennis’ Defense Key to Lakers’ Title Run

The Lakers realize that they need Anthony Davis in order to defend their title. After four games without Dennis Schroder, they also understand the true value of their starting point guard.

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As of late, the path to an 18th championship banner has gotten more difficult for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team had lost four games in a row and five of their last six before Friday night’s victory against the Portland Trail Blazers. With Anthony Davis sidelined until after the All-Star break, Frank Vogel is forced to rely on the team’s depth and experience to navigate through the next four weeks.

The absence of Davis has undoubtedly put more of the heavy lifting on the shoulders of LeBron James, but that may not be in the best interest of the Lakers in the long run. While James has been adamant about playing every game and earning his fifth MVP trophy, he has nothing to prove to anyone. Even at the age of 36, James is still widely regarded as the best player in the world.

A healthy and motivated superstar like James is a nice luxury to have, but the void left by Davis needs to be filled collectively by the rest of the roster. Kyle Kuzma figured to slide right into a prominent role with Davis sidelined but Kuzma himself then had a back strain that forced him to miss some time. Over his last three games, Kuzma is averaging just 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 2.6 turnovers while shooting 28 percent from the field.

The rest of the frontcourt players – Marc Gasol, Montrezl Harrell and Markieff Morris – have needed to step up their production but haven’t been able to do so on a consistent basis. The Lakers even tried using smaller lineups with Wesley Matthews and Talen Horton-Tucker receiving an uptick in minutes. Vogel was then blindsided with another blow to his roster.

Dennis Schroder was forced to miss four straight games due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols. Schroder has quietly been a brilliant addition, providing valuable on-ball and perimeter defense to this Lakers team. While there was a lot of buzz heading into the season after Los Angeles acquired the point guard from Oklahoma City, many wondered how he would fit in with the starting unit.

Schroder stated before the season that he envisioned himself as the starting point guard, taking some of the responsibility and burden of running the offense away from James. To his credit, he has been exceptional in that area, and Vogel has praised the guard for earning the starting role. Schroder’s defense has been a tremendous boost for the Lakers, and the numbers tell the story.

Los Angeles has the top-ranked defense, ranking first in defensive rating (105.8) and second in opponent scoring (106.1), according to Basketball-Reference. They also boast a top-five net rating and lead the league in blocks as a team.

James has referred to the 27-year old as ‘Dennis The Menace’ for good reason. Schroder has been a tenacious defender on the perimeter and a real pest for opposing point guard. This is where his value to the team is noticed the most, glaringly obviously without him on the floor.

In their highly-anticipated matchup last Thursday against the Brooklyn Nets, Vogel was looking forward to sticking Schroder on Kyrie Irving in an attempt to slow down one of the best offenses in NBA history. Obviously, that didn’t happen, as Irving and James Harden had their way with the Lakers’ backcourt.

In their next game against the Miami HEAT, Kendrick Nunn scored 27 points in their win over Los Angeles. The Washington Wizards defeated the Lakers as Russell Westbrook (33) and Bradley Beal (32) scored at will. The Utah Jazz throttled the Lakers as well and Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell each nearly had a triple-double. In Schroder’s return, the Lakers not only won the game but were also able to hold Portland’s seventh-ranked offense to just 93 points.

Schroder had started all 29 games this season before that game against Brooklyn. Offensively, he has been quite consistent this season when comparing his two previous years in Oklahoma City. He started just 16 times in his 144 games in Oklahoma City, often playing behind Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. His shot attempts are down this season – but his free-throw attempts are up as he gets to the rim and thriving in his role as a playmaker.

Beyond that, the No. 17 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft had been having a sensational February. Last month, he averaged 17 points and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor, 38 percent from three-point range and 88 percent from the free-throw line.

When Davis and James are on the floor together, they’re able to feed off of one another and stagger their offensive aggressiveness. Without Davis, it will be more important for Schroder to generate the offense while keeping up his tenacity on defense. Simply put, those are things that no other point guard on the roster can provide.

It may not have been the extended absence that Davis is facing, but Schroder missing games in the future could cost them in terms of playoff seeding. The Western Conference is loaded as now the Lakers must fend off the Phoenix Suns for the third seed. With the rest of the season’s games being unveiled last week, the Lakers have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the league.

Stopping or slowing opposing point guards will be a difficult task for the Lakers without Schroder in the lineup. Guards like Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Jamal Murray can cause problems, and that’s just in the Western Conference. Should Los Angeles meet a team like the Nets in the Finals, Schroder’s defensive prowess will be vital to their success.

The good news for the Lakers is that seeding shouldn’t matter as much this season. Despite some fans being allowed into arenas, there are no expectations of having anything near full attendance later this season. The home-court advantage is minimal, and if the Lakers are fully healthy for the postseason they should still be the favorites as the defending champions.

Like all contenders, Los Angeles will be very active in the buyout market. Finding an inside defensive presence is crucial, while shooting upgrades will be available too. But what will be most difficult to find is an asset like Schroder, a contributor that provides so much on both sides of the ball.

Aside from James and Davis, Schroder just might be the most important player for the Lakers as they prepare to defend their title.

Chad is a Basketball Insiders contributor based in Indianapolis.

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