LeBron James and “Big Threes” usually translate to championship success. In his current run with the Lakers, he’s produced one title so far, but has done so in a slightly different setup. Anthony Davis is LeBron’s most prominent and talented teammate, but the “third star” of the 2020 title run was usually a combination of Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma.

While the Lakers retooled their roster this season with a few veterans led by the reigning Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, it has been Dennis Schröder that has emerged as the underrated piece in keeping the defending champions afloat amidst a slew of injuries and COVID-19-related absences.

Los Angeles’ pursuit of Schröder actually dated back to last season, but the Oklahoma City Thunder reportedly rebuffed any offers as they were in the middle of an otherwise surprise playoff run last year. Giving up Danny Green and the 28th overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (which turned out to be Jaden McDaniels) now instead of back then seems worth it considering where both teams are now.

Schröder will also be a free agent at season’s end, and both he and the Lakers have made it no secret that they want to agree on an extension that will set him as the team’s point guard of the future. He’s already built chemistry with the team and looks to LeBron as an inspiration both on and off the court.

Davis has missed significant time this season due to various injuries and remains out with a heel injury, but the defending champions missing him and now James to a high right ankle sprain only adds to the team’s woes.

What makes the injury to LeBron tougher is that he and Schröder had already developed a chemistry that was evident in the 11-2 record Los Angeles had with both playing and Davis out (and not counting the loss to the Atlanta Hawks). James’ presence also allowed Schröder to take on a combo guard role where he shared point guard duties with LeBron and served as an off-ball threat that kept the defense guessing. James also spent some possessions as an off-ball threat and created mismatches on offense without having to hold the ball for most of a possession.

Through 39 games, Schröder is currently averaging 15.0 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 1.0 steals, numbers that are somewhat down compared to his years with the Thunder.

However, Schröder’s value was further underscored when he had to sit out some games recently due to health and safety protocols the NBA implemented due to COVID-19. Without him, the Lakers had to heavily depend on James playing big minutes to make plays as the team went 0-4 during that stretch. When the German national returned to the court, he also brought back with him the frenetic energy the squad missed the past few games.

To say that Los Angeles’ back-to-back title hopes this season lie with the health and performance of Schröder may be a bit of a stretch, but he certainly adds another dimension to the lineup. Schröder’s abilities allow LeBron to get some extended rest when both are healthy, as his playmaking and other contributions on the court have been a factor to James averaging 33.9 minutes a game on the season, the lowest of his career.

The extra rest will definitely help James achieve his goal of playing as many games as possible without putting too much wear and tear on his body and may help him ease into playing again after he returns from the high right ankle sprain – an injury that could take him up to a month to return from.

With Schröder on the floor, the rest of the Lakers all become bigger offensive threats. His ability to create his own shot allows him to draw defenders and this allows him to feed James, Harrell, and even Damian Jones (much to the chagrin of Davis) for easy baskets while also giving defenders some cause for pause every time he drives to the basket.

In the first Laker game without LeBron and AD, Schröder finished with 22 points, but Los Angeles could not get their offensive rhythm going in their 111-94 loss to the Phoenix Suns. Schröder will have to figure out a way to get his teammates evolved offensively as having no James or Davis on the floor now makes it easier for opposing defenses to stay on their man and allow the likes of Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope to settle for contested and ill-advised shots. 

With both their marquee players out, it’s safe to say that the mettle of the Los Angeles Lakers will be tested. Five of their next 10 games come against the top seeds of both conferences and if LeBron’s health recovery history is to be trusted, he could be back sooner rather than later. In the meantime, Dennis Schröder and the rest of the defending champions will have to devise ways to replace the huge production lost in the absence of both James and Davis.