There’s a warehouse full of them that won’t move, the little guys who can score and not much else. The success stories are the ones who manage to stick around and help fill the losers’ box score on bad teams—your Trey Burkes, your Shabazz Napiers—but they’re exposed as net negatives whenever they make the midseason jump to a playoff squad. You think you’re getting scoring punch off bench, and then you realize that for some reason your five man units fall of a cliff when your starting point guard isn’t out there.
They can never guard anybody, due to some combination of prior training and physical limitations. They’ve been bucket-getters since middle school and any assignment over six-foot-four can bully them. He’s a great defender because he’s obsessive and smart, but Chris Paul is also abnormally strong for a diminutive fella. You can shoot over him, but he doesn’t give when you lean on him, and he’s constantly trying to dislodge the ball when you bring it low. This is one of a dozen ways C.P. is exceptional, the penumbra against the darkness. The rest of his ilk don’t stand a chance. No matter who you are: keep setting screens until Collin Sexton switches onto you. You’ll have a good time.
For six seasons, Dennis Schröder was another face in the crowd, drenched in guest rapper charisma: exhilarating in short bursts, exhausting over longer durations. You delighted in the spells when Schröder would put up 12 points in three minutes, but you wouldn’t actually want him on your favorite team, because between the highlight reel salvos, there were bunches of ill-advised threes, doomed drives, lay-ins that struck the backboard with the force of a racquetball serve. All sorts of headstrong nonsense. You couldn’t win if you were counting on Dennis Schröder, but worse than that, he was only occasionally any fun to watch. The comedy gets grim after a while, this waterbug thinking he’s Kobe. At some point you’re living someone else’s gambling addiction. It’s enough to make you butter up some whole grain toast and settle in with George Hill.
Except something wonderful happened to Schröder in Oklahoma City last season. He had just the right amount of oxygen playing next to Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He actually was scoring punch off the bench, whole flurries of it: 18.9 PPG on 46.9 percent shooting and 38.5 percent from three-point range. The Thunder’s three-guard lineup knocked the crap out of opponents. It was exhausting, to have to keep pace with Paul’s mind, SGA’s slippery movements, and Schröder’s pick and roll game. Plus they could, slashing and kicking to each other, all hit spot-up threes. For the first time in his career, Dennis Schröder was an important player.
It’s a relief to know that your arrogance has an application, that you’re not crazy for thinking that you’ve got something to contribute. You’re not a intergalactic genius, but you can get results, and you can do it with style. Schröder’s drives are terrifying, because he’s so quick, he’s out in front of you. You process them on a half-second delay, embarrassment or awe arriving as he’s already trotting back on defense. There’s a hardness about them. He seems to condense himself into the shape of a nail as he meets the trees in the paint.
Los Angeles is a new arena. The Lakers aren’t a nice team like the Thunder were last year; they’re trying to repeat as champions. But Schröder’s role should be similar. LeBron will put him in his place in the same way Chris Paul did. He won’t be asked to do too much. In fact, he’ll be explicitly forbidden from doing so. At the same time, especially during the regular season, LeBron and Anthony Davis will be more than happy to let Schröder take the wheel on certain nights, when he’s feeling it or they’re worn out.
We’ll see how he handles responsibility when all the dials are maxed out. That’s a different task than what he had in OKC. Perhaps a slightly less interesting one, in the way superhero movies tend to suck because they depend upon your caring about the fate of some alternate dimension CGI Earth. Give me a story about an embittered, middling artist. His relationship with his ex-wife. But there is something on offer for Schröder with the Lakers that he couldn’t find anywhere else. He could have that immortal role player moment in the Conference Finals or the championship tilt, where he swings a game that’s headed the other way, and LeBron bearhugs him after the buzzer. That’s both within his power and without it. If and when it happens, it’ll seem like it belongs to him.
But all you really have is your craft, the constant honing of it. Here’s another thing to like about Schröder: he doesn’t radiate joy. He’s not effortfully pissed off, but he’s annoyed, because what he does is difficult, being six-foot-one in the NBA is difficult. You feel like your arm’s going to snap off, when a big man clobbers you on a drive. Everybody has to overcome themselves; almost no one has to deal with scoring on Rudy Gobert. Dennis Schröder has managed it, with greater efficiency than you’d expect, and the Lakers are his reward. If this is not quite how he imagined the promised land—he probably figured, determined as he is, that he’d be LeBron, not part of the posse—it’s pretty damn good. It took seven years to get here. Maybe you’re the wrong person until you become the right one. Maybe you’re right all along.
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