Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff WriterJun 30, 2023, 08:00 AM ET
- Lakers and NBA reporter for ESPN.
- Covered the Lakers and NBA for ESPNLosAngeles.com from 2009-14, the Cavaliers from 2014-18 for ESPN.com and the NBA for NBA.com from 2005-09.
DENNIS SCHRODER — fists cuffed, arms flexed, brow furrowed, eyes bugged and mouth stretched open — stares down Draymond Green.
The snapshot from the Los Angeles Lakers’ eventual series-clinching Game 6 of their second-round bout with the Golden State Warriors captures the point guard in a pose that’s intense, determined, preening — and, as it turns out, premeditated.
“He told me before that game … ‘I might get ejected today. I’m going at Draymond,'” Lakers forward Anthony Davis told ESPN.
The defending champion Warriors were on the ropes, and Schroder — all 6-foot-1, 172 pounds of him — was intent on delivering the knockout blow.
Schroder pored over game tape from the Lakers’ Game 5 loss. He saw Green putting up 20 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals in the Warriors’ 15-point win that pulled them back within 3-2, heading to L.A.
He also saw the way Green carried himself, puffing his chest out, talking trash, letting loose, feeling free.
With Davis leaving the loss early with a head injury and the star’s status uncertain, Schroder decided he needed to beat Green at his own game in Game 6.
“Draymond was bullying us, basically,” Schroder told ESPN. “AD, obviously, him and Bron [LeBron James] got a good relationship off the court. Sometimes it gets tough, they don’t want to really serve back.”
It’s not that he doubted Davis’ or James’ competitiveness. Schroder knew both would bring their best to try to close out the series and reach the Western Conference finals; after all, the All-Star duo already won a title together in 2020.
His job was to complement their talents and help make the Lakers greater than the sum of their parts. He learned from his first failed attempt at it in 2020-21. His fit was so much better the second time around that Schroder could be an indispensable player when L.A. begins to assemble next season’s team starting Friday when free agency begins.
And it’s hard to imagine a bigger proving ground than Game 6 against the Warriors as evidence that Schroder belongs with this group.
Much like the way the Lakers’ coaching staff sensed a change was needed and inserted Schroder into the starting lineup over Jarred Vanderbilt that night, Schroder felt he needed to bring a little extra to help his team avoid a Game 7.
And so during pregame warmups, Schroder found Davis — who was still regaining his bearings after inadvertently being elbowed in the face by Kevon Looney two days prior — and assured him that Green wouldn’t be punking the Lakers again.
“I told him, ‘Listen, this game is going to be different,'” Schroder recalled. “‘Just match my energy, follow me, and Draymond tries anything, I got it, don’t worry. Just play. And this game is ours.'”
Sure enough, Schroder earned his ejection midway through the third quarter. Davis scored on an alley-oop from James and then, as soon as he landed from the dunk, stole the Warriors’ inbounds pass right next to the basket.
Green fouled Davis by raking him across his arms to prevent another sure bucket from the Lakers big man. That’s when Schroder intervened to confront the Warriors forward. As he let out a roar and inched his body closer, Green pushed the basketball against Schroder’s forehead — causing a double technical foul to be called.
It was Schroder’s second tech of the game — he received one in the first quarter for arguing a call when he and Green got tangled up — so he was disqualified. L.A. led by 16 points at the time and would push that lead to as many as 24 in the fourth quarter en route to derailing the Warriors’ repeat title bid. The box score showed Schroder with 3 points and 5 assists. But, as often was the case during his second stint with the Lakers last season, his impact went far beyond the numbers.
“He’s one of the best teammates I’ve met,” Lakers guard Austin Reaves told ESPN.
AS REAVES ENJOYED a breakout season in his second year in the league, he developed a nightly ritual with the 10-year veteran, Schroder.
“‘Win over everything,'” Reaves said Schroder would tell him, time and time again. “Before every game, we share a moment and … [the message is] regardless of what happens, win. We win, who cares about whatever happened in the game.”
Schroder embodied those words in wins against Miami in January, when he scored 32 points after a sprained ankle to lead the James-less Lakers over the Heat; and in March against Oklahoma City, when with James and Davis both sidelined, Schroder turned his ankle again but gutted through 37 minutes and helped top the Thunder with 26 points and six assists.
“We see him playing through injuries, things like that,” Davis said. “He don’t care — whatever he has to do to win. … He’s in it for one common goal.”
There’s an alchemy to a winning locker room that Schroder started to grasp.
He learned some of what not to do when he was a rookie in 2013-14 with the Atlanta Hawks. Coached by Mike Budenholzer, who had Darvin Ham — now the Lakers coach — as an assistant on his staff, Schroder was subject to rookie treatment by Atlanta’s vets.
“I had to carry a pink backpack,” Schroder said. “Coach Bud, he is so traditional, he was like, ‘Cut this s— out. You can’t embarrass a man. … Do whatever you guys want him to do, let him get doughnuts or whatever, but don’t embarrass him.'”
Lakers forward Cole Swider, who was a rookie on a two-way contract last season, said he experienced the opposite of hazing when tasked with errands from Schroder, such as running to the convenience store to pick something up when the team was on the road.
“Dennis is such a good guy,” Swider told ESPN. “He’ll hit me up … ‘Hey, could you get a specific type of body wash,’ or deodorant or something like that. And the bill will be like $25 and one time he gave me $600.”
Said Schroder: “When somebody does something for me, I make sure he feels appreciated.”
He also learned to be a better teammate based on his own actions.
After the Lakers traded for Schroder from Oklahoma City in 2020, he declared “I did this off-the-bench stuff already,” regarding his desire to start in L.A.
This past season, after joining a team that already had guards Russell Westbrook and Patrick Beverley ahead of him on the depth chart, only to earn a starting spot and then lose it when L.A. traded away both players and added D’Angelo Russell at the deadline — Schroder completely changed his tone.
“I can do anything he needs,” he said when asked in February about Ham starting Russell over him. “We want to win.”
He also got better at what he says and when he says it. He remembers offering feedback to Montrezl Harrell during a game huddle when they both played for the Lakers in 2020-21 and it led to a blowup in front of teammates.
“He didn’t take it well,” Schroder said. “Certain people, you got to be careful how you talk to them. And that might have been my bad. I went directly to him and in front of people in a timeout.”
COMING OUT OF a timeout, tied at 95-95 with 21.7 seconds left in the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ April play-in tournament game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Schroder made perhaps the biggest play of the L.A.’s season.
After rallying from 13th place in the Western standings in late January to earn a play-in berth with the No. 7 seed and a guaranteed spot in the playoffs on the line, the Lakers found themselves in a fight.
Trailing by as many as 10 early in the fourth, L.A. mounted a comeback, with Schroder playing the entire quarter leading up to the crucial possession. Win the game and the Lakers would get five days off before opening up the first round on the road against Memphis. Lose it and they would play the Oklahoma City Thunder or New Orleans Pelicans three days later in a do-or-die battle for the right to face the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets.
With under 10 seconds remaining, James drove the right wing on Wolves forward Taurean Prince. Once James neared the paint, Karl-Anthony Towns collapsed on him and jumped into the air to cut off the game’s all-time leading scorer’s path to the rim.
James went airborne, and as he floated past Towns and hovered above the baseline, he spotted Schroder standing in front of the Minnesota bench, wide open in the corner.
James delivered the pass with about 3.5 seconds left, leaving Schroder plenty of time to not feel rushed and get the shot off. It fell through the net with 1.4 seconds remaining, putting the Lakers up 98-95. L.A. held on to win in overtime and advance.
“That was probably one of my coolest moments in my career,” Schroder said, adding that he was having T-shirts made featuring his and James’ shared pose after the shot went down. “I mean it’s just a great moment with the GOAT. He’s making the right read and it’s coming to me and I shoot it.”
The shot extended L.A.’s stint as the NBA’s hottest team after the trade deadline — going 18-6 to finish the regular season, through the play-in tournament and first two rounds of the playoffs before being swept by the Nuggets, who went on to win the title. And who knows if any part of the Lakers’ postseason run that followed would have come without Schroder hitting it.
For everything that went wrong for Schroder his first time around with the Lakers — from being on the team that had its back-to-back championship bid spoiled by Phoenix in the first round; to infamously not coming to an agreement on an in-season contract extension worth north of $80 million and settling for $5.9 million from the Boston Celtics instead — his second chance in L.A. was refreshing.
“Instead of running away from something that didn’t finish the right way, run back to it. Run back to it and embrace it. Because most people would think he wouldn’t go back there,” Schroder’s new agent, Mark Bartelstein of Priority Sports, told ESPN. “We had to find the platform that was going to give us an opportunity to rebuild the perception of Dennis. And that was the reason we chose the Lakers.”
Reuniting with Ham helped facilitate the rebirth. Schroder averaged 12.6 points and 4.5 assists, starting 50 of the 66 games he played in the regular season. His contract was a bargain for the handcuffed Lakers, who had to pay only $1.8 million of his $2.6 million veteran minimum salary, with the league footing the rest because of Schroder’s 10-plus years of NBA service.
Rather than joining a title team and not delivering, he joined a team coming off one of the most disastrous seasons in team history and was key in its turnaround.
Ham’s message to the Lakers after the trade deadline, according to Schroder, sounded a lot like the point guard’s nightly reminder to Reaves.
“‘Yo listen, f— all the other s—,'” Schroder recalled of Ham’s directive. “‘We got to get it right now and it don’t matter how we got to get it. Everybody just stay locked in.’
“The culture was just there. … It switched from, ‘I got to do my thing,’ to ‘We got to figure out what it takes to win as a team.'”
L.A. will have the full $12.4 million non-taxpayer midlevel exception (MLE) to use to try to re-sign Schroder — splitting it up between Schroder and another player is something the Lakers are considering, sources told ESPN. Should the Lakers retain Reaves and Rui Hachimura as they hope to, and look to bring back Russell, there’s also a pathway for L.A. to be able to offer the $4.5 million biannual exception.
“I know I could have gotten way more money than I have the last two years,” Schroder said. “I’m capable of running a team and helping the organization win games. And I think I have, of course, more worth than a minimum contract or $5.9 million and even bigger numbers than that.”
An Eastern Conference executive compared Schroder’s situation to a game of musical chairs. He is among the group of experienced veterans who will be considered by teams that have their MLE available — non-tax or otherwise — and are looking to win now, but will there be a spot for him when the music stops and free agency commences?
“Whenever the Lakers hopefully come to me and say, ‘Listen, this is what we can do and this is what the situation is and we want to keep you,’ then we’re going to see if they really appreciate what I did,” Schroder said. “I know, end of the day, it’s a business is what I’m saying, and it’s a lot of factors around it as well.
“I got a ballclub in Germany. It’s not the NBA, but it’s the first division in Germany and I know you got to make hard decisions. … It’s no hard feelings. I would love to come back because I know the guys now. My second year with AD and Bron went really well. Even when D-Lo came, AR, a lot of ball handlers, I still found my way.
“Yes, they got to make a lot of decisions and I’m the player. I gave everything I have to showcase what I bring, and let’s see what happens.”