The 1-5 LA Lakers are a mess, to put it bluntly.
A team just two years removed from a championship triumph and very much built to win now finds itself with just one win through six games with claim to the league’s worst offensive rating, worst three-point shooting percentage and sixth-worst net rating.
While they finally got their first victory of the season against the Denver Nuggets on Monday (all times AEDT), the Lakers were the last winless team in the NBA.
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Wednesday November 2nd
It comes despite arguably the greatest player of all time in LeBron James – albeit 37 years old – still dominant and Anthony Davis – although not quite the superstar he once was – one of the league’s best bigs and defensive players.
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However the Russell Westbrook situation has become near dysfunctional despite the former MVP finding new life in a bench role – a highly-paid sixth man at that – in the latest experiment to try and make this team work, while the overall roster construction with a vast lack of shooting has proven detrimental.
Still, it’s quite hard to fathom that a James-led team with Davis in his prime is currently among the worst in the NBA with such a bleak outlook – a first in the former’s legendary career – and yet here we are.
Most thought the Lakers would at best be a fringe playoff side this season, but even their biggest skeptics can’t have predicted they’d struggle this badly.
So how did they get here? What lies ahead? And what can they do to get it out of this?
HOW THEY GOT HERE
The 2018 free agency signing of James and 2019 trade that saw Davis land in LA in exchange for Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and three first round picks set the team up to challenge for titles for several years.
Winning the championship that next season in 2020 under the lead of James and Davis with an established core, you look back at the Lakers’ roster and wonder where it all went wrong
It featured the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley, Talen Horton-Tucker plus veterans Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Danny Green, Markieff Morris and JaVale McGee.
It was a matter of how many more rings could James win – not if he could get another one.
The next off-season LA immediately lost key pieces Rondo, Howard, Bradley, Green and McGee in a big turnover of the championship roster.
The key additions of Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder struggled to back up their career-best 2020 seasons and injuries cruelled the then defending champions as they missed the playoffs altogether in 2021.
It was that next off-season when the Lakers really blew things up though in a push to get back into title contention.
After also being linked to the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Buddy Hield, LA eventually instead made a move that would have a key bearing on its future, acquiring Westbrook and his $91 million (AUD$122 million) contract until 2023 from Washington in a deal centred around Caldwell-Pope, Kuzma and Harrell.
They also made the crucial call to let Caruso walk to Chicago as a free agent as one of 14 Lakers to depart in a radical roster make-over.
Both Kuzma and Caruso are now flourishing at their new respective teams.
In addition to Westbrook, in the 2021 off-season the Lakers also brought in the likes of Kendrick Nunn, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, DeAndre Jordan and brought back Howard and Rondo.
With it only three players from the previous season remained (James, Davis and Horton-Tucker) and the new-look Lakers were one of the oldest teams in league history and the title favourites.
It was the biggest of win-now off-season revamps, but last campaign was arguably an even bigger disaster than the one before, with LA failing to even make the play-in tournament in large due to its struggling defence as the Westbrook acquisition backfired badly.
While Westbrook declined as a Laker, DeRozan was one of the recruits of the season for Chicago as a bona fide MVP contender. DeRozan even revealed he thought his move to the Lakers was a “done deal” before LA instead explored a move for Westbrook in a damning revelation.
James isn’t without blame for their downfall too, having long had a big say on their trade and roster moves as a pseudo general manager of sorts.
NBA insider Mark Stein reported at the time James, along with Davis, convinced the Lakers brass to pick Westbrook over GM Rob Pelinka’s first choice of Hield.
“It is, ultimately, the fault of the person in the Lakers organisation with the most say and the most power who is to blame – the one who used that sway to put into place all the elements that have led L.A. to where it now stands, with a failed (2021/22) season behind them and no clear path forward,” CBS Sports’Bill Reiter wrote in April.
“This is all LeBron James‘ fault.
“The Catch-22 of LeBron‘s all-time greatness has always been the out-weighted influence he’s exuded on a team. His wants have often been paramount to the plan, even his actual needs. But the juice has always been worth the squeeze. His call for player power in the NBA always had a sheen of success because he succeeded at every turn, regardless of how he wielded that power.
“But time comes for everyone, even basketball royalty. And we’ve now reached the point where LeBron requires more help on the court than his influence off it has allowed.”
In the lead into this year’s trade deadline and throughout the off-season, the Lakers explored trades for Westbrook to open up roster flexibility and surround James and Davis with different talent, but nothing came to fruition.
2020 championship coach Frank Vogel was then fired and replaced by Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham.
It came as several shooters including Anthony, Bradley, Ellington and Monk departed and the front office failed to replace them, instead adding the likes of Patrick Beverley, Troy Brown Jr, Thomas Bryant, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Lonnie Walker and bringing back Schroder.
So it’s no great surprise for their struggles from beyond the arc this season.
James also signed a two-year $97.1 million extension until 2024/25 and Westbrook opted into his $47 million deal for this year, which again, really handicapped them from making any other significant changes.
Despite their confusing roster make-up, the Lakers on the eve of the season announced a four-year contract extension to general manager Rob Pelinka until 2026.
It figures to be a long season in LA, maybe its worst since the 2013-2017 rebuilding era prior to signing James.
The Lakers’ defence has actually been a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy campaign so far, ranked second in the league in defensive rating.
Their dismal offence however has really hurt them – in particular their lack of shooting and floor spacing – as the overruling factor for their woes, while too often they rely on James to make plays and score, only to get double or even triple teamed, while there’s not enough weapons around him to then
Davis – despite being an elite defensive player – not stepping up at the attacking end of the floor as the Lakers would’ve hoped and the league at large expected has also contributed to their struggles.
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The former Pelicans superstar used to relentlessly attack the rim and was a nightmare matchup for opposition defences, but now too often settles for jumpers and can be too passive at times.
And since the start of the 2020-21 season, Davis ranks dead last in the NBA in worst effective field goal percentage on jumpers, per Second Spectrum.
And although Westbrook has been more effective in a bench role, it’s not exactly the ideal investment of a $47 million player on the roster.
Beyond James, Davis and Westbrook, their next best player is … Beverley or Walker?
“We don’t know what the hell is going on other than this: they can’t shoot and their roster isn’t good enough,” ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith said of the Lakers prior to their win over Denver.
“It is conceivable that the Los Angeles Lakers start off 0-11 – if not 1-10 based on the next seven games they have.”
Plus with both Beverley and Schrdoer now on the team, it’s not out of the question that the Lakers eventually shut down Westbrook in hopes of improving the overall chemistry and copping a $47 million black hole in their rotation – or even committing to the sensational ‘T’ word.
But there’s just one major problem with that – the Pelicans own the Lakers’ first-round pick in next year’s draft from the Davis trade in 2019.
Tanking has been a hot talking point this season for teams hoping to boost their chances at getting likely Pick 1 and generational talent Victor Wembanyama.
However the Lakers have virtually zero chance of landing the French prodigy unless they pull off some sort of miracle trade – so they really have no incentive to be bad.
It puts LA in an adverse position where, even if they get things together and push for a play-in spot or higher, it’s also not close to being a contender as currently constructed.
They’re much more likely to finish among the worst seeds in the West, and heck, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility they finish dead last, particularly if James and/or Davis get hurt, which unfortunately has been a consistent theme in recent seasons.
“The Lakers have had years and years of beating up people. Finally when you’re down, all those teams you pounced on and beat up on, they’re enjoying this right now,” former NBA coach Sam Mitchell said on NBA TV.
“The only help the Lakers are going to get is if they look in the mirror and start helping themselves.
“You think about how the game is played from the three-point line … it’s amazing if you watch them play, for a team that can’t shoot, they take a lot of jump shots.
“I’m old school but I was always taught, if you can’t shoot, put your head down and drive to the free throw line and get your rhythm early, and then you start knocking down jump shots.”
HOW CAN THEY GET OUT OF MESS?
It all paints a grim picture for the Lakers right now, and frankly, there’s no sugar coating their position.
So how can they get out of this mess – or at least move a step in the right direction?
For starters, with Wembanyama considered one of the best draft prospects in years, more NBA teams are expected to be sellers at the trade deadline instead of buyers, meaning the Lakers could get help on the cheap, having already been linked to Charlotte’s Terry Rozier and San Antonio’s Josh Richardson.
Therefore for the short term, a trade – likely involving Westbrook – is the most obvious avenue and a play they’ve long been urged to make, with the former MVP’s expiring deal and their two future first-round picks the Lakers’ most valuable assets.
The fit of Westbrook alongside James and Davis has been clunky from day one and even moreso this season on a roster devoid of shooting. And so moving Westbrook to add more shooting would, in theory, be a significant boost overall while allowing Beverley and Schroder to run point.
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The Lakers over the off-season reportedly held trade talks with the likes of the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets for Westbrook, however all talks hit a similar hurdle, with ESPN revealing suitors wanting LA to include both of its future 2027 and 2029 picks in the deal.
Westbrook’s expiring $47 million deal could be useful for teams looking to open up significant cap space next off-season.
Brooklyn seems like an unlikely destination now unless things continue to unravel – with the 2-5 Nets arguably an ever bigger disappointment than the Lakers this season – and they decide to blow it up.
That leaves the Pacers and Jazz as the more probable trade partners.
The Lakers have long been linked to Myles Turner and Hield from Indiana in a trade that appears the best on paper for the Lakers to improve them in the short-term.
Hield has made the second-most three-pointers in the league this season behind only Steph Curry (34), with Hield’s total makes (29) as many as James, Davis, Walker, Westbrook, Beverley combined, while in Turner they’d get the league’s best shot-blocker and a genuine stretch big.
Utah also has several appealing assets such as Mike Coley, Malik Beasley, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk that could also interest the Lakers.
Don’t count out the likes of Orlando, San Antonio and Charlotte as other potential Westbrook suitors, But the fact that Westbrook is still on the Lakers roster right now suggests the offers so far have been underwhelming.
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Plus, there’s also a very fair argument that the Lakers would be better off simply staying put and writing off this season – especially given they aren’t expected to challenge – and letting Westbrook come off their books instead of making a potential panic move.
There’s no assurance that trading Westbrook – or anyone else for that matter – would even significantly improve their prospects in a loaded and deep Western Conference, particularly if it meant parting with either of their future first rounders.
Mortgaging so many picks is a dangerous position and LA already finds itself precariously placed with its 2023 first rounder in New Orleans’ possession – especially if the wheels really came off and James and Davis wanted out in the coming years.
Then of course, there’s the nuclear option – trading Davis.
This isn’t to pin all of their issues on Davis – and he’s arguably their most valuable asset now with James in his latter years. However Davis has clearly regressed – particularly shooting – and he’s their only other real asset of value if they decided it’s all at a complete loss and it’s time to blow it up, while James can’t be traded due to his new deal.
“The Lakers need to finally, seriously entertain the idea of trading Davis. C’mon, can they at least think about it?” LA Times’ LA Times‘ Bill Plaschke wrote.
“Give up the belief that he’ll ever be resilient. Give up the trust that he’ll do the proper offseason training. Give up the notion that he’ll ever be a season-long force. Give him up for a couple of first-round draft picks and start the rebuilding process.”
“Ship him off now, get younger, get more draft capital, at least give your fans hope that there is a future beyond the potential for (1-10).”
James and Davis are the only two key Lakers contracted for next season at a combined total of over $100 million, meaning the team could have around $20-30 million to spend in the off-season.
It could be enough wiggle room for the Laker to again retool around James and Davis – maybe even sign someone like Kyrie Irving – and make another genuine title run. James has always been great at recruiting talent, and you can bet he’d be as desperate as ever to bolster his supporting cast.
For this season though, there’s ultimately not much hope for the Lakers, nor an obvious lever to pull to really improve them and take the franchise back to where it was two years ago.
But so long as their struggles continue, they’ll continue to be a fascinating watch for the NBA world.