Lakers have championship talent, plenty of questions as they attempt to reclaim NBA title in 2021-22 season

It will be good if, simply as soon as, the Los Angeles Lakers may have a quiet offseason. Perhaps they may construct a little bit of continuity, tinker on the fringes, you recognize, the form of issues that almost all groups do within the offseason. Nope. Not in Hollywood. That is now, amazingly, the sixth consecutive offseason by which a serious change of some kind has taken place. 

  • 2016: Kobe Bryant retires; Luke Walton replaces Byron Scott
  • 2017: Lonzo Ball drafted No. 2 general because the hometown savior
  • 2018: LeBron James arrives as a free agent
  • 2019: Anthony Davis acquired by way of commerce; Frank Vogel employed as head coach
  • 2020: Lakers flip over half of the 2020 championship roster in pandemic-shortened offseason
  • 2021: Russell Westbrook acquired via commerce; solely three gamers stay from 2020-21 roster

It says fairly a bit in regards to the method by which the Lakers function that an offseason following a championship by which half of the roster is turned over might be the quietest of this stretch. The whole lot in regards to the purple and gold is loud, and there’s no louder participant in basketball than Russell Westbrook. Love him or hate him, neither his opponents nor his groups can ignore him. The previous MVP dictates his group’s identification. There isn’t any extra relentless participant or a night-to-night participant than Westbrook. There’s additionally not a participant in basketball extra able to shedding his group a sport, or a season, on account of reckless choices and poor shot choice. There shall be nights by which the Lakers have the three finest gamers on the court docket. There shall be nights by which two of these stars watch helplessly as their new teammate freezes them out of losses. 

It is one of many boldest gambles a latest champion has ever taken. The LeBron James-Anthony Davis pairing labored. Emphatically. They gained a championship collectively in 2020 with little greater than taking pictures and protection round them and will have gained one other final season had they stayed wholesome. When James and Davis have been on the ground final season, the Lakers blitzed opponents by 14.1 factors per 100 possessions, in response to Cleansing the Glass. Solely depend the minutes Davis was at middle and that quantity jumps to 24.3. These are championship figures. The Lakers did not have to do that.

However James is getting into his nineteenth season and has misplaced two of the previous three to accidents. Perhaps the Lakers are much less involved with what James can do when wholesome and extra involved about doing what it takes to maintain him wholesome. Perhaps they’re sick of watching their offense fall off a cliff each time James sits. There is no means of predicting what the top result’s going to seem like. James has by no means performed with somebody fairly as enigmatic or ball-dominant as Russell Westbrook. That is his best check as an issue solver, and the Lakers’ championship hopes relaxation on him fixing the teammate that so many different stars have scurried away from. So how is he going to do it? Properly, let’s attempt to determine it out.

Los Angeles Lakers roster

So … how will the James-Westbrook pairing work?

The notion that Russell Westbrook goes to make LeBron James’ job tougher has been considerably overstated. James would certainly want correct spacing, however he simply gained a championship with out it. When it comes right down to it, defenses aren’t giving Dennis Schroder or Rajon Rondo any extra respect from behind the arc than they will give Westbrook. It has been 20 years. James is aware of learn how to function in tight quarters at this level. He is aware of learn how to do absolutely anything. LeBron can work with virtually any teammate at this stage of his profession. Want him to house the ground for Westbrook? He shot almost 39 p.c on wide-open 3s through the 2020 championship season, and in recent times has grown much more snug bombing away from a number of ft behind the road. He’ll minimize for Westbrook. He’ll display. He’ll direct visitors. We do not consider LeBron as a terrific off-ball participant as a result of he is not often wanted to be any form of off-ball participant, however that is LeBron freaking James we’re speaking about right here. He is nice at all the pieces. 

If he has a defect, it is impatience, and Westbrook is definitely going to check it. James might be able to exist off-ball, but it surely’s not precisely what he is used to. Do you actually need LeBron James ceding management over a part of his playoff offense to anyone? Most likely not. A Westbrook possession is essentially a much less interesting choice than a James possession just because Westbrook, like each different human being on the planet, isn’t LeBron James. Whenever you issue within the turnovers and the ill-fated mid-range jumpers, you may perceive the place the skepticism right here comes. 

Each have been frequent final season. You understand what wasn’t? Westbrook’s patented drives to the rim. He took 10.5 pictures within the restricted space per sport as a member of the 2019-20 Rockets, greater than his numbers even at his Oklahoma Metropolis peak. That quantity declined to solely 5 final season, lower than Bradley Beal, as his inexplicable jumpers rose of their place. Is that going to be the brand new norm as Westbrook ages into his mid-30s? Was it the damage that held him again early within the season (the numbers recommend in all probability not, however possibly barely)? Even when it was a symptom of his extra conventional Washington roster, it is not as if the Lakers are going to provide him the house Houston’s center-less 2020 roster did, and they are going to have far much less persistence for Westbrook’s exploits outdoors of the rim.

Houston did all the pieces in its energy to cater to Westbrook. The Lakers do not have that privilege. That is an imperfect match that’s going to rely closely on sheer expertise, however there are methods that the 2 of them can improve one another. Westbrook and James Harden tinkered with some small-ball pick-and-roll appears to be like that proved extraordinarily troublesome to protect. Think about James and Westbrook pulling this off in a small-ball lineup: 

Westbrook has at all times been a succesful cutter, simply not a keen one. Houston discovered methods to have interaction him off the ball on this means, benefiting from how little respect defenders have for him as a shooter to weaponize him as a backdoor cutter on pick-and-pops. You’ll be able to guess the Lakers will toy with performs like this: 

The Rockets have been coached by an offensive genius in Mike D’Antoni. The Lakers have struggled to combine important movement into their offense over the previous a number of years, however they’re getting a unique form of Westbrook, one who has seemingly been humbled by three consecutive trades. If there is a keen screener and cutter in there, the Lakers ought to be capable to discover him. Essentially, that is all they’ll hope for Westbrook as an off-ball participant. If he is energetic, he is doing his half. 

The shot choice query is a bit harder. Westbrook made solely 28.3 p.c of his pull-up 3s final season. The Lakers would like to eradicate all of these in favor of extra catch-and-shoot 3s, which he made 35.6 p.c of. However shot choice is not a query of effort, like slicing. It is a elementary trait of Westbrook’s sport, and asking him to sacrifice appears to be like he clearly desires to take may have ripple results. Is he going to play exhausting (and extra importantly, sensible) defensively if he is disengaged offensively? Will it have an effect on him as an off-ball mover. The Lakers are strolling a cautious line right here. They want a streamlined model of Westbrook to coexist with James, however getting that model goes to require buy-in. That is going to be a fragile steadiness, and all events concerned round going to must be glad with it. 

Which Anthony Davis are we getting?

The Lakers wish to faux that Anthony Davis’ 2020-21 season by no means occurred. Even earlier than the damage he was averaging near-career lows in factors (21.8) and rebounds (7.9), however these numbers may very well be forgiven. He was coming off the bubble, and there have been flashes of his typical brilliance later within the season. His 42-point decimation of Deandre Ayton on Might 9 ought to depart little doubt about how the Lakers-Suns sequence would have ended had he remained wholesome. Davis stays the one massive man on the planet who can do that: 

Davis continues to be the very best defender within the universe when it counts. James and Westbrook are going to spend the season competing to see who can throw him extra lobs. The Lakers are going to maintain torturing defenses by leaking Davis out in transition and on free throws to provide him straightforward publish mismatches. These are all issues we are able to safely assume about Davis heading into this season. 

Here is what’s much less clear. Regardless of his fame, Davis is definitely a considerably underwhelming shooter. Simply take a look at his mid-range and 3-point numbers over the previous 5 common seasons.


245 of 572 (42.8%)

40 of 134 (29.9%)


147 of 404 (36.4%)

55 of 162 (34%)


83 of 234 (35.5%)

48 of 145 (33.1%)


88 of 258 (34.9%)

72 of 218 (33%)


64 of 184 (34.8%)

26 of 100 (26%)


627 of 1652 (38%)

241 of 759 (31.8%)

Now let’s check out the 2020 playoffs within the Orlando bubble.

2020 postseason

57 of 115 (49.6%)

23 of 60 (38.3%)

Whether or not or not you imagine the Lakers received fortunate with their opponents within the bubble is finally subjective. Here is what is not: They received extremely fortunate taking pictures variance from various gamers. Rajon Rondo shot beneath 33 p.c from behind the arc through the common season and bolted as much as 40 p.c within the playoffs. Markieff Morris jumped as much as 42 p.c from an analogous place. After which there’s Davis, a exceptional participant in nearly each different respect who rounded out his sport for the 2 largest months of his profession by taking pictures like Kevin Durant from everywhere in the flooring. Statistically talking, there simply is not any actual proof that he is ever going to try this once more. 

However he in all probability has to try this once more. The Lakers must bake a bunch of bricked Westbrook jumpers into their offensive expectations. They can not take in the identical out of Davis. He has to beat the zone defenses the Lakers are going to see as a mid-range shooter. He has to house the ground on James-centric possessions. He needs to be a participant who has no precedent outdoors of that one shining outlier in Orlando. If he is something much less, the Lakers simply aren’t going to have the ability to win shootouts in opposition to the NBA‘s finest offenses. 

Who’re the final two starters? Who’s getting squeezed out of the rotation?

The Lakers are within the uniquely troubling place of concurrently having an excessive amount of depth and never sufficient depth. Jeanie Buss mandated that any participant signed to the roster wanted to have the ability to play, and the caveat to that mandate is that just about each participant on the roster in all probability expects to play. DeAndre Jordan signed with the Lakers particularly to get minutes … however when Dwight Howard is factored in as nicely, there aren’t many left over for sorely wanted Anthony Davis at middle lineups. The Lakers have been praised for including Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk on below-market offers … but when each are coming off the bench alongside the re-signed Talen Horton-Tucker, none goes to get the pictures wanted to thrive. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are the one two forwards on the roster except for James and Davis. They must play on shortage alone. 

And but … how assured can the Lakers really feel in giving any of those gamers main minutes? Anthony is maybe the worst defensive ahead within the NBA. Rob Pelinka has clung to Horton-Tucker for pricey life, however his taking pictures deficiencies make him an unquestionably poor match alongside Westbrook. Frank Vogel stored the Lakers atop the league defensively with out James and Davis final season, due to his relentless point-of-attack guards. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are gone. Monk, Nunn and Wayne Ellington do not precisely exchange them. 

Praising a group for doing nicely with minimal contracts is like praising somebody for ordering the healthiest meals at McDonald’s. These gamers have been out there so low cost for a cause, and whereas most of them are able to serving to in minor roles, the Lakers want not less than two new starters and some key reserves. That is asking rather a lot out of this crew. 

Kent Bazemore has been a camp standout, and represents their finest likelihood at discovering a real 3-and-D wing out of this group. He is on monitor for the beginning taking pictures guard spot. Issues get extra sophisticated from there. Beginning Jordan at middle could be a loss of life sentence to the Lakers’ spacing. It will additionally protect Davis from the bodily calls for of enjoying middle each night time. The Lakers may maximize their offense with Anthony, however till Trevor Ariza returns, that leaves their bench positionally unbalanced. 

In that sense, Horton-Tucker’s preseason damage may be a blessing in disguise. It provides Nunn, Monk and Wayne Ellington additional early-season minutes to tell apart themselves (or not). A type of three goes to pop. No less than one in all them is not going to be within the playoff rotation. Ariza’s absence is extra troubling. Like Bazemore, he gives that uncommon steadiness between protection and taking pictures. He is additionally 36. If the Lakers signed him anticipating 82 video games and 25 minutes an evening, they deliberate out their roster poorly. 

Had Ariza began the season wholesome, he in all probability would’ve been the fifth starter. Now Jordan looks as if the most secure guess. Anthony will get the majority of the backup ahead minutes. The remaining guards will duke it out for minutes behind Westbrook and, presumably, Bazemore. Rondo is lurking if Vogel feels he wants extra veteran know-how, and James and Davis are greater than snug with the concept of sacrificing taking pictures for his basketball IQ. However that is going to get uncomfortable. There aren’t 5 apparent, starting-caliber gamers on this roster, however there are too many with rotation ambitions. That is much more troubling given the monetary sacrifices a few of these gamers made to be in Los Angeles. Juggling all of those egos goes to be Frank Vogel’s hardest problem but. 

What occurs if this goes improper?

Keep in mind all of these offseason adjustments we lined within the introduction? Properly … the 2022 offseason nearly needs to be uneventful for the Lakers. That is it. They have no extra playing cards to play right here. Do not forget that within the 2020 offseason, Westbrook’s commerce worth fell so low that Houston wanted to take again John Wall, arguably the worst contract in basketball, simply to maneuver him. He is been dealt three offseasons in a row. He’ll flip 33 in a month and is owed over $47 million for the 2022-23 season. There in all probability is not a fourth transfer coming. 

There in all probability are not any extra main strikes coming. The Lakers do not have a tradable first-round choose till 2027. Horton-Tucker is the one invaluable younger participant underneath contract past this season. The Lakers may stack his wage together with Nunn’s to make a significant in-season enchancment, however that seems unlikely for a mess of causes. 

Looming over all of that is the extension Vogel signed this offseason. Many league insiders imagine it added solely a single assured 12 months to his deal, locking him up via the 2022-23 season when James and Westbrook each expire. That would not be a coincidence. The Lakers initially deliberate to rent Ty Lue in 2019, however would solely assure him the identical three years they initially gave Vogel. On the time, that may have solely aligned his contract with LeBron’s. For no matter cause, the Lakers have hesitated to decide to anybody or something except for Davis past the top of James’ prime. 

That creates a considerably uneasy ambiance surrounding this season. There isn’t any pivot left, no apparent commerce the Lakers can use to remake themselves if this goes improper. That is the group for the following two years, and possibly, solely the following two years. After that, Davis is the one different participant totally assured, although Horton-Tucker has a participant choice. They may have a brand new coach. Based mostly on all the gamers enjoying on one-year minimal contracts this season, they will in all probability have various new gamers. 

We aren’t near a Final Dance, DEFCON 1 state of affairs right here. By all accounts, all people concerned desires to be right here and proceed competing for titles. Historical past says that having a wholesome LeBron in your roster ensures simply that. However with no built-in escape hatch and the specter of a wider-scale rebuild looming in 2023, the strain on this 12 months’s group is huge. This has to work as a result of there isn’t any backup plan if it would not. | Lakers have championship expertise, loads of questions as they try and reclaim NBA title in 2021-22 season


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