We’re now more than a quarter of the way through the 2021-2022 NBA season and the Los Angeles Lakers have just lost to the Sacramento Kings. For reference, the latter currently holds a record of 8 wins with 12 losses, and in a game where LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook were all playing… the Lakers lost in triple overtime at their home court.
It gets worse. The Kings had two of their starters benched while the Lakers ended the game with four players who’d scored over 20 points. It really should not have been a close game for the purple and gold. And I say that from a place of genuine concern. Having supported the Lakers for some time now, I actually want to see them succeed. It’s truly hard to watch this team encounter just about every roadblock and respond with another mistake.
The Los Angeles Lakers are the most storied franchise in the NBA backed by the largest supporter base of any team. With plenty of household names on the roster, it’s worth examining why the Lakers are below .500 and losing to the likes of Josh Giddey‘s Oklahoma City Thunder twice in a row. Where did it go wrong? Is it too late to recover?
Here is a breakdown of some of the different factors.
From the second we covered the Russell Westbrook acquisition, it was controversial. After the Lakers traded with the Washington Wizards, Westbrook was able to play for his childhood team alongside two close mates (James and Davis).
While Westbrook has certainly had a spotty track record on other teams, there is no denying that his competitiveness and athleticism are virtually second to none. Last season, he broke Oscar Robertson’s record for all-time triple doubles with a tidy 181. Back in 2016, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant were each individually asked which modern player reminded them of themselves. Both replied with Westbrook as their answer.
Accomplishments aside, the fit with the Lakers is certainly questionable. When you have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on your team, do you really need another ball dominant player who will score most of their points driving to the basket? The Lakers probably should’ve gone after a shooter to help space the floor, with Buddy Hield’s name being thrown around a lot before the 2021-2022 season commenced.
I’ve seen a lot of people justify the move for Westbrook with various arguments along the lines of, “He can win the Lakers games where either LeBron James or Anthony Davis are injured.” It’s certainly true that Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – the players that were traded for Westbrook – weren’t going to be able to do that in his place.
After watching the Oklahoma City Thunder – the youngest team in basketball – come back from a 26-point deficit to beat the Lakers on home court, maybe it’s time we rethink that expectation placed upon Westbrook. Russell Westbrook will be on the team for the rest of the season – no other team is taking on Westbrook’s $44 million contract – so Frank Vogel is going to need to figure out a way to play these three stars together by the time playoffs come around. I expect Vogel to stagger a lot of Westbrook’s minutes with LeBron’s.
To be completely honest, Russell Westbrook has actually gotten a lot better as of late. In the last seven games, he’s managed to improve his scoring, FG%, assists per game, and reduce turnovers per game by two. We’ll have to see how this pans out.
The Best Team of 2013
There is no beating around the bush here: these boys are old.
The Lakers have rebuilt its 2021-2022 roster around 36-year-old LeBron James, added late-prime Russell Westbrook at 33, and brought in or back veterans such as Carmelo Anthony (37), Trevor Ariza (36), Dwight Howard (35), Rajon Rondo (35), Wayne Ellington (34), DeAndre Jordan (33), and Kent Bazemore (32).
If you had just woken up from an eight-year-long coma and heard that team, you would think a championship was a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. Having a retirement home team comes with its own set of problems.
Obviously, all of these guys are past their respective primes, but that isn’t even the main issue. After all, LeBron James isn’t “washed” in his 19th season, and the names mentioned are still quite the talented bunch. That being said, the fact that DeAndre Jordan is the starting centre for the team – let alone getting minutes – is actually a mind-numbingly bad call.
The real issue with older players is that they’re far more susceptible to injuries (more detail on that later) and often have a difficult time adjusting their long-established playing styles to fit a particular teams needs. For young players like Alex Caruso, who the Lakers let walk for nothing in free agency, he was able to step up and become the elite perimeter defender the team needed at the time. As the late great Kobe Bryant showed us during the twilight years of his NBA career, after a while, the notion of playing defence just becomes an unwanted responsibility anyway.
The age of this team also gives the Lakers a very limited window to succeed. There is no dynasty in mind here – it’s very much a “win now” sort of affair. The veteran experience will surely come in handy in the playoffs, with Los Angeles having a particularly bad history of young shooters shitting the bed under the pressure of the bright lights.
This leads us to the ongoing dramas regarding the health of the roster. A lot of people have come to the defence of this Lakers squad with the claim that we are yet to actually see this team at full strength; neither Kendrick Nunn nor Trevor Ariza – two exciting new additions to the roster – have even played a single game.
LeBron James has already missed a decent portion of this season – a pair of games early on due to an ankle injury, a few weeks due to an abdominal strain, then receiving his first career game suspension ever. Anthony Day-To-Day-Vis, who has seemingly endured every injury known to man throughout his career, also missed some games due to a non-COVID illness.
Which begs the question: at what point does this become concerning? It’s one thing to say they haven’t been healthy… but when will they be? The constant injuries indicate a key problem surrounding how the team is constructed. Having one of the oldest rosters in NBA history is going to give you injuries. There needs to be a better plan to respond than throwing Westbrook in and hoping for the best.
In the words of Lakers legend James Worthy, it just hasn’t been good “team basketball.”
Frank Vogel is a defensively minded coach and the Lakers have had the #1 ranked defence over the past two seasons. None of that has been evident lately. The Lakers have been terrible on defence so far in the first 21 games of the 2021-2022 season and that is purely a matter of effort.
As for offence, it isn’t much better either. Since the team has hardly spent any time playing together – with the Lakers having used nine different starting lineups so far in 2021-2022 – each possession is basically just isolation for a different player. There’s a disturbing lack of diversity in the plays, nor are there really any half court sets. It’s either a pick and roll or pass to one guy and let him sink a three.
The Lakers have been absolutely abysmal in the third quarters, specifically. This season, they’re -92 in third quarters, the second-worst in the entire NBA behind the Detroit Pistons. Against the Timberwolves, they were outscored 40-12 in the third quarter at their own stadium. As Anthony Davis said:
“We’ve just got to find a way to score in the third quarter. That’s been our Kryptonite the whole season. We can’t score, and that’s putting us at a deficit. We come out, miss some shots, they get out in transition.”
The ideal lineup for the 2021-2022 Lakers would be to have LeBron run your offence at the point guard, Anthony Davis play at centre, then pack the 2-4 positions with a bunch of shooters. I know AD doesn’t like to play the centre position and fancies himself as more of a stretch four. But remember the New Orleans Pelicans days? When this man gets in the post, he cannot be stopped. And yet he insists on giving the defence a bunch of jumpshots for free. The Lakers have a generational big man on their hands… who’s caught up trying to be Kevin Durant.
There isn’t really a whole lot that GM Rob Pelinka can do here. The Lakers have a lot of cap allocation tied up in these big names, even though a lot of them did elect to sign single year deals on the veteran minimum to pursue a title.
Realistically, this probably won’t actually affect the Lakers in the long term the same way it would another franchise. The big market teams in the NBA will always hold the soft power in the league. You can spend as much time developing your favourite player as you want, but they’re always going to consider playing in Los Angeles eventually.
It’s not impossible for this Lakers team to figure everything out by the time playoffs come around, either. But they certainly have a long way to go. With Steph Curry putting up insane numbers for the Golden State Warriors – who currently hold a record of 17-2 – the pathway for the Lakers in 2021-2022 won’t be easy.