It would be nice if, just once, the Los Angeles Lakers could have a quiet offseason. Maybe they could build a bit of continuity, tinker on the fringes, you know, the sort of things that most teams do in the offseason. Nope. Not in Hollywood. This is now, amazingly, the sixth consecutive offseason in which a major change of some sort has taken place.
2016: Kobe Bryant retires; Luke Walton replaces Byron Scott2017: Lonzo Ball drafted No. 2 overall as the hometown savior2018: LeBron James arrives as a free agent2019: Anthony Davis acquired via trade; Frank Vogel hired as head coach2020: Lakers turn over half of the 2020 championship roster in pandemic-shortened offseason2021: Russell Westbrook acquired through trade; only three players remain from 2020-21 roster
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It says quite a bit about the manner in which the Lakers operate that an offseason following a championship in which half of the roster is turned over is probably the quietest of this stretch. Everything about the purple and gold is loud, and there is no louder player in basketball than Russell Westbrook. Love him or hate him, neither his opponents nor his teams can ignore him. The former MVP dictates his team’s identity. There is no more relentless player or a night-to-night player than Westbrook. There is also not a player in basketball more capable of losing his team a game, or a season, due to reckless decisions and poor shot selection. There will be nights in which the Lakers have the three best players on the court. There will be nights in which two of those stars watch helplessly as their new teammate freezes them out of losses.
It’s one of the boldest gambles a recent champion has ever taken. The LeBron James-Anthony Davis pairing worked. Emphatically. They won a championship together in 2020 with little more than shooting and defense around them and may have won another last season had they stayed healthy. When James and Davis were on the floor last season, the Lakers blitzed opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass. Only count the minutes Davis was at center and that number jumps to 24.3. These are championship figures. The Lakers didn’t have to do this.
But James is entering his 19th season and has lost two of the past three to injuries. Maybe the Lakers are less concerned with what James can do when healthy and more concerned about doing what it takes to keep him healthy. Maybe they’re sick of watching their offense fall off a cliff whenever James sits. There’s no way of predicting what the end result is going to look like. James has never played with someone quite as enigmatic or ball-dominant as Russell Westbrook. This is his greatest test as a problem solver, and the Lakers’ championship hopes rest on him solving the teammate that so many other stars have scurried away from. So how is he going to do it? Well, let’s try to figure it out.
Los Angeles Lakers roster
So … how will the James-Westbrook pairing work?
The notion that Russell Westbrook is going to make LeBron James’ job more difficult has been somewhat overstated. James would surely prefer proper spacing, but he just won a championship without it. When it comes down to it, defenses aren’t giving Dennis Schroder or Rajon Rondo any more respect from behind the arc than they’ll give Westbrook. It’s been two decades. James knows how to operate in tight quarters at this point. He knows how to do just about anything. LeBron can work with practically any teammate at this stage of his career. Need him to space the floor for Westbrook? He shot nearly 39 percent on wide-open 3s during the 2020 championship season, and in recent years has grown even more comfortable bombing away from several feet behind the line. He’ll cut for Westbrook. He’ll screen. He’ll direct traffic. We don’t think of LeBron as a great off-ball player because he’s rarely needed to be any sort of off-ball player, but this is LeBron freaking James we’re talking about here. He’s great at everything.
If he has a defect, it’s impatience, and Westbrook is certainly going to test it. James may be able to exist off-ball, but it’s not exactly what he’s used to. Do you really want LeBron James ceding control over part of his playoff offense to anybody? Probably not. A Westbrook possession is fundamentally a less appealing option than a James possession simply because Westbrook, like every other human being on the planet, is not LeBron James. When you factor in the turnovers and the ill-fated mid-range jumpers, you can understand where the skepticism here comes.
Both were frequent last season. You know what wasn’t? Westbrook’s patented drives to the rim. He took 10.5 shots in the restricted area per game as a member of the 2019-20 Rockets, higher than his numbers even at his Oklahoma City peak. That number declined to only five last season, less than Bradley Beal, as his inexplicable jumpers rose in their place. Is that going to be the new norm as Westbrook ages into his mid-30s? Was it the injury that held him back early in the season (the numbers suggest probably not, but maybe slightly)? Even if it was a symptom of his more traditional Washington roster, it’s not as though the Lakers are going to give him the space Houston’s center-less 2020 roster did, and they’re going to have far less patience for Westbrook’s exploits outside of the rim.
Houston did everything in its power to cater to Westbrook. The Lakers don’t have that privilege. This is an imperfect match that is going to rely heavily on sheer talent, but there are ways that the two of them can enhance each other. Westbrook and James Harden tinkered with some small-ball pick-and-roll looks that proved extremely difficult to guard. Imagine James and Westbrook pulling this off in a small-ball lineup:
Westbrook has always been a capable cutter, just not a willing one. Houston found ways to engage him off the ball in this way, taking advantage of how little respect defenders have for him as a shooter to weaponize him as a backdoor cutter on pick-and-pops. You can bet the Lakers will toy with plays like this:
The Rockets were coached by an offensive genius in Mike D’Antoni. The Lakers have struggled to integrate significant motion into their offense over the past several years, but they’re getting a different sort of Westbrook, one who has seemingly been humbled by three consecutive trades. If there’s a willing screener and cutter in there, the Lakers should be able to find him. Fundamentally, that’s all they can hope for Westbrook as an off-ball player. If he’s active, he’s doing his part.
The shot selection question is a bit tougher. Westbrook made only 28.3 percent of his pull-up 3s last season. The Lakers would love to eliminate all of those in favor of more catch-and-shoot 3s, which he made 35.6 percent of. But shot selection isn’t a question of effort, like cutting. It’s a fundamental trait of Westbrook’s game, and asking him to sacrifice looks he clearly wants to take could have ripple effects. Is he going to play hard (and more importantly, smart) defensively if he’s disengaged offensively? Will it affect him as an off-ball mover. The Lakers are walking a careful line here. They need a streamlined version of Westbrook to coexist with James, but getting that version is going to require buy-in. This is going to be a delicate balance, and all parties involved around going to have to be satisfied with it.
Which Anthony Davis are we getting?
The Lakers would like to pretend that Anthony Davis’ 2020-21 season never happened. Even before the injury he was averaging near-career lows in points (21.8) and rebounds (7.9), but those numbers could be forgiven. He was coming off the bubble, and there were flashes of his typical brilliance later in the season. His 42-point decimation of Deandre Ayton on May 9 should leave little doubt about how the Lakers-Suns series would have ended had he remained healthy. Davis remains the only big man on the planet who can do this:
Davis is still the best defender in the universe when it counts. James and Westbrook are going to spend the season competing to see who can throw him more lobs. The Lakers are going to keep torturing defenses by leaking Davis out in transition and on free throws to give him easy post mismatches. These are all things we can safely assume about Davis heading into this season.
Here’s what’s less clear. Despite his reputation, Davis is actually a somewhat underwhelming shooter. Just look at his mid-range and 3-point numbers over the past five regular 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 take a look at the 2020 playoffs in the Orlando bubble.
57 of 115 (49.6%)
23 of 60 (38.3%)
Whether or not you believe the Lakers got lucky with their opponents in the bubble is ultimately subjective. Here’s what isn’t: They got incredibly lucky shooting variance from a number of players. Rajon Rondo shot below 33 percent from behind the arc during the regular season and bolted up to 40 percent in the playoffs. Markieff Morris jumped up to 42 percent from a similar place. And then there’s Davis, a remarkable player in just about every other respect who rounded out his game for the two biggest months of his career by shooting like Kevin Durant from all over the floor. Statistically speaking, there just isn’t any real evidence that he’s ever going to do that again.
But he probably has to do that again. The Lakers have to bake a bunch of bricked Westbrook jumpers into their offensive expectations. They can’t absorb the same out of Davis. He has to beat the zone defenses the Lakers are going to see as a mid-range shooter. He has to space the floor on James-centric possessions. He has to be a player who has no precedent outside of that one shining outlier in Orlando. If he’s anything less, the Lakers just aren’t going to be able to win shootouts against the NBA’s best offenses.
Who are the last two starters? Who’s getting squeezed out of the rotation?
The Lakers are in the uniquely troubling position of simultaneously having too much depth and not enough depth. Jeanie Buss mandated that any player signed to the roster needed to be able to play, and the caveat to that mandate is that almost every player on the roster probably expects to play. DeAndre Jordan signed with the Lakers specifically to get minutes … but when Dwight Howard is factored in as well, there aren’t many left over for sorely needed Anthony Davis at center lineups. The Lakers were praised for adding Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk on below-market deals … but if both are coming off the bench alongside the re-signed Talen Horton-Tucker, none is going to get the shots needed to thrive. Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza are the only two forwards on the roster aside from James and Davis. They have to play on scarcity alone.
And yet … how confident can the Lakers feel in giving any of these players major minutes? Anthony is perhaps the worst defensive forward in the NBA. Rob Pelinka has clung to Horton-Tucker for dear life, but his shooting deficiencies make him an unquestionably poor fit alongside Westbrook. Frank Vogel kept the Lakers atop the league defensively without James and Davis last season, thanks to his relentless point-of-attack guards. Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are gone. Monk, Nunn and Wayne Ellington don’t exactly replace them.
Praising a team for doing well with minimum contracts is like praising someone for ordering the healthiest meals at McDonald’s. These players were available so cheap for a reason, and while most of them are capable of helping in minor roles, the Lakers need at least two new starters and a few key reserves. That’s asking a lot out of this crew.
Kent Bazemore has been a camp standout, and represents their best chance at finding a true 3-and-D wing out of this group. He’s on track for the starting shooting guard spot. Things get more complicated from there. Starting Jordan at center would be a death sentence to the Lakers’ spacing. It would also preserve Davis from the physical demands of playing center every night. The Lakers could maximize their offense with Anthony, but until Trevor Ariza returns, that leaves their bench positionally unbalanced.
In that sense, Horton-Tucker’s preseason injury might be a blessing in disguise. It gives Nunn, Monk and Wayne Ellington extra early-season minutes to distinguish themselves (or not). One of those three is going to pop. At least one of them isn’t going to be in the playoff rotation. Ariza’s absence is more troubling. Like Bazemore, he provides that rare balance between defense and shooting. He’s also 36. If the Lakers signed him expecting 82 games and 25 minutes a night, they planned out their roster poorly.
Had Ariza started the season healthy, he probably would’ve been the fifth starter. Now Jordan seems like the safest bet. Anthony will get the bulk of the backup forward minutes. The remaining guards will duke it out for minutes behind Westbrook and, presumably, Bazemore. Rondo is lurking if Vogel feels he needs more veteran know-how, and James and Davis are more than comfortable with the idea of sacrificing shooting for his basketball IQ. But this is going to get uncomfortable. There aren’t five obvious, starting-caliber players on this roster, but there are too many with rotation ambitions. That’s even more troubling given the financial sacrifices some of these players made to be in Los Angeles. Juggling all of these egos is going to be Frank Vogel’s toughest challenge yet.
What happens if this goes wrong?
Remember all of those offseason changes we covered in the introduction? Well … the 2022 offseason almost has to be uneventful for the Lakers. This is it. They don’t have any more cards to play here. Remember that in the 2020 offseason, Westbrook’s trade value fell so low that Houston needed to take back John Wall, arguably the worst contract in basketball, just to move him. He’s been dealt three offseasons in a row. He’ll turn 33 in a month and is owed over $47 million for the 2022-23 season. There probably isn’t a fourth move coming.
There probably aren’t any more major moves coming. The Lakers don’t have a tradable first-round pick until 2027. Horton-Tucker is the only valuable young player under contract beyond this season. The Lakers could stack his salary along with Nunn’s to make a meaningful in-season improvement, but that appears unlikely for a multitude of reasons.
Looming over all of this is the extension Vogel signed this offseason. Many league insiders believe it added only a single guaranteed year to his deal, locking him up through the 2022-23 season when James and Westbrook both expire. That wouldn’t be a coincidence. The Lakers initially planned to hire Ty Lue in 2019, but would only guarantee him the same three years they initially gave Vogel. At the time, that would have only aligned his contract with LeBron’s. For whatever reason, the Lakers have hesitated to commit to anyone or anything aside from Davis beyond the end of James’ prime.
That creates a somewhat uneasy atmosphere surrounding this season. There is no pivot left, no obvious trade the Lakers can use to remake themselves if this goes wrong. This is the team for the next two years, and probably, only the next two years. After that, Davis is the only other player fully guaranteed, though Horton-Tucker has a player option. They might have a new coach. Based on all of the players playing on one-year minimum contracts this season, they’ll probably have a number of new players.
We aren’t close to a Last Dance, DEFCON 1 situation here. By all accounts, everybody involved wants to be here and continue competing for titles. History says that having a healthy LeBron on your roster ensures just that. But with no built-in escape hatch and the specter of a wider-scale rebuild looming in 2023, the pressure on this year’s team is massive. This has to work because there’s no backup plan if it doesn’t.