It’s hard to remember exactly when it sunk in that the Los Angeles Lakers were flawed beyond repair this season.
Maybe it was Russell Westbrook opening the season 15 for 43 from the field, or Anthony Davis’ first significant injury, or their midseason slide, or Davis’ second significant injury, or when they got their entire Big 3 back and still lost to the New Orleans Pelicans.
A team with an NBA-record 57 All-Star selections on its roster entering the season and just a season removed from a championship isn’t supposed to be this bad, especially when it has LeBron James. Los Angeles entered this offseason with the usual amount of hype after retooling its roster following its disappointing and injury-influenced playoff exit last season, but that retooling seemed to only accelerate the decay of a title-winning core.
Who could have seen that coming? Well, a lot of people, especially those who have harped on Westbrook’s inefficiency for years. But few, if any, explained the Lakers’ upcoming woes as succinctly as James, who, perhaps sensing social media criticism of the team he put together, posted a facetious tweet in August that turned out to be downright prophetic.
The tweet has since been deleted, but it read:
Keep talking about my squad, our personnel ages, the way they play, he stays injured, we’re past our time in this league, etc etc etc!! Do me one favor PLEASE!!!! And I mean PLEASE!!!! 🙏🏾 Keep that same narrative ENERGY when it’s begins! That’s all I ask. #ThankYou 👑
So, at James’ request, let’s talk about the Lakers, specifically their personnel age, the way they play, their injuries, their receding talent and everything else that added up to the season of a Lakers hater’s dreams.
‘Our personnel ages’
An excellent starting point. Sometimes the oldest team in the NBA plays like the oldest team in the NBA.
It should never be a surprise when a James-led team bets big on veterans (who happen to be friends with James), but the 2021-22 Lakers followed that trend to an unprecedented magnitude last summer. To support James (37 years old) and Davis (29), they added Westbrook (33) as their newest star as well as Carmelo Anthony (37), Dwight Howard (36), Avery Bradley (31), Wayne Ellington (34), Kent Bazemore (32), Trevor Ariza (36), DeAndre Jordan (33) and Rajon Rondo (36).
Suffice to say, the strategy did not work out.
Jordan and Rondo are no longer on the team, while Ariza, Ellington and Bazemore have been regular healthy scratches. Anthony, Howard and Bradley are still seeing regular minutes, but none has been a real difference-maker.
‘The way they play’
Let’s use this section to talk about Westbrook.
Whatever you say about the former MVP, it’s hard to deny that few players in the NBA have outlined so clearly what they are. Westbrook is historically ball-dominant, can attack the paint, find an open man and rebound at a historically good rate for a guard. He isn’t an impact defender, he has never been an off-ball threat and, above all, he is a historically bad shooter. As in, the worst 3-point shooter in NBA history among players who have shot from deep as often as him.
Now, picture what the Lakers needed last offseason. They won a title by using James as their point guard, winning on defense and rebounding with the resulting size advantage, and surrounding their superstar with perimeter shooting talent. Their response to a disappointing season was … to add a point guard who is a negligible presence when James has the ball, does little on defense and shoots so badly he complained about being called “Westbrick” this season.
Westbrook was a big name to add last summer, but he was absolutely the wrong player to turn the Lakers back toward the land of contention, especially on his horrific $44 million salary this season. Combine that square peg in a round hole with an aging roster that unsurprisingly struggled on defense, and you have a fiasco.
‘He stays injured’
Anthony Davis time. Well, not just Davis, sadly.
Davis’ injury woes may be the Lakers’ biggest issue of the past two seasons, as his groin injury was basically a death blow to them last season against a very good Phoenix Suns team. This season, he missed a month-plus with an MCL sprain, then another month-plus with a foot injury.
The All-Star’s ability to stay on the court was the biggest worry when the Lakers traded for him. He has played fewer games in 2021-22 (40) and 2020-21 (36) than in even his most snakebitten season in New Orleans.
James also struggled to stay on the court this season, playing 56 games and missing Tuesday night’s elimination game with a sprained ankle, while Nunn was paid $5 million for what amounted to season tickets at Crytpo.com Arena. And, of course, there was your standard suite of short-term injuries for a team loaded with players on the wrong side of 30.
‘We’re past our time in the league’
We already covered the Lakers’ aging core, but their on-court ineffectiveness went beyond age, injuries and Westbrook.
Even when Los Angeles had the team it wanted, its Big 3 fully intact, the results were mediocre. In games with James, Davis and Westbrook all playing, the Lakers went 11-11. Their most recent game was that backbreaker against the Pelicans.
It didn’t matter who the Lakers had on the court, they were bad, as The Athletic’s John Hollinger breaks down:
The Lakers have been outscored this year with James on the court … and with Davis on the court … and with Russell Westbrook on the court. They have been outscored with James and Davis playing together, and when James plays without Davis, and when Davis plays without James. They’ve been outscored with James and Davis playing with Westbrook, and with James and Davis playing without Westbrook. Tell me the scenario, and the Lakers were beaten in it.
Yes, James produced at his usual clip and may even grab some All-NBA votes, but he was a Band-Aid covering a gaping wound. Even when he was on the court, Davis shot a laughable 19.1% from 3-point range and saw plenty other stats regress. Westbrook also saw his numbers massively diminish, posting fewer points, rebounds and assists on a per-minute clip while shooting 29.8% from 3-point range.
It’s hard to think of a single player outside of Monk, Austin Reaves and maybe Anthony who exceeded expectations this season.
‘Etc etc etc’
Now it’s time to discuss what the Lakers didn’t do and what they now have to do, subjects that could be more painful for Lakers fans than what happened this year.
The Westbrook trade may have been the team’s most impactful move last season, sending away 2019-20 starters Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as well as former Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and a first-round draft pick, but their second most impactful move was letting Alex Caruso walk.
Caruso may have arrived on the NBA stage as a meme/folk hero, but he developed into an important player for Los Angeles. He executed on offense when needed, stayed out of the way when not needed and blew up opponents’ game plans on defense. Above all, he meshed perfectly with James. No pair of players performed better on the court than James and Caruso in 2019-20. The Wall Street Journal aptly summed things up by calling the guard “The LeBron of playing with LeBron.”
Sounds like a pretty important player, no? Well, the Lakers didn’t seem to think so. Despite having the inside track on signing Caruso as a restricted free agent, Caruso says the Lakers waited until the 11th hour to throw a low-ball offer his way. He is now a Chicago Bulls fan favorite, while the Lakers gave their other young guard, Klutch client Talen Horton-Tucker, a three-year, $30 million deal they then tried and failed to trade at the deadline.
So the Lakers did not re-sign Caruso. They also did nothing at the trade deadline, as attempts to send away Westbrook fell through over the team’s unwillingness to trade its 2027 first-round draft pick, to James’ agent’s reported frustration. Then they did little of consequence at the buyout market, perhaps because the best available players wanted a clear track to the playoffs.
Add all that up, and you have a disaster, and maybe not a disaster that is over just because the Lakers’ season is effectively over.
Ideally, the Lakers could heavily retool for next season, but Westbrook’s $47 million player option represents an Ever Given-level blockage for that canal. There is basically only one player who can be traded in a vacuum for Westbrook’s contract, and that is John Wall, another aging point guard making $47 million next season. We know this because the two have already been traded for each other.
The Lakers could also look into using their 2027 and 2029 first-round draft picks to dump Westbrook for whatever they can get, but just how much is the team going to want to mortgage its future to save one season?
James has only one year remaining on his deal with the Lakers, and hasn’t been subtle with hints at his willingness to look elsewhere in free agency, especially if it lets him play with his son Bronny when he’s old enough for the NBA. He probably won’t be keen to stay if next season is a repeat of what happened this year.
But sure, maybe firing Frank Vogel will fix everything.