The Los Angeles Lakers were at their best before the season started — when on paper and per the oddsmakers they were considered among the favorites to win the NBA title.
By once the games began, the Lakers were average, and by the final of week of the season, they weren’t very good at all — a $150 million roster with big names and nothing to show for it.
The Lakers were eliminated from postseason contention with Tuesday’s 121-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns, an appropriate and disappointing conclusion to the 2021-22 season.
A confluence of detrimental factors emptied into a sea of trouble: injuries; poor roster construction, including the trade for Russell Westbrook; inability to improve the roster before the February trade deadline; a strong and improving Western Conference.
All that creates another problem: next season might be even less promising than the present season.
The Lakers will finish with a losing season, marking the seventh time in nine seasons they were sub-.500. Through that run, the Lakers have had four coaches, and it could be a fifth if they decide to move on from Frank Vogel, who led the franchise to a title in 2020.
That championship was important, tying the Lakers with Boston for the most titles (17) in NBA history. There are teams who would love to have had a title in the past four seasons, including teams who have never won a title or haven’t won one in five decades.
But the Lakers aren’t the most franchises. When they signed LeBron James four years ago and acquired Anthony Davis three years ago, competing for multiple championships was expected. And the Lakers did that just once. They missed the playoffs in James’ first season, won a title in the Orlando bubble his second, lost in the first round last season and missed the postseason again in 2021-22.
Regardless of how this is framed from the Lakers’ perspective, more was expected in the past four seasons.
Insults hurt the Lakers, without question. Davis has missed 38 games, James 21, Kendrick Nunn basically the entire season, Talen Horton-Tucker 18, and Trevor Ariza 30.
A healthy Davis and James certainly elevate the Lakers to a playoff team but not sure it makes them a title contender. Durability is also an issue. Davis played in just half of Los Angeles’ games this season and half last season, and James has missed about a third of the possible games in the past two seasons.
If that continues to be an issue, roster changes won’t be enough. The Lakers need a healthy James and Davis to compete in the West.
And if James and Davis are healthy, they need a better roster. Ill-fated and ill-advised, the trade for Westbrook was a gamble that lost. Westbrook didn’t have his best season and struggled to find a role that allowed him to thrive. His shooting percentages and turnover rate were similar to other seasons, and it wasn’t expected he would match his scoring, rebounding and assists numbers on a team with James and Davis.
In the 21 games, James, Davis and Westbrook played together, the Lakers were just 11-10. Westbrook wasn’t a good fit. He was part of the problem, but he wasn’t the problem. The Lakers needed more players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Alex Caruso – precisely the players they either traded for Westbrook or let walk in free agency.
After acquiring Westbrook, the Lakers didn’t have the means to sign the type of players who provide the skill and depth needed to win in the West.
The Lakers weren’t that good from the start and had a winning record just a few times during the season – from 6-5 to 8-6; 14-13 to 16-13 to 16-15; 20-19 to 21-19 to 21-20.
From 22-22 on Jan. 17, the Lakers were never at .500 again, going 9-26 after Tuesday’s loss to the Suns. Just three teams had a worse winning percentage, and the Lakers were unable to make a move of consequence before the February trade deadline.
Even at the All-Star break, Los Angeles was 27-31 and in ninth place—in position to make a run at the seventh seed, plus 2½ games ahead of Portland and 4½ ahead of New Orleans and San Antonio. When the Lakers needed to win games in late February, March and April, they went 4-17. Only Portland had a worse winning percentage, with San Antonio and New Orleans moving into the play-in game contention.
The Lakers simply weren’t good enough — 23rd offensively and defensively. The Lakers gave up too many points in the paint (27th in the league) and didn’t have enough outside shooting. Malik Monk, perhaps the Lakers’ best free-agent signing in 2021, wasn’t enough from deep, and his performance this season probably earned him a better deal in the offseason with another team.
This season is done. What about next season? It doesn’t look promising.
In the short term, watch what the Lakers do with Vogel. Sometimes, someone has to take the fall. With limited roster flexibility, trying a new voice isn’t unusual.
The NBA draft? Well, there’s a tasty morsel here. If the Lakers’ pick falls between 1-10, it goes to New Orleans, a byproduct of the 2019 trade that sent Davis to the Lakers and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart to the Pelicans.
After that, the responsibility is on vice president of basketball operations Rob Pelinka. He crafted this roster, and it’s his job to improve it. That won’t be easy. The Lakers have no salary cap space as long as Westbrook declines the players options on the $47 million he is due in 2022-23. Between James, Westbrook and Davis, they eat up $129.45 million next season, which is above the projected per team salary cap of $122 million.
They will need to build around the fringes with the taxpayer midlevel exception (projected at $6.4 million for the season) and the veteran’s minimum ($953,000-$2.72 million). That’s not a great way to rebuild a contender. Their margin for error is narrow, and there is competition from better teams to sign those same players. If you’re player looking for a title and willing to sign at a discount, would you rather sign with Phoenix or the Lakers? Nuggets or Lakers? Celtics or Lakers? Sixers or Lakers?
A trade for Westbrook is not impossible. Less than a year ago, the Wizards pulled it off, finding a team desperate to make a move. That same desperation is hard to imagine this offseason, especially at $47 million for 2022-23.
The Lakers could take the extreme option and try to trade Davis. That seems unlikely considering James’ relationship with Davis, and that James and Davis are represented by the same agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.
Any team with James and Davis provides a solid starting point even in a deep Western Conference that could be even better next season.
But Pelinka — if Lakers owners Jeanie Buss decides to keep him charge — needs to make quick fixes in a scenario where quick fixes look unrealistic.
There’s another wrinkle to the Lakers’ front-office machinations, and that’s the influence of former Lakers forward Kurt Rambis, who holds a nebulous title: director, basketball affairs. Rambis and his wife, Linda, who is the team’s executive director of community relations and special events, are close with Buss. Their influence, especially Kurt’s, shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to, uh, basketball affairs.
The Lakers were adrift following Phil Jackson’s departure and amid Kobe Bryant’s final seasons. They rediscovered magic with James and Davis in 2020 but that appears the exception to the past decade of Lakers ball.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.