5 Reasons The Los Angeles Lakers Will Suck This Season
Juggernaut sports teams are easy to hate. They have all the money, all the good players, and the most entitled fans. Plus, any good underdog story (and people sure do love underdog sports stories) requires a villain. As former Los Angeles Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain famously said, “nobody roots for Goliath.”
The Lakers are one such pro sports Goliath. The fact that they easily transitioned from the end of Kobe Bryant's career to adding LeBron James mostly because LeBron likes living in LA seemed like just another reason to hate the Lakers trait of seemingly always having good things drop in their lap because they're the Lakers. They won a title immediately after adding Anthony Davis, maintaining Goliath status. But the LeBron era in LA has been rocky, with the massive disappointment of missing the play-in tournament in 2022. Here's why we don't expect a bounceback season.
The Russell Westbrook Situation Is Not Going To Improve
First things first: Russell Westbrook is awesome. He plays basketball like he's got the hammer in Super Smash Bros. After Oscar Robertson became the only player to average a triple-double in a season in 1962, no one else did it for more than 50 years…until Russell Westbrook made it so commonplace we all collectively started shrugging our shoulders at triple-doubles. Russell Westbrook rules. He should be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Look at this dunk!
And yet, Lakers blog Silver Screen and Roll's latest podcast is titled “Should Lakers Fans Be Bracing For A Russell Westbrook Return?” Why would a fanbase be “bracing” for the return of a former MVP? Well, to put bluntly: Westbrook has sucked on the Lakers. His three-point shooting can be described as “a complete and utter inability to understand where the rim could possibly exist.” His defense boils down to politely acknowledging that half of the court is place where other basketball players are. Teams don't guard him outside of eight feet, and that's just because they're being polite. Not only has Russ sucked, his game has been so ill-suited to the team around him that it was actively worse because of him. The Lakers went from champions to injured playoff team to missing the play-in, and it's mostly because Westbrook's steadfast refusal to ever adjust his game or fit into any situation that isn't “Russell Westbrook sprints at the basket and dunks as hard as he can.” Russ is as stylistically stubborn as they come, a 2020s version of late-stage Allen Iverson who can't accept that his body is telling him to change or retire.
So why not trade him? Well, Lakers' brass has tried, but an NBA offseason far too complicated to get into here has conspired to keep the number of Russ suitors to nil. The Lakers are acting like Westbrook will be around. They don't want to sit him while he's still under contract. Trade partners are dwindling. This whole column will be moot if the Pacers are willing to part with Myles Turner and Buddy Hield for Russ, which it looks like they're not. So we're acting like Russ is going to be around, ill-fitting distractions and all. Which just got extra-interesting, because the Lakers recently traded for point guard Patrick Beverley. About him…
Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook Have Hated Each Other Their Whole Careers
In a win-now move, the Lakers traded young prospect Talen Horton-Tucker and backup wing Stanley Johnson for rough-and-tumble-defender, famously-never-missed-the-playoffs point guard Patrick Beverley. PatBev offers a lot of things Russ doesn't: elite on-ball defense, a willingness to play off the ball, and a reliable ability to actually shoot a three and have it go near or even in the basket. One problem though: Patrick Beverley and Russell Westbrook hate each other's guts. In the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook dribbled towards the bench to call a timeout when Beverley dove at
his knees the ball and inadvertently tore Russ's meniscus, prematurely ending the serious playoff run of an Oklahoma City Thunder team with title hopes. The two were last seen calling each other trash and celebrating air balls.
Today, they are two guys who play the same position on the same team. They are going to have to figure out how to get along. Signs point positive: Westbrook was the only Laker at PatBev's introductory press conference. They encourage each other on social media. But asking two fiery, hilariously petty dudes like Russ and PatBev to put aside nearly a decade of hatred is a big locker room task for first-year head coach Darvin Ham, who's already said they'll have to compete for starting jobs.
NBA folks have put aside beefs before. Phil Jackson wrote a book about how Kobe Bryant was “uncoachable” before coming back to coach him to two titles. The 1996 Bulls added three players from the hated Bad Boy Pistons and everyone got along as well as one can get along with Dennis Rodman. There's a way Russ and PatBev can exist together on the court—Beverley can defend the other team's best guard so Russ doesn't wear out on that end—but the preseason bro-fest between the two former mortal enemies needs to last through June. It might not even really matter, because point guard beef-squashing may not even be panacea the Lakers need:
This Is Still Not A LeBron James Team
This should not have been goddamn hard. When you sign LeBron James, the first- or second-best basketball player of all time, you build you team such that it is precisely calibrated to succeed around him. What does a LeBron team need? Glad you asked, we have more than a decade of evidence on how you can get to the Finals with LeBron James: a rim-protecting center who doesn't need the ball unless he can shoot threes (Chris Bosh being the best example of a guy who can do both), a secondary playmaker (Dwyane Wade, Kyrie Irving), and an army of role players who can shoot threes and defend.
The 2020 champion Lakers looked like this: center Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee set screens and swatted shots, and guys like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green, and Kyle Kuzma filled in the blanks on the perimeter. Literally all of those players are gone. Fast forward to now, and the 2022 Lakers were statistically one of the biggest disappointments ever. They went all in on Westbrook, who is fundamentally the opposite of a good LeBron teammate. That's not a knock on Westbrook. It's just like making huge crossover movie starring Batman, Wolverine, and Rorschach, then expecting the dialogue to be anything more than overwrought growling. Trading for Westbrook ignored all observable evidence of what makes a good basketball team, and now trading Westbrook away is probably the only way for LeBron to win a fifth ring.
If the Lakers were to trade Westbrook to make this a “LeBron team," they'd have to get back what looks like a downgrade. The best-case scenario is probably what The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor lays out here, with Buddy Hield and Myles Turner costing the Lakers Westbrook plus a couple of first-round picks. Hield and Turner are both borderline All-Stars with National Team experience, so not exactly slugs. But on paper, the Lakers are giving up a former MVP for a starting wing and a center. Doesn't look great in a vacuum, especially if the Lakers have to lose more first round draft picks. Hey speaking of centers:
This Is Still Not An Anthony Davis Team (And That's Trickier)
Anthony Davis was a 6'2" guard until his senior year in high school, when a growth spurt shot him up to a 6'11" forward/center with guard skills. Given his slight frame (don't be fooled, Davis is strong as hell, but he's a finesse player, not a bruiser), he prefers to play the power forward position. Unfortunately, the modern NBA, with its emphasis on spacing and speed and highly skilled guards/wings, Davis is probably better off playing center. Just like LeBron is better off playing power forward, even though he'd prefer to play small forward. It's a conundrum the two are usually talented enough to work around—they did win a title with giant space-eaters like Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee clogging the middle.
The issue with Davis when he was in New Orleans was that he didn't get to play with the kind of drive-and-kick guard who could create their own shots while also setting up an offense centered around Davis. Jrue Holiday is awesome, but he was kinda being asked to be Spider-Man when he's more like Ant-Man. Being in Los Angeles has finally given AD the best pick-and-roll partner anyone could hope for in LeBron, but much like LeBron, not having shooters around clogs up the space where AD is most effective. Not many 6'11" guys can catch the ball above the three-point line and both shimmy and bully their way to the hoop; it sucks that Davis has an Iowa cornfield's worth of unfriendly jerseys greeting him at the basket.
While the Lakers should be focusing on getting LeBron another ring in his sunset years, they should also be focused on building around AD for the future. Davis is 29. He's in his prime. Knock on wood, he's got 6-7 more excellent seasons in him. Talen Horton-Tucker and Alex Caruso probably wouldn't have developed into the true Magic to his Kareem, but they were at least starter-quality guards who could've been stalwarts for the rest of the Davis era. Instead, the team is bereft of future assets, and the Davis era to come may have to build from scratch. That's because…
The End Always Looks Bad On LeBron Teams
The 2010 Cavaliers were full of guys-it-would've-been-cool-to-have-six-years-ago like Ben Wallace, Zyndrunas Illgauskas, Antawn Jamison, and Shaq. They went out with a whimper and a racist Dan Gilbert letter when LeBron took his talents to South Beach. The 2014 Miami Heat were so old, injured, and tired that the San Antonio Spurs 104-87 Game 5 Finals victory wasn't even as close as the 17-point blowout final score would suggest. Not even the Heat drafting LeBron's favorite player could keep him around. The Cleveland Cavaliers are just now starting to look decent after LeBron's 2018 departure, and even that turnaround is surprising. Getting an Old LeBron and In-His-Prime Anthony Davis was supposed to set the Lakers up for both present and future. Well, present is goddamn terrible (2020 championship aside) and future looks in doubt. The Lakers should have known they needed to treat this situation deftly. They've instead elected to say “we're the Lakers, it'll work out.”
It hasn't really worked out yet. That's a weird thing to say about a team that won a championship, but missing the playoffs twice when you have LeBron James is a disaster. The Lakers seem so convinced by their own Lakerness that things'll be fine. Kobe Bryant's final 60-point game, affable retirement personality and tragic premature passing has seemed to make everyone forget that the Lakers were trash at the end of Kobe's career and basically lucked into LeBron. LeBron's storybook ending was with Cleveland, where he's from. The latter tour in LA is an unprecedented third act for his long career. The Lakers are making it look like Pelè generously introducing the USA to soccer by playing on the New York Cosmos, not a coronating run of title contention. AND they've got nothing to build on for the future potentional Anthony Davis Era.
The front office seems infatuated with cap space to go after free agents in 2023, which is odd, because they won't have enough money to chase a max star. Filling out your roster with fringe guys and veterans chasing rings hurts continuity in intangible ways that the sheer talent of LeBron and AD can't cover. The Lakers already mortgaged their future to chase titles with LeBron, and time is running out. So why not pursue whatever trade you can get when “LeBron + AD = title" is still a thing? Moves like not extending Alex Caruso make the Lakers look cheap, and people are openly wondering if the Buss family should sell. Adam McKay's hilarious Winning Time certainly made it seem like the Buss family fortune is more house of cards than they'd probably like to be perceived. Everyone at the Crypto Dot Com Arena would benefit from a deep playoff run this season. But much like Crypto ever being a thing, that deep playoff run looks like little more than delusional hope.