Sportsbooks have pegged the Los Angeles Lakers as the clear favorite in the Western Conference heading into the 2021-22 season, but should they be?
After acquiring Russell Westbrook and overhauling their supporting cast, the Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2021-22 season as the clear betting favorite in the Western Conference.
WynnBet has the Lakers as a +160 to win the West, far ahead of the Golden State Warriors (+450), Utah Jazz (+750), Phoenix Suns (+800), Denver Nuggets (+1000), Dallas Mavericks (+1200) and Los Angeles Clippers (+1200). Other sportsbooks are similarly bullish on them.
Too bullish, perhaps.
It’s easy to understand the optimism surrounding the Lakers. They still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who led them to a championship in 2020. Having two top-10 players gives them a huge margin for error, but they also beefed up their supporting cast this offseason.
Westbrook has averaged a triple-double in four of the past five seasons, a feat which was previously unimaginable. The Lakers also added stars of yonder year such as Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, and they rounded it out with role players like Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington and Kent Bazemore.
Add some inexpensive youth to the mix — namely Kendrick Nunn, Malik Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker — and you have the recipe for a potential championship contender. Easy as that, right?
Are we sure the Los Angeles Lakers should be the championship favorites?
For one, questions remain about Westbrook’s fit alongside James and Davis. While the nine-time All-Star has been a walking triple-double for the past half-decade, he’s also been among the league’s leaders in questionable decision-making.
Westbrook is one of only two players over the past five seasons to average at least four turnovers per game every year, joining Brooklyn Nets guard James Harden. No other player has more than two seasons with four-plus giveaways per game over that span. He also had a career-high 18.0 turnover percentage last season with the Washington Wizards.
Careless turnovers are typically a cardinal sin for point guards, but Westbrook’s relentless aggression helps blunt the pain of those giveaways. The pressure he puts on the rim is second to none, particularly in transition, although he sometimes finds himself in no man’s land when his driving lanes unexpectedly close.
The Lakers have one of the league’s best playmaking forwards in James, so they can turn more of their offense over to the four-time MVP in crunch time. The bigger question mark regarding Westbrook’s fit in L.A. is his long-range shooting.
The 32-year-old is a historically poor 3-point shooter. Among players in NBA history who have attempted at least 1,500 triples, Westbrook has the sixth-worst efficiency from deep (30.9 percent), trailing only Charles Barkley, Corey Brewer, Josh Smith, Ron Harper and Dwyane Wade.
On a team where he’s flanked by sharpshooters, that’s less of an issue. However, neither James (career 34.5 percent from deep) nor Davis (career 31.2 percent from deep) are above-average 3-point shooters. If those three ever share the floor with either Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan, opponents figure to pack the paint and dare the Lakers to beat them from deep.
The Lakers’ center rotation is another potential thorn in their championship upside.
Howard and Jordan are both multi-time All-Stars, but they’re each heading into the twilight of their careers and are relics of a previous era. They can still do damage in pick-and-rolls, as lob threats and with putbacks, but neither will provide much else offensively.
Given the spacing concerns that will likely arise whenever those two share the floor with Westbrook, James, Davis and/or Rondo, head coach Frank Vogel’s rotations will be critical. Philadelphia 76ers head coach Doc Rivers repeatedly played Howard alongside another non-shooter in Ben Simmons last year, and the results were predictably disastrous.
According to Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer (h/t Lakers Supply), Klutch Sports superagent Rich Paul told other agents at the Chicago combine that James and Davis plan to slide up to the 4 and 5, respectively. Howard and Jordan might only serve as regular-season minutes-eaters at center to keep Davis fresh until the playoffs.
The Lakers would be far better off with Westbrook, James and Davis sharing the floor with two shooters. But if they dabble with giving Howard and Jordan minutes alongside their Big Three in the postseason, spacing issues could come back to bite them.
Health is the Lakers’ other big potential obstacle. They’re entering the season with the highest average age of any team in the league, per RealGM, as only four of their players are younger than 32. The 2012-13 Miami Heat are the only team in the past decade-and-a-half to win a championship with an older roster, according to NBA.com’s Kane Pitman.
James used to be one of the NBA’s top ironmen, but he’s now missed at least 25 games in two of the past three seasons. Davis has yet to play in more than 75 games in a season, and he missed 36 last year with a litany of lower-body injuries. He also suffered a groin strain in Game 4 of the Lakers’ first-round series against the Phoenix Suns, and they immediately lost three straight games to end their title defense with a whimper.
If the Lakers don’t have a fully healthy James and Davis heading into the 2022 playoffs, their championship dreams will be on life support. The top of the West is too talented to get through without both of their megastars.
The Suns are largely running back the same core that came within two wins of a championship last year. The Jazz have the same group that finished with the NBA’s best record last season, and they bolstered their bench with Rudy Gay and Hassan Whiteside. If either Kawhi Leonard or Jamal Murray return from their respective ACL tears before the playoffs, the Clippers and Nuggets will be lurking as legitimate title threats, too.
The same goes for the Warriors if Klay Thompson is anywhere close to his pre-injury form. Stephen Curry almost single-handedly dragged them to the playoffs last year, and Golden State rounded out his supporting cast this offseason with veterans Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica along with rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody.
Kuminga, Moody and 2020 No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman might all be too inexperienced to help Curry, Thompson and Draymond Green bring the Warriors back to the Finals, but no team will be excited to draw them in the playoffs. They’re perhaps the biggest wild card in the West heading into the season.
None of this is to say that the Lakers can’t win the 2022 title. They proved doubters wrong two years ago, and it’s hard to bet against a team with two top-10 players. If Westbrook fits in seamlessly alongside James and Durant, the Lakers might wind up deservedly being the favorites in the West.
If last year’s Suns and the 2019-20 Jazz are any indication, though, it often takes time for a high-usage point guard to get his bearings in a new situation. Westbrook went through the same struggles last year in Washington. And if the Lakers get off to a slow start while the Suns and Jazz surge out of the gates, they might wind up losing out on home-court advantage in the playoffs.
Between the health, chemistry and fit concerns, it’s fair to be more bearish on the Lakers than the betting market currently is.