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When we last saw the Los Angeles Lakers, they were careening out of the playoff picture, losing eight straight games from late March through early April as a fetid topper to a rotten season.
L.A. went from the oddsmakers’ NBA Finals favorite to missing the play-in tournament, as injuries and an ill-conceived roster made for a miserable year.
The fallout was swift.
Just 18 months removed from helping to deliver the franchise’s first title in a decade, Frank Vogel was shown the door. The team’s backend of the roster — many of whom qualified as former stars or former Lakers, or both — was completely overhauled. For the second time in four years since LeBron James committed to the franchise, L.A.’s front office adopted a bunker mentality in the offseason, spending the summer scrambling to fix the mistakes made the previous season.
Rather than blow it all up, however, Lakers governor Jeanie Buss stood by two stakeholders in the operation: James and Rob Pelinka. Both received contract extensions; James inking a deal that will keep him in purple and gold through the 2024-25 season and Pelinka re-upping his deal to remain the vice president of basketball operations and general manager a season beyond that.
James and Pelinka, along with new coach Darvin Ham whom James endorsed during the hiring process, will be tasked with getting the franchise to rediscover the fleeting success it enjoyed in 2020 — success that is supposedly what the Laker brand is all about.
While the flames from last season’s dumpster fire may have been extinguished, there are some potentially troublesome lingering embers that threaten to derail this year’s team all over again.
Here are the five biggest questions the Lakers face for the 2022-23 season:
No, really, when are they trading Russell Westbrook?
After Westbrook opted in to the final year of his $47.1 million contract in late June, Pelinka got busy working the phones. He hoped to find a trade partner to not only take on Westbrook, but give L.A. back some pieces that could better fit around James and Anthony Davis in the process.
The only problem was that outside of the former MVP’s expiring contract — a big, but potentially useful number for a team hoping to shed long-term salary commitments to free up cap space for free agency hunting in the summer of 2023 and beyond — L.A. didn’t have much else to offer other than their own first-round picks in 2027 and 2029.
The Lakers engaged in trade talks with the Utah Jazz, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets, sources said, and the conversations often hit a similar snag. Several teams that the Lakers engaged with insisted on L.A. including both of their future first-rounders in a deal; the Lakers were determined to trade only one of the two unless the package would return a can’t-miss-talent such as Donovan Mitchell or Kyrie Irving.
With the Nets uninterested in breaking up their team and the Jazz accepting a major haul from Cleveland for Mitchell, the smaller deals that were discussed stalled out, and L.A. came into training camp with Westbrook on the roster.
L.A. did bake in some insurance by signing Dennis Schroder to a veteran minimum deal in mid-September after expressing interest in the former Laker all summer. The Lakers originally planned to have found a trade partner for Westbrook before signing Schroder, sources said. But after the point guard’s strong showing for Germany in the FIBA EuroBasket tournament generated interest around the league, L.A. signed him before another team could.
The Lakers’ most optimistic outlook for Westbrook is that Ham will get through to him in a way that Vogel couldn’t, and the nine-time All-Star will have a bounce-back season with some better effort defensively and better discretion offensively. Ham closed out the preseason by bringing Westbrook off the bench, a lineup the Lakers will continue to explore during the regular season, sources told ESPN.
Another thought process, perhaps more realistic, is that more and more potential trade partners will open up as teams will be tantalized to join in the tankathon to get to the top of the 2023 NBA draft where a generational talent in Victor Wembanyama and a blue chip prospect in Scoot Henderson await.
Where is the shooting?
L.A. ranked 22nd in the league in 3-point percentage last season and then opened the preseason by shooting 58-for-198 (29.3%) from deep through the first five games.
Pelinka suggested it was a concern on media day by saying, “I think in terms of shooting, that’s a needed skill.”
But if the Lakers are waiting on the ideal Westbrook deal before exploring the trade market to identify a shooter or two, things could continue to look pretty grim from beyond the arc.
Helping the situation are guards Patrick Beverley, a career 37.8% marksman from the outside, and Kendrick Nunn (36.4%). Rookie Cole Swider out of Syracuse hit multiple 3s in multiple games during the preseason. Training camp invitee Matt Ryan hit six 3s against the Golden State Warriors, which could be enough to get him at least a partially-guaranteed contract stay with the team. James, of course, is capable from deep, but his 35.9% on 8.0 attempts last season featured just eight games when he made four 3s or more while making at least half of his attempts.
Davis revealed in training camp that a wrist injury affected his shot last season, and Westbrook declared he will shoot it better and has focused on corner 3s after shooting 23-for-51 (45.1%) from the corners last year. But when you’re talking yourself into that group of shooters, it’s obvious there is something missing.
Ham says that he prefers two-way players who can defend and shoot over 3-point specialists and that by getting stops and running to the right spots in transition, the Lakers can make 3s at an efficient clip with the current roster.
“We want to play fast,” he said. “We want to keep the middle of the floor open and it’s going to be opportunities all over the place.”
What happens if LeBron actually starts to show his age?
James is embarking on his 20th season and turns 38 in December. While there is no doubt he has redefined how long a player’s prime can supposedly last — he averaged 30 points last season — injuries have piled up.
After missing just 71 games through his first 15 years in the league, James sat out 84 games in four years since joining the Lakers.
“The focus of my game is being available,” James said on media day, acknowledging the absences by stating his personal goal for the season. “That’s the most important. Obviously some injuries you can’t control, but that’s my whole mindset.”
With James, not only is it nearly impossible to replace the production he provides when he’s on the court, it’s also a fool’s errand to try to replicate. From his mastery of the game to how opponents strategize to neutralize him, when James misses time, his teams normally nosedive.
If James is limited this season, it could spoil what should be a momentous occasion: him needing 1,326 points to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for No. 1 on the all-time scoring list. If the record is broken during another losing season in L.A., the accomplishment will ring hollow.
Can this Lakers squad get consistent stops?
“We’re going be able to get stops. We should be able to be one of the elite defensive teams. We’re going put the work in … we have the personnel for it. And now it’s just all about activating and making it come to fruition.”
On media day, Ham set the defensive bar at “elite” for his team, despite L.A. ranking 21st in defensive efficiency a year ago.
The addition of Beverley and a healthy Davis — a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate when not injured — will help. Younger players with active bodies such as Lonnie Walker IV, Troy Brown Jr., Austin Reaves, Wenyen Gabriel, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Damian Jones and Max Christie could help, too.
But there still are reasons to be skeptical about the group as a whole, particularly out on the perimeter where James and Westbrook have been spotty at this stage of their careers. James’ preseason showing against the Phoenix Suns, when he was in chasedown block mode, was an encouraging sign of his defensive buy-in, but he saves his energy in bursts for the most part.
Ham laid out his expectations for Westbrook during the preseason, stating in no certain terms that his role will be contingent upon defensive commitment.
“It’s just continuously engaging him and making him understand how beneficial it will be for him to just attack all facets of the game like he does when he’s at the helm and with the ball and orchestrating or doing whatever, putting pressure on the rim. He has to put that type of pressure and energy into different facets of the game,” Ham said. “He gave me his word and he’s an honorable guy, so I anticipate him only getting better.”
Are injuries the only thing that can truly stop Anthony Davis?
Much like James said his goal is to be available to his teammates this season, Davis shared the sentiment and took it a step further: He wants to play in all 82 games during the regular season.
Apart from missing more games that he played in for the Lakers the last two seasons, there was a sentiment within the team’s front office last season that Davis didn’t look like the franchise player they thought they had coming off the 2020 championship, sources said.
Davis’ body didn’t cooperate with him already in training camp, with lower back tightness causing him to miss a chunk of time, including half of their preseason games.
Ham has hinted heavily that he will go with Davis as his starting 5 to begin the season, something that Davis has bucked against in the past.
“He knows I’m not going to put him in a situation to get beat up or that he’s not going to be able to excel at his highest form,” Ham said this week. “I’m looking at him more as a weapon for us offensively. Him bringing shot blockers out of the paint. I think he’ll be fine.”
Davis openly accepted playing center when asked about the potential assignment, but acknowledged his prior preference.
“At the end of the day, I trust coach’s decision,” Davis said. “I mean, I’m pretty sure he heard AD wants to play the 4, so he knows where I stand, but at the end of the day, I want to win, so if that’s me playing the 5, that’s what it’s got to be.”
For all the analyzing that can go into this Lakers season, all the different lineup possibilities that can be trotted out, all the potential deals the front office could strike, if Davis can play in more than 85% of the Lakers’ games like he did in his first season in L.A., things start to look mighty rosier for the purple and gold.