What Is The Plan For the Los Angeles Lakers?

The Lakers just lost their second game in as many tries to begin this 2023 NBA season, this time to the Clippers by a score of 103-97. It was actually a tight game at times, but there were also stretches when the Lakers would fall behind 15+ and have to storm back in order to make it close. It was a lot more promising of a performance than the Golden State game on Tuesday.

Now, I don’t really blame the Lakers much for losing big to Golden State in the season opener. For one, the Lakers were a brand new roster playing their first ever game together under a rookie head coach. Meanwhile the Warriors are, in terms of how long their core and coach have been in place, easily the most experienced and cohesive team in the league.

Was it concerning that they only shot 10/40 from three in that game? Sure, but you could at least write it off as a bad shooting night.

Unfortunately, last night against the Clippers, the Lakers shot 9/45 from three, bringing them to 19/85 from three for the year through the first two games. One bad shooting night can be brushed off, but two straight and you have to start asking if maybe they’re just a bad shooting team, period.

19/85 from three ain’t good. That’s 22%. Most other teams in the NBA have only played one game so far, but I’ll bet once they’ve all got two under the belts by tomorrow night, that 22% from 3 mark for the Lakers will be the worst in the league, or at least among the very worst.

And in today’s NBA, where many games ultimately just boil down to which team is better from three, you’re not going to win many games going 22% from three.

Of course, LeBron James at age 37 played more minutes than anyone else in the game (37) other than his teammate Lonnie Walker, who played the same amount and was one of the few bright spots for the Lakers.

Yes, at age 37, LeBron is still playing more minutes than anybody else. Paul George for the Clippers played 36, and Kawhi, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL he suffered during the 2021 playoffs last June, came off the bench and played just 21 minutes. (I thought they were saying Kawhi potentially could have come back towards the end of last season around March/April, but apparently he still is not fully recovered to this day…)

You would think that in year 20, LeBron would be able to lean on his teammates a bit more, but no, he’s expected to hard carry his team just as much as he was when he was on the Cavaliers back in 2009.

But then you look at the box score for the Lakers

It’s hard not to look at the roster comparison between the Lakers and Clippers and wonder just what the hell they’re doing in purple and gold. The Clippers have an excellent roster. John Wall looked great in limited minutes; the Clippers just have incredible depth overall. Probably the best in the league. Robert Covington, Zubac, Norman Powell, Marcus Morris, Luke Kennard, Reggie Jackson, Terrence Mann–the depth is just ridiculous.

Meanwhile, the Lakers might be the most poorly constructed and incongruent roster in the league among teams who are actually trying to win games (as opposed to tank.)

Unfortunately in an NBA landscape dominated by rabid LeBron haters who have a problem with literally everything he does, they have a built-in counter to the observation that the Lakers have put the worst roster in the league around LeBron: “he’s the one who put that team together! LeGM!”

It’s a no-win situation, as usual. If Bron has a good team around him, he stacked the deck and built a super team. If he has a bad roster around him, it’s his own fault since Everybody Knows He’s The GM.

Does this look like a roster LeBron James would build? Think about that.

Every team LeBron has been on since 2006 that had any success at all (and all of them until last year were successful) has been built the same way: LeBron and one other star player surrounded by guys who could play defense and shoot the ball. It’s a proven formula, tried and true, and had been working for nearly two decades.

This Lakers team is nothing like that. So you tell me, why—if LeBron is really the GM of the Lakers and is the one who built the team down to the 15th man on the end of the bench—in year 19 and 20 would LeBron suddenly decide to build a team that looks nothing like the teams he’s traditionally won with?

Hm? What the answer to that?

If LeBron was truly the GM of the Lakers and has final say over all personnel decisions, why would he build this roster? Why would he build a roster that, excluding his own poor 2/8 from three performance, shot 7/37 from three?

The answer is that he didn’t build the roster. He doesn’t have complete control over all roster moves.

You think if LeBron truly was in charge of the Lakers personnel they wouldn’t have made the trade for Buddy Hield and Myles Turner already? Nobody with a functioning brain could believe that. The asking price for that trade is Westbrook, a 2027 and 2029 first round pick. Do you think if it was up to LeBron he wouldn’t have made that move back in July? What does he care about 2027 and 2029 first round picks?

No, this is Rob Pelinka’s roster. It’s Jeanie Buss’ roster. It’s Kurt and Linda Rambis and Phil Jackson’s roster. They’re the ones who refuse to trade the 2027 and 2029 draft picks. Not without good reason, of course, but the point here is, if it was up to LeBron, they would have made that trade a long time ago.

This is so far from the rosters that LeBron has traditionally won with.

Honestly, part of me was wondering if this has all just been a way to sabotage LeBron’s career and ensure he never catches Kobe in rings, but then if that were true, why would LeBron have signed a contract extension with the Lakers?

This is just a guess, but my hunch is that the Lakers are waiting to make a trade. This is so far from the rosters that LeBron has traditionally won with that it just has to be shaken up. There’s no way he would’ve signed the extension without assurances that it would be. And so I’m fairly confident that Russell Westbrook will not finish this season as a member of the Lakers. According to Woj the Snake, the Lakers are planning to wait until at least December to make a big trade and shake up this roster:

It makes sense. The only problem is that the Lakers are one of the teams that had not started off well. They might be 6-14 by the time December rolls around.

All that said, there’s still—despite the 0-2 record, despite being 19/85 from deep, and despite the inherent flaws in the roster—a lot to like about this Lakers team. They were fun to watch in spurts last night. There’s some promise there. There are things that work.

Anthony Davis pick and rolls, for one. And they played really tough defense most of the night. Even Russell Westbrook looked scrappy and tenacious on defense, coming up with five steals in the game. Clearly Westbrook has heard the chatter about him potentially not even having a spot in the NBA next year once his contract expires. However, he was an abysmal 0/11 from the floor for 2 points, 3 rebounds and 4 assists. It goes without saying but in a game the Lakers lost by just 6 points, you can pretty much pin it all on the guy that went 0/11 from the field and only got to the free throw line twice.

Now, in Westbrook’s defense, he was not entirely an albatross for the Lakers. He was not actively weighing them down in all facets of the game because he was at least pretty good on defense. Going 0/11 from the floor definitely outweighs his defensive contributions, but he was at least able to contribute something positive to the team, which is a nice development.

Most of last year, Russ was actively detrimental to the team. Like if five guys were pulling in one direction on a rope, he was not just not pulling in the same direction, he was pulling in the opposite direction. There’s no way you can overcome that. You can overcome one guy being really weak or not pulling at all, but you cannot overcome one guy facing the complete opposite direction and pulling the other way. Not when every other team has all five guys pulling in the same direction. And so it was nice to see Westbrook contribute something positive, or even net zero to the team, instead of net negative.

Lonnie Walker had a really nice game, going for 26 points on 9/21 shooting. He had some fast breaks that really put his speed and explosiveness on display. Lonnie Walker looks like a great MLE signing for the Lakers. Now, he was just 2/9 from three, which wasn’t pretty, but that means he was 7/12 on two pointers, which is really good. If they can just clean up his shot selection, he can be a really nice piece for them—a spark of energy that gets the crowd into it, instant offense.

However, Lonnie Walker basically has to shoot threes. There’s nobody else on this Laker roster that can shoot threes. It’s not as if Lonnie is pulling threes that other guys should be taking. He may not be their best three point shooter, but there’s nobody else on that roster you can point to and say he’s clearly significantly better than Lonnie from three.

Patrick Beverley was 1/7 from the floor and 1/6 from three. So he and Russ were a combined 1/18 from the floor. It’s pretty much impossible to overcome that, and in this light it’s actually impressive that the Lakers only lost this game by 6 points. Outside of those two, the Lakers were 32/76 from the floor overall, which isn’t great (42%). But it’s a lot better than 35.1% shooting.

Also, Kendrick Nunn went 0/7 from the floor in 11 minutes. He clearly didn’t have it last night, although he did miss a full season so I’ll cut him some slack. But still: him, Westbrook and Beverley were a combined 1/25 from the floor and 1/16 from three. You can’t win with that. It’s a miracle the score was as close as it was, honestly. You expect them to be better going forward, as that’s bad even for bad shooters.

The issue is that the Lakers just don’t have enough reliable shooters to get to the point where you can say, “Okay, only these guys are going to be taking threes. The rest of you just forget about threes.” You have to shoot threes when you’re open for them pretty much no matter who you are in today’s NBA. Otherwise the other team will just pack the paint and pack the lane.

You cannot just be a team that shoots twos in today’s NBA. In fact you probably need at least 3 of your players on the floor at any given time to be able to hit threes. Look at the Warriors: Steph, Klay, Wiggins, Poole and even JaMychal Green (36.8% career 3P) can hit threes consistently. Given that some combination of Steph, Klay, Wiggins and Poole are on the floor for 95% of their games, they have more than enough shooting. Also look at Boston: most of their main rotation guys can hit threes. Tatum, Brown, Smart is streaky, Grant Williams, Brogdon, Derrick White—they’re all capable of hitting threes consistently. No matter what lineup they have out there, they have at least two shooters on the floor. It’s a well-constructed roster.

The Lakers don’t have one guy who is as reliable as any of those guys on Boston. Maybe LeBron, who is streaky from three but overall hits them at a pretty high rate when you consider that most of his three point looks are self-generated, and not assisted. But even LeBron has been bad from three to open this season, so I guess you can’t say he’s consistent from three, can you?

But LeBron is not supposed to be your best three point shooter. He’s never been the primary three point shooter for his team. Other teams would be happy if he’s just sitting back pulling from the logo all game. They’ll take that 10 out of 10 times over him attacking the rim and kicking it out to perimeter shooters.

So the Lakers need shooting in a major way. Even just one guy who can play competent defense while shooting above 38% from downtown—they desperately need that.

But I noticed something else that concerned me in the Clippers game, too: the Lakers got out-rebounded badly. The Clippers had a 58-38 edge on the glass in that game. That’s huge. You can’t win a game when you’re getting beaten that bad on the glass. Zubac was absolutely destroying the Lakers down low. He had 14 points and 17 rebounds on 6/6 shooting. You can pin some of that on Anthony Davis, but when the Lakers roll out a lineup of LeBron, AD, Westbrook, Beverley and Lonnie Walker, you should expect that to happen.

AD is not a traditional plant-under-the-rim center. He’s better playing the 4, not the 5, but unfortunately the Lakers’ actual centers, Damian Jones and Thomas Bryant, haven’t been able to get on the floor. They’ve not been good, and Jones only played 7 minutes last night. So basically it was just AD playing big man for the Lakers. And LeBron finished with 10 rebounds to AD’s 8, so I guess LeBron was also on low post duty, in addition to having to do everything else in year 20.

LeBron is a good rebounder, and AD is a beast of a player, but you need a true center in there to really make that an effective front court. And clearly Damian Jones and Thomas Bryant are not it.

The Myles Turner + Buddy Hield trade is really the main thing for the Lakers right now. Every problem they have that I just went over would be at least addressed somewhat by making that trade—Westbrook for Turner and Hield.

They’d get rid of Westbrook, they’d add shooting, and they’d add interior size.

I’m not saying that trade instantly turns them into championship favorites or anything, but it absolutely makes them a better and more complete team—at the very least a team that makes sense on paper.

I’m sure that’s the plan here, or at least some other trade that brings in shooting and size. There is no way the Lakers can go a full 82 game season built like this.

Fortunately for the Lakers, everyone has now seen Victor Wembanyama play, and so the tanking game is on. Russell Westbrook’s expiring contract got way more valuable because of how good Victor looked.

In the coming weeks and months, the teams that decide they’re tanking for Wembanyama will be asking for Westbrook. Lakers fans are pissed because they feel like the team needs to make the trade now, before the season gets out of hand, and they certainly have a point. But the Lakers front office believes they’ll be able to get a much better deal in the coming months. That’s their calculated risk.

Obviously the possible complication is if they start off like 7-13 or something like that, and other teams know they’re desperate to make a trade, thus undercutting the Lakers’ negotiating leverage.

But again, it’s a calculated risk.

I believe LeBron signed the extension with the Lakers with the understanding that a trade would be made to fix this roster at some point. I’m sure there’s a cut-off point in the season, either a date on the calendar or a win/loss record trigger point where the team will have to make the trade no matter what. Like if it hits December 10 and the trade hasn’t been made, just send the first round picks. Or if they are 7-13 after 20 games or something, they make the trade no matter what.

Anyone with a functioning brain can see that this Lakers roster does not work. It’s the most poorly constructed roster in the NBA. It makes the least sense of any team that is actually trying to win.

But honestly, after that Clippers game last night, I would not be all that discouraged given how close it was. Yes, it’s soul-crushing watching Westbrook, Beverley and Nunn–and everyone else–brick dozens upon dozens of threes. But I think it’s going to get better.

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