At 37 years old, LeBron James is having one of the best seasons of his 18-year NBA career.
The Los Angeles Lakers star is averaging 28.8 points (his most since 2009-10), 7.6 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 33 games this season, shooting 51.7% from the field, 36.4% from three and 75.4% from the free-throw line, all above his career averages. After a relatively slow start and then an abdominal injury that sidelined him for eight games, James has been an MVP-level player over his last 15 games, averaging 33/9/6 on 53/37/75 shooting splits with 1.5 steals and 1.3 blocks.
And yet his Lakers – who entered the season as title contenders and who are 15 months removed from winning an NBA championship – are 22-23 on the season, including 6-9 over that same stretch. They currently rank eighth in the Western Conference standings, firmly in the play-in tournament if the season were to end today.
Worse than that, the Lakers are experiencing internal strife, with head coach Frank Vogel reportedly on the hot seat fighting for his job, and the stubbornly proud Russell Westbrook being benched down the stretch of their most recent home loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday night.
Vogel explained his benching of Westbrook as: “Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game.” And Westbrook said he was “disappointed” by the decision but remains determined to figure it out with the Lakers, saying, “I’ve done everything that’s been asked of me here, and I’ll continue to do so and ride this out as long as we can toward our ultimate goal – and that’s to win a championship.”
— Earvin Magic Johnson (@MagicJohnson) January 16, 2022
#LakerNation I apologize and I promise we’ll be better! 👑💜💛
— LeBron James (@KingJames) January 17, 2022
But are Vogel and Westbrook actually at fault for the Lakers’ struggles this season? Or was the composition of this team doomed from the start?
To be fair, the Lakers are missing 28-year-old big man Anthony Davis, who has missed 15 games and counting with a sprained MCL in his left knee but could return as soon as this week. But it’s not like the Lakers were world-beaters before Davis’ injury, going 13-14 with Davis in the lineup this season as he struggled to shoot the ball (17.9% from three) and provide the requisite spacing for James and Westbrook to co-exist.
Clearly, the Lakers’ problems go beyond injuries or bouts with Covid-19, which every NBA team has dealt with this season. In reality, the problems date back to the offseason, when the Lakers front office – led by general manager Rob Pelinka and no doubt advised by (assistant GM) LeBron James – made a number of questionable decisions that culminated in the roster being ill-fitting and the players being by far the oldest in the league, with an average age of 30.0.
By adding several past-their prime stars including Carmelo Anthony (37), Dwight Howard (36), Trevor Ariza (36), DeAndre Jordan (33), and to a lesser extent even Westbrook (33), the Lakers bucked the league-wide trend of youth in favor of veterans. But those veterans have struggled to perform, especially on the defensive end of the floor, where they contribute to the Lakers’ 20th-ranked defense.
Plus, where the Lakers did go young, they seem to have made a significant mistake, choosing to re-sign unproven but promising 21-year-old combo-guard Talen Horton-Tucker to a three-year, $31m contract (including a player-option on the final year) instead of holding on to a proven thing in 27-year-old shooting guard Alex Caruso, who spent his first four seasons with the Lakers and fit in perfectly besides James. Horton-Tucker has been disappointing and inefficient this season while Caruso, who signed a modest four-year, $37m contract (including a partially guaranteed final year) with the Chicago Bulls this offseason, has been better in virtually every statistical category and has helped drive the feel-good Bulls to the top of the Eastern Conference.
But the biggest miscue of all was the Westbrook trade. After going 42-30 last season – a disappointing record at the time but one that they would do anything to have now – the Lakers took a swing for the fences, trading Kyle Kusma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the No 22 pick in the 2021 NBA draft to the Washington Wizards for Westbrook.
Sure, the 2017 NBA MVP was coming off a fantastic second-half of the season with the Wizards, where he (and Bradley Beal) willed the team to a 18-7 finish and the 8th seed, averaging 23/14/14(!) on 45/33/74 shooting splits. But Westbrook was always going to be a clunky fit besides James (and to a lesser extent Davis), because while he is one of the most electrifying and athletic point guards to ever play the game, he is ultimately a non-shooter who needs the ball in his hands to succeed. It never made sense to take the ball out of James’ hands – arguably the greatest on-ball player the NBA has ever seen – to accommodate Westbrook.
Plus, the Westbrook trade made the Lakers financially inflexible and bereft of meaningful assets.
As one of the highest-paid players in the NBA, Westbrook makes $44m this season (and $47m next year), so the Lakers were forced to fill out the rest of their roster with minimum-salary contracts – hence the old players at the end of their careers.
Clearly, the Lakers took a swing and missed. But they haven’t struck out just yet. After all, this is the Lakers we are talking about, and normal rules do not apply to the NBA’s most glamorous franchise; nor do they apply to teams led by James, arguably the greatest basketball player ever, who is relentlessly chasing his fifth ring.
Davis will be back soon, and Vogel will try to make the Westbrook-James-Davis trio work for as long as he remains in the coaching chair. The good news is that the Lakers have been very good when those three share the court and even better when they do so without a traditional center, outscoring opponents by 12.2 points per 100 possessions in those lineups. It will be key for the Lakers to build continuity in the second half of the season, as they have already used 21 different starting lineups and their most-used five-man lineup has played just 68 minutes together, while every other NBA team has had at least one lineup play a minimum 100 minutes together.
Still, the roster is not balanced or deep enough to make a run at a title as currently constructed. And that is what they intend to do considering two of their three best players are 33 and 37 years old and the other one has a history of injury problems. In other words, the time is now.
The Lakers have very few avenues to improve their roster ahead of the February 10th trade deadline, with Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, and a 2027 first-round pick the only real assets that they could deal. But they will make a run at impactful two-way players such as Detroit’s Jerami Grant or Sacramento’s Harrison Barnes, it’s just unclear if they have enough assets to get a deal of any significance done.
For the time being, the Lakers are about to embark on a six-game road trip after a relatively easy, home-based schedule to start their season. In other words, their biggest test is yet to come.