The Los Angeles Lakers lost 10 of their first 12 games in the 2022-23 NBA season and the vast majority of Lakers fans and some members of the basketball media are losing it.
It’s a rough time for the Purple and Gold. The team is struggling on the court, the value of crypto (team plays at Crypto.com Arena) is eroding faster than Twitter stock, and the hated Boston Celtics are getting close to winning a championship. Lakers Nation is in total panic mode, looking anyone to blame. Much of their venom has been directed at guard Russell Westbrook and general manager Rob Pelinka. They want Westbrook traded and they want Pelinka fired.
Even basketball beat writers appear to going the extra mile to pin the losses on easy targets — and bagging on Westbrook is a low-hanging fruit. Some basketball pundits actually thought the Lakers are a playoff contender if they can find a taker for Westbrook and his $47 million expiring contract. NBA insider Mark Medina said he expected the Lakers to make a deal for Westbrook before training camp starts. Medina was definitely surprised to see Westbrook at the start of training camp.
L.A. Times writer Dan Woike seems to be enamored with the Westbrook narrative as well, finding all sorts of ways to shed light on the former NBA MVP’s shortcomings. In one of Woike’s recent stories, he focused on a couple of bad Westbrook turnovers (and they were bad) in a short stretch in the second quarter that allowed the Sacramento Kings to cut the Lakers lead in half. Maybe the three baskets the Lakers gave up in the first quarter were the sole reason why the Kings won 120-114.
Westbrook’s poor shooting and high turnovers are well documented and well established. It’s like saying Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars was a terrible moment. What’s not so obvious to average basketball observers is the two biggest issues for the Lakers this season are their two leaders: LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Davis has been unreliable and unavailable for much of his NBA career. Outside of an out-of-body experience inside the Disney World bubble in 2020, Davis keeps disappointing. AD has yet to play more than 62 games since becoming a Laker. Even when he’s on the court he’s MIA in crucial moments. At times, AD looks tired and timid. Whenever he hits the deck, he grimaces in pain while holding some body part. He’ll go through stretches in the second half where he won’t even take a shot. There have been too many fourth quarters when Davis went completely silent. It took a heart-to-heart conversation with first-year Lakers coach Darvin Ham to light a fire under AD.
“Had a real good conversation with [Davis] after our last game, our last loss [against the Kings],” Ham said following the Lakers’ win over the Nets that snapped a five-game losing streak. “And he just said, ‘I got your back, Coach.’ “
Before the contest at home against the Nets, Ham said it was on Davis to remedy the lack of touches on his own. “Just him demanding the ball,” Ham said. “It starts with that.”
If you’re a member of the NBA’s 75th anniversary team, you shouldn’t have to be told to demand the ball. You tell everyone: scrap whatever we’re running because the next play will go through me.
Can you imagine Kobe Bryant being told to demand the ball? Kobe would have demanded the ball from tip-off.
Davis is obviously not the face-of-the-franchise player the Lakers thought he could be. Anyone who has played basketball at any level knows that if the game is close, winning and losing comes down to your best against the opponent’s best. When the opposing team goes on a run, your best player takes charge and stops the bleeding. Regardless of what defense the opposing team runs at you, if you believe you’re the best player on the court, it won’t matter. You’re determined to score, defend, or grab a rebound and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Sometimes being The Man requires something extraordinary, like scoring 40 points and grabbing 15 rebounds or scoring consecutive baskets down the the stretch to close the show. That’s what a No. 1 guy does. AD is capable of doing extraordinary things. How badly does he want to be the best? That question remains unanswered.
The other big problem is a bit more complicated.
LeBron is a basketball living legend. He may not be the same player he was three seasons ago when he led the Lakers to a title, but he still has plenty of pull on and off the court. However, Father Time is winning and LeBron’s hour glass is close to empty. He’s clearly no longer the best player in the game. He’s no longer an MVP candidate. He’s no longer the incredible physical force who can pick up an entire franchise and carry it over the finish line. He’s still got some flicker in his flame, but the fire burns out a lot quicker now and his body is breaking down more frequently.
LeBron turns 38 in December. After 20 super seasons, he finally looks human. Despite the obvious decline in his game, the Lakers gave LeBron a two-year contract extension that runs through 2025. By that time he’ll be 40. But the Lakers understand cutting off the LeBron cord isn’t that simple. They need him to be the marquee outside the arena. They need him to be the box office superstar fans are still willing to pay to watch even though he’s past his prime.
LeBron’s shooting numbers this season are way down compared to his career standards. His 23% 3-point percentage is one of the worst in the entire league. He’s taking more shots (averaging 21.9 field goal attempts), which hijacks the offense and disrupts flow. When LeBron commented earlier in the season that the Lakers were “not a team constructed of great shooting,” he was probably including himself in that group of non-shooters.
And if you think LeBron’s offensive numbers are below the line, his defense is even worse. He’s guarding shadows.
LeBron has two big boxes to check before riding off into the sunset. He wants to break Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record and he wants to play with his eldest son, Bronny, in the NBA. And the Lakers might be willing to give him one of those wishes.
The other underlying Lakers problem is their relationship with Klutch Sports Group. The sports agency founded by LeBron’s close friend Rich Paul employs half the Lakers roster. Owner Jeanie Buss, Pelinka and the Lakers’ top brass need to carefully navigate this relationship because any misstep could result in losing Klutch clients in the future.
The reality is the Lakers are now rebuilding. Hiring Ham was a clear message that the Lakers are prioritizing developing players and acquiring younger talent. Pelinka was abundantly clear that he’s not going to give up future draft picks just to get rid of Westbrook. “You have one shot to make a trade with multiple picks, so if you make that trade it has to be the right one,” Pelinka said during media day. “So we’re being very thoughtful around the decisions on when and how to use draft capital in a way that can improve our roster.”
LeBron and Davis led the Lakers to a championship in the 2020 bubble season. And that’s no small feat. It cemented their Lakers legacies. But winning a championship in 2023 with LeBron and AD is just a pipe dream. LeBron and AD are simply not good enough to save the Lakers from having another disappointing season. It’s time for the Lakers to start focusing on the franchise’s own timeline instead of bending the knee to LeBron’s timeline.