Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis are tired of hearing the same old question that keeps coming up after every Laker loss. When is this team going to finally find its groove?
Westbrook warned everyone who was listening at the beginning of the season that this version of the Purple and Gold is going to take some time to develop. LeBron essentially said the same thing. Davis keeps preaching patience, that this team can’t be graded until it is fully healthy and have its full complement of players.
But as the NBA’s 2021-22 season crosses its first-quarter mark, the same old issues keep surfacing: lack of effort and commitment on the defensive end, too many turnovers, stagnant offense.
We could point to the well-known fact that this is the oldest roster in the league, with five players over the age of 35 (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo). But the Lakers’ problems extend beyond having an aging roster. The team’s biggest problems start and end with their highest-paid guys: LeBron, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook. These are the three guys the franchise was supposed to lean on. Instead, they are the main reason why the Lakers are struggling. Here are four reasons why the Lakers are in serious trouble.
LeBron’s game slowly declining
Father Time is undefeated. Unless your name is Tom Brady, Father Time will eventually catch up to you. Father Time has caught up to LeBron. The once undisputed king of basketball is starting to show some decline. Injuries have kept him out of games, and when he does play he appears to struggle as the game wears on. LeBron is indeed human. He turns 37 in December. He no longer possesses the same speed and power that made him one of the 75 greatest players to ever play the sport.
LeBron is relying on jumpers more and more. He’s attempting more 3-pointers (nearly eight per game) and he’s making more 3-pointers (over two per game) than he’s ever had in his career. It’s an obvious sign that he can’t turn the corner and consistently get to the rim, and he can’t overpower guys like he used to.
Dallas Cowboys great Michael Irvin perfectly described how a sports legend fades away as he grows old. He said the flame doesn’t completely go out. You get flickers of flame. That’s what we’re seeing with LeBron. You might get flickers here and there, but the fire is no longer consistently burning. He hasn’t been able to stay healthy these last two seasons, and his best games usually occur when he has a week of rest. His offensive game has become predictable and his defense is nowhere near All-Star level. LeBron remains one of the game’s best players, and might still be good enough to make an All-Star team. But his days as the undisputed king of the NBA are gone.
Anthony Davis is not a center
When the Lakers acquired AD from New Orleans in 2019 as part of a blockbuster trade that sent young studs Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart to the Pelicans, the idea was the 6-foot-10 All-Star was going to be the centerpiece of the post-LeBron Lakers era. AD was supposed to be next in line to join the Lakers’ great history of centers. But there’s one problem. Davis prefers to play power forward.
“I like playing the four. I don’t really like playing the five,” he said back in 2019. We should have listened to him.
Prior to the start of the 2021-22 season, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel spoke to Davis about playing more 5 (center). LeBron and Westbrook essentially said the same thing to him. So, Davis relented and agreed to play more five. Through the first 20 games, Davis has been ineffective playing exclusively at the center spot. He’s shooting 16 percent from 3-point range, the worst in the league. He’s also shooting just 37 percent in the mid-range, which is supposed to be his money shot.
Defense is Davis’ calling card, but if he has a weakness it’s his inability to secure consistently secure defensive rebounds especially in crunch time. Because AD likes to challenge shots, he often finds himself out of position to secure boards, which allows teams to get extra possessions off offensive boards.
There is no doubt Davis is a phenomenal talent and ranks as one of the top-five big men in the game. But if the Lakers are going to win another title, AD has to be big in big moments and play at an MVP level. So far, he has fallen short.
Russell Westbrook stays true to himself. He never wavers. He plays one way. But one thing he is not is he’s not a point guard. He’s a shooting guard. We’ve known this since his days at UCLA when he played alongside Darren Collison. Westbrook is an athletic 2-guard. He’s a gifted athlete, who can play point but not a true point. When he was drafted in 2008, Oklahoma City converted him into a point guard because that’s what the franchise needed. It worked at OKC because Kevin Durant took the pressure off Westbrook, and James Harden played point to close out games. The Thunder was never able to replace Harden when he left OKC, leaving Westbrook as the main playmaker and taking on more responsibility than he should have.
When the Lakers acquired Westbrook in a multiplayer deal with the Washington Wizards, the idea was to have Westbrook play off the ball and defer to LeBron, who will run the point. That plan immediately went out the door when both guys couldn’t quite get in sync during the preseason. Lakers coach Frank Vogel offered up a solution. Let’s stagger their minutes.
OK, Frank. How’s that working out?
Instead of giving James and Westbrook more time to figure out how to play together, Vogel and the Lakers coaching staff are playing them together even less.
It’s obvious that Westbrook is more comfortable and free when LeBron is not in the game. His best games as a Laker have come in games James missed. The Lakers also play at a much faster pace when Westbrook has the ball in his hands. The problem with having the ball in Westbrook’s hands is he will turn it over a ton. He is among the league leaders in turnovers.
Westbrook, LeBron, and AD have all said it’ll take time for this Laker team to gel, using the excuse of this being a new group. But the Wizards, the Lakers’ trading partner in the Westbrook deal, have just as many new pieces they’re trying to fit in and they don’t seem to be as discombobulated.
The most glaring issue the Lakers are dealing with is the roster imbalance. It is guard-heavy.
L.A. has two centers (Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan) and four forwards (LeBron, Davis, Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza). The rest of the roster is full of small guards. Talen Horton-Tucker and rookie Austin Reaves were big guards in college. But on the Lakers, they are forced to play on the wing. Vogel has struggled the find the right combination, inserting and reinserting guys in the starting lineup and dropping guys in the rotation. He’s tried a big lineup. He’s tried a small lineup. He even tried putting LeBron at the five. None have worked. It’s difficult to find balance when you have a gluttony of guards and not enough forwards.
Vogel believes in his system. It worked before in 2020 when the Lakers won a championship inside the Disney World bubble. But the 2020 Laker squad was a big team. That championship unit had long, athletic centers (Howard, JaVale McGee), versatile forwards (LeBron, AD, Kyle Kuzma, Markief Morris), and big defensive-minded guards who can switch to a wing position if needed (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, Alex Caruso, THT).
Part of the reason the Lakers have lost their defensive identity under Vogel is due to the simple fact that they were unable to replace the big guards who protected their perimeter defense. KCP, Green, and Caruso are elite defenders and did things on the defensive end that usually went unnoticed. A year ago, the Lakers had one of the best defensive ratings in the NBA. This season, they are closer to the bottom.
Vogel can change the starting lineup or juggle the rotation as many times as he wants. The answers are not in this current group.