As the losses kept piling up, Russell Westbrook kept saying the Los Angeles Lakers needed to figure things out in order to right the ship. The hope was the Lakers would eventually figure it out and straighten out a disjointed 2021-22 season. Well, any hopes of competing for an 18th championship banner have evaporated.
After 79 games and 39 changes to the starting lineup, the Lakers simply couldn’t figure it out.
The Lakers were officially eliminated from the playoffs on April 5 as the NBA-leading Phoenix Suns put them out of their misery with a thorough beatdown that dropped L.A. to 11th place in the Western Conference and out of the play-in tournament. The Lakers have all spring and summer to figure out how to clean up the mess they’ve created. General manager Rob Pelinka said it was championship or bust. Well, the season was a complete bust and you can bet on a major shakeup this offseason.
“Extremely disappointed,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said after the game. “Disappointed for our fan base. Disappointed for the Buss family.”
Vogel’s job is on the line. There were reports circulating online hours before the Lakers-Suns game that Doc Rivers and Quin Snyder could be the Lakers head coach. Vogel hasn’t even been fired yet and the vultures were already flying over his head.
“This was a season where we just didn’t get it done,” Carmelo Anthony said. Carmelo was one of four Lakers — along with Anthony Davis, LeBron James, and Westbrook — who were named to the NBA’s diamond anniversary team. It’s a distinction reserved for the best and brightest players who shaped basketball in the last 75 years. You would think that having four players on the league’s all-time team would be able to figure things out. Apparently not.
“Our goal was to win a championship,” Davis said in his postgame news conference after putting up 21 points and 13 rebounds in the loss against the Suns.
“Feel like we had the pieces, but injuries got in the way of that,” he continued. “And that was the difference in the season. I think even though we lost games where all of us was on the floor — me, Bron, Russ — I think we’re three great players, but we would have figured it out if we logged more minutes together. But we weren’t able to do that, which makes it tough to be able to compete for a championship when your three best players haven’t logged enough minutes together.”
As much as we’d like to agree with Davis that a healthy Lakers squad would have altered the season, he’s delusional. Davis, James, and Westbrook were on the court together for only 21 games. In those 21 games, the Lakers went 11-10. Let’s extrapolate that for an entire season and it only puts the Lakers right around the .500 mark in terms of wins and losses. So, Davis’ argument that all the Lakers needed was a healthy squad and everything would have been fine misses the mark.
The truth of the matter is, the Lakers were just not that good. The roster was flawed and the team’s most decorated All-Stars simply didn’t get the job done. You can blame the front office, you can blame the coaching staff. But ultimately, it was AD, LeBron, Russ, and Melo who had their fingerprints on what Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke called the most disappointing season in Lakers history. Plaschke said the season was so disappointing, it was comical.
We could revisit the litany of things that went wrong during the season, but instead of listing all of them here a Lakers fan compiled a “One Shining Moment” video on Twitter that summed up the entire season.
The expectations were too unrealistic for a team built around a brittle center who has never proven he can stay healthy for an entire season, an aging all-time great superstar who is finally showing a decline in his overall game after 19 seasons, and a former MVP point guard — who was used to having the ball in his hands — who had trouble fitting in.
Pinning the makeup of a disastrous roster on Lakers management and LeBron’s sports agency, Klutch Sports, would be fair. With the full backing of Klutch Sports, the Lakers’ top brass traded young standouts Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and multiple unprotected first-round picks to acquire Anthony Davis in 2019. Two years later, the Lakers OK’d another costly blockbuster deal that brought Westbrook in the fold. The Lakers sacrificed the future to maximize LeBron’s prime years, and they got one championship (2020) out of it. Now, the future looks extremely bleak.
The easiest target in the blame game is Lakers coach Vogel. His inability to find the right rotation will ultimately cost him his job. Vogel kept tinkering with the roster all the way up to game No. 79. He played big lineups, small lineups, old lineups, and young lineups. None of them worked.
Vogel tried to implement the system that worked during the Lakers’ championship inside the Disney World bubble, but the problem was he didn’t have the proper personnel to run it. Vogel kept searching for the right combination, but he never found it.
Vogel certainly couldn’t find the correct formula for LeBron and Westbrook. Both players struggled coexisting and Vogel wasn’t able to help either one out. Vogel also yo-yoed with Dwight Howard’s role. For some odd reason, Vogel never fully bought into having a set role for Howard. Even at 36, Howard showed flashes that he can still be an effective center. Howard appeared in only 58 games, started in 25 of them, and averaged a career-low 16 minutes per game. A lot of the Lakers’ deficiencies were on the defensive end, and not getting Howard more involved — especially in the fourth quarter when the Lakers need stops — was mind-boggling. Vogel kept rolling out a small-ball lineup that saw LeBron at center and Carmelo at the big forward. Teams went to town against Bron and Melo like a weekend brunch at a Las Vegas buffet. Everyone feasted against the Lakers.
Firing Vogel could be the first domino to fall this offseason, but a new head coach won’t fix the three biggest problems on the team: Davis, LeBron, and Westbrook. The Lakers’ supposedly three best players and three highest-paid employees are also the franchise’s three heaviest anchors that will keep the team stuck in the port through next season.
Westbrook has one year remaining on his massive contract, and he will most likely opt-in on $47 million. LeBron will be 38 years old next year and entering his 20th NBA season. He has missed a big chunk of the 2021-22 season due to various injuries, and that won’t change as he puts another year on his aging body. And then there’s Davis. Bill Belichick famously said availability is better than ability. In the last two seasons, Davis has missed close to 80 games. That’s equivalent to a full NBA season. And when he tries to play through an injury, Davis looks like a guy held together with duct tape.
Davis likes to play at his own pace and prefers to work in an open space. When he’s forced to be more aggressive, he ends up hurting himself.
When rapper Snoop Dogg, a longtime Lakers fan, poked fun at Davis saying he was hurt more often than Mary J. Blige, Davis shot back and vowed to prove all his critics wrong by working himself into the best shape of his life. Instead of proving his critics wrong, Davis proved his critics right as he once again played half the season (40 games) and had his worst shooting percentage (18%) from 3-point range.
Fixing the Lakers won’t be easy. It’s not like they can hit one button to restart everything. The roster definitely needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. They need to get younger. LeBron and Westbrook are most likely sticking around. LeBron’s business empire is firmly entrenched in Los Angeles, and his son Bronny won’t be draft-eligible yet. Westbrook’s contract will be nearly impossible to move, so the team will have to eat his $47 million player option once he opts in. As for Davis, the Lakers front office needs to seriously consider trading him while he still has value.
The Lakers are going to have to put aside their hopes of raising an 18th championship banner because this rebuilding process will take a good amount of time to be completed.