Last Word On Basketball

The Los Angeles Lakers At Risk of Missing the NBA Playoffs

Los Angeles Lakers

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 11: (L-R) LeBron James and Russell Westbrook attend "Passion Play: Russell Westbrook" and Religion of Sports Documentary Premiere at iPic Theaters on October 11, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images for Religion of Sports )

It might be surprising to some basketball enthusiasts, but the 2021-2022 Los Angeles Lakers are struggling. After a hyped offseason, the Lakers assembled a team with 59 All-Star appearances combined, taking the basketball world by storm. Even though it was an aging roster with potentially weird fits, people would not hesitate to put the purple and gold team up there alongside the title contenders.  The reality, on the other hand, hits different. Are the Los Angeles Lakers Playoffs chances as legit as most people thought?

The Los Angeles Lakers at Risk of Missing the NBA Playoffs

In the first 20 games of the season, the Lakers are 10-10, an ironically similar record to that infamous Bryant-Gasol-Nash-Howard flop in 2013 (which started 9-11 in the first 20). The Lakers are the second-worst team in the NBA in points allowed. They are only above the Houston Rockets and the Minnesota Timberwolves in taking care of the ball. They are near the rock bottom of the league when it comes to opponent rebounds, assists, and steals. Two of their losses were to the tanking Oklahoma City Thunder. They have 10 wins: 2 of them were clear-cuts. But 4 only came after overtime, and the other 4 had a point differential of 5 or less.

Even without LeBron James, who has already missed 11 games, this is not a good sign. If you want a shot a the title, having two of the NBA’s most accolade players should be enough to get things done, maybe? In theory, perhaps. The Lakers are pushing the edges even when they win, counting heavily on the talent overload rather than solid team performances. In short, the roster-building of the current Lakers does not blend with modern basketball.

Roster Construction

They are currently the oldest roster (averaging 31 years old), yet their NBA expertise is not bailing them out. Players like Rajon Rondo, Wayne Ellington, and DeAndre Jordan are getting plugged into roles they can no longer suit anymore. The Lakers supporting cast as a whole has worsened. Once deep, this is a team with below-par defenders and inefficient 3-point shooters.

Good 3-and-D players are crucial for LeBron-led teams. Nonetheless, this was a very overlooked aspect of the Lakers offseason market. Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn might be positives on some nights. But they are not exactly known for their off-ball shooting efficiency, IQ, and defending. Trevor Ariza, who could fit this role, is way past his prime. They gave up on key role players like Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to accommodate Russell Westbrook’s salary. With that, the Lakers went cheap on their glue-guys while spending 120 million dollars on a big three who can not seem to play well together.

Los Angeles Lakers Big Three Issues

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Westbrook are outscored by 2 points every 100 possessions when playing together. In fact, every two-man lineup combination between the Lakers’ big three also has a negative rating. These numbers are the product of a heavily stagnant offense: the Lakers are 9th in the NBA with the most isolations, but the 9th worst in points generated per isolation. They are the second slowest team in the league in average speed and the 7th worst for distance covered. The curious thing about it is that the Lakers have the second-fastest pace and the second-most points in transition per game this season. According to these stats, it is possible to perceive that the Lakers basically do not move in situations other than running the court in counters. It is in mid-court that they fail to work the clock and the bad-decision-freakshow starts.

The role of Russell Westbrook is still unclear, posting an atrocious career-worst 99 offensive rating and leading the NBA in turnovers. Anthony Davis still lacks aggressiveness on the offensive end, constantly settling for contested jumpers even in evident mismatch situations. He looks like a player who needs a proper, specific context to shine rather than acting as a franchise leader. He has been struggling as a decision-maker and a three-point shooter, hitting below the .200 mark. Davis is also posting career-worst advanced stats (win shares, value over replacement player, and box plus-minus), which quantify how his contribution is erratic, even when the Lakers have good nights. In short, the numbers match the eye test. The Lakers are in bad shape.

Who’s to Blame?

It seems unfair to blame only Frank Vogel for this dysfunctional start. The Lakers issues have layers, and the coaching department is maybe only a superficial one. How much is it possible to blame the coaches for the bad decisions made on the court? Did the coaches have any say about the team-shaping decisions of the offseason? Maybe some things could be different in the X’s and O’s department, but how many NBA minds could make this aging, weird fit, ego-heavy roster act like a legitimate title contender in 2021? The fact is that the Lakers sit on an uncomfortable play-in spot, even after a relatively easy schedule so far.

And maybe this is already the time to turn things around. After all, LeBron James will not last forever.

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