Are the Lakers doomed to fail this season?
With Russell Westbrook’s hard fit on the roster and LeBron James’ nagging injuries, the Lakers are off to a rocky start that puts them on a measly 12-12 record so far this season. They are trending downwards as more opposing teams vie against the Purple & Gold.
James will forever go down as one of the best players to ever play the game. The only player in history who can rival him and is currently on top in the Mount Rushmore of basketball is Michael Jordan.
Like the Chicago Bulls legend, everyone had to falter at some point as old age starts to show signs on a body that has been playing in the league for almost two decades. The Lakers have placed all their eggs in one basket with the duo of LeBron and Anthony Davis, and they are looking to win right now rather than acquire future assets to hone new skills and talents for the future of the NBA.
So, what exactly went wrong for the Lakers’ season so far, and how can they return to glory like James and AD’s first season together when they won the championship?
The Russell Westbrook dilemma
Ever since news surfaced about Russell Westbrook’s return to his hometown via trade, all experts and analysts in the league were skeptical about his fit in this type of roster. With James’ usage rate rivaling that of Westbrook’s, there is simply not enough time under the 24 shot clock for both ball-dominant players to share the ball with.
When your primary ball-handlers are both LeBron and Westbrook, there is bound to be conflict on the court with how stagnant the offence will become when either point guard (LeBron as the point forward) overdribbles to make a play.
This limits both James’ and Westbrook’s best skill sets as one of them couldn’t co-exist when both are on the court at the same time. Either LeBron or Westbrook will have to stand around the corner and wait for a pass to spot up a three point shot.
Furthermore, this also puts a hole in the offence where opposing defenders will not concentrate on Westbrook when sizing up for a three-point shot as he never really had a great one to begin with.
Westbrook for his career averages only 30.6% from the arc, and this season, he is doing slightly better with a 31.5% percentage from the three point line. Of all the high-volume three point shooters, Westbrook is way below average when the league in the previous season averaged 39.2% from three.
It’s even worse when other point guards like Westbrook are having spectacular seasons like Stephen Curry who is now running for MVP and Chris Paul who has led his team to an 18 game winning streak. It’s obvious that Westbrook is not fitting well in his hometown team, although he is famous for bouncing back during the latter parts of the season where he makes a significant comeback to uplift his teams to the playoffs strong.
Will this Russell Westbrook appear after the All-star break? That remains to be seen, and barring injuries, Russell has always proven to the league that he can definitely surge past the qualms of his early season and make a late comeback.
Father time catching up to LeBron
It’s hard to admit that LeBron right now is looking more human than ever. His cyborg-body in previous seasons has always proven to skeptics that the man is made of something else. Jokingly, during the 2018 season, Skip Bayless described his physique to be made out of Vibranium because LeBron played a full season of 82 games and still maintained the quality of his performance in the postseason.
After that season, LeBron James has had major injuries for the first time in his career, and exempting the 2020 season where the pandemic severely halted the postseason that gave him rest. He has since been injured in 2 of his 3 Lakers’ seasons so far.
Using the eye test, LeBron can still fly around the court and put up explosive dunks that leave the rim ringing. However, in the earlier parts of the regular season, James has been settling on jumpers that is unusual for a player like him who loves to drive to the rim.
Whether it be a conservation method for his body to rest while playing or discomfort when he uses his sheer strength to bully opponents, many people allude to his age as a factor of him slowing down as a player.
There is no evidence to suggest that he is indeed declining after averaging 25.6 points so far, but it should go without saying that he has shown vulnerabilities with recent injuries in his abdomen where in the previous years would never happen. He will be turning 37 years old this December 30th which would add another year to his body of work.
Injured role players
Aside from LeBron James taking days off due to small injuries, many of the Lakers' new acquisitions during this year's offseason have also been injured. The likes of Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn had ankle and knee injuries respectively before the season officially began.
Ariza can provide solid wing defence while Nunn is a natural scorer who can uplift the bench’s offensive output when Westbrook or James sits on the bench. The many injuries facing this team is bizarre after having dealt with the same dilemma last season that ultimately ended with their demise in the first round of the playoffs.
There is optimism to be had when these two players will soon return. However, another problem will fall on the lap of Frank Vogel and the Lakers’ coaching staff who will have to figure out the chemistry and new offensive and defensive schemes to utilise the most out of the roster.
The juggernaut Western Conference
The worst obstacle the Lakers are facing is the Western Conference itself as numerous great teams are vying for the top spot where seeds 1-8 are arguably the best teams in the NBA. With the dominance of both the Warriors and the Suns, the West is sure to have an exciting playoffs where even the most loaded teams have the chance to get bounced off.
If the Lakers don’t find a way to gel things together and gain chemistry, then they might see another first round exit or a scary play-in tournament where they won't be competing in the playoffs at all. With a healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis, you can’t single them out of the picture for contention after years of evidence of how LeBron carried his team when healthy.
Words: Vonn Consul