2022 was a chaotic year for the Los Angeles Lakers.
Last season, the Lakers limped to a 33-49 record, weighed down by toxicity surrounding Russell Westbrook, injuries to LeBron James and Anthony Davis, tension between the players and front office, the lame-duck status of Frank Vogel, and a laughably misguided roster.
Fortunes haven’t improved much. The 2022-23 Lakers rang in the New Year sitting at 15-21, 13th in the Western Conference (their overall 2022 record: 30-51). AD is injured again. Westbrook is functional if problematic off the bench. Darvin Ham’s rotations have invited scrutiny. A 38-year-old LeBron is carrying an untenable load. The agendas of LeBron/Klutch and management remain divergent.
Once again, Los Angeles lacks shooting, depth, and a realistic shot at contention.
So, before the Lakers play their first game of 2023, let me recommend a few resolutions.
5. Maximize the LeBron-Kareem moment
A title run is not on the docket. However, there are two upcoming seminal occasions for the franchise to celebrate its storied history.
On March 7, the team will retire Pau Gasol’s No. 16 jersey in what will surely be a deeply emotional ceremony.
Prior to that, LeBron (barring injury) will surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s all-time regular-season points leader, likely in February. The Lakers, rightfully, want this to be a special evening — the marquee moment amid a forgettable year. It will be, no doubt.
And yet, unless personal amends are made, the schism between LeBron and Kareem will cloud over the festivities.
Abdul-Jabbar has criticized LeBron for undermining vaccines and called for outspoken NBA stars to condemn Kyrie Irving’s problematic stances. James has coldly said that he and Cap had “no relationship.” Magic Johnson offered to broker a truce between the two legends.
LeBron and Kareem’s work on the court is infinitely worthy of celebration, too, and both have lauded each other’s talent. Kareem wished LeBron a happy birthday via a reference to the scoring record and has said he’s looking forward to LeBron setting the mark.
Above all else, though, their societal impact is what makes them indelible figures in American history (Kareem caveats his criticism by praising the example LeBron usually sets off the floor). I sincerely hope all parties involved mend fences and authentically commit to making LeBron’s achievement as profound and powerful as it actually is.
4. No more Pat Bev and Schroder lineups
Ham needs to reassess the starting backcourt of Dennis Schroder and Patrick Beverley. They’re 6-foot-1 with redundant skill sets, including inconsistent shooting (especially Schroder, who is the better player).
Ham justifies Pat+Dennis lineups — and other small groups that cause Lakers Twitter to question if he’s trolling the front office — by citing a need for feistiness and speed. The Lakers think Beverley can guard multiple positions (meh). Ham wants to let Russ cook as the lone point guard with the second unit. Beverley (and Kendrick Nunn) may soon be traded, anyway.
Whatever. That pairing has to cease, ASAP. Lineups with Beverley and Schroder have a minus-11.5 net rating, the second-worst for the Lakers among combos with over 300 minutes. The eye test is worse. Do something else.
3. No crunch time Russ
Westbrook’s realignment to sixth ᴍᴀɴ has largely succeeded. He has ignited bench-led runs (usually in the second quarter), and the discomfort around him has dissipated — a net positive unto itself. Westbrook has posted three triple-doubles, is averaging 14.6/6.3/7.8, and is the betting favorite to win Sixth ᴍᴀɴ of the Year. That’s all good.
Yet, Westbrook cannibalizes the Lakers down the stretch — as he has for various teams throughout his career, even during his prime. Russ is a team-worst minus-39.2 points per 100 possessions (!) in what NBA.com defines as “clutch situations” (score within five points with under five minutes to go). His questionable shot selection, inability to adjust pace and the allowance his presence gives opponents to hide centers on him crushes Los Angeles late in games.
Not coincidentally, the Lakers are at the bottom of the league in clutch efficiency.
Ham impressively persuaded Westbrook to accept a bench role without exacerbating locker room friction. But, whether because of politics, ego management, or genuine belief in the future Hall of Famer, Ham tends to stick with Westbrook in winning time. It can’t keep happening if the Lakers want to squeeze as many wins as possible out of this roster.
2. Don’t chase stars (and maintain cap space)
The Lakers’ trade deadline approach can be summarized thusly: Either deal both tradable first-round picks (2027, 2029) plus a combo of Russ/Beverley/Nunn for a veteran star (Bradley Beal, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, etc.) or opt for a smaller move (Bev/Nunn/a pick) for fine-tuning.
Stars want stars. LeBron wants a third star. This is misguided.
The Lakers — everyone involved — have dug themselves into their present hole by abandoning a championship-proven roster and formula (LeBron+AD+role players) to hunt big names. Go through Lakers history, NBA history, or even Hollywood history: two stars + the right ensemble gets the job done.
Los Angeles’ best asset moving forward is its future cap space. Their lone realistic pathway into contention is by hitting a home run next summer. They’ll have another first-round pick (2023) to either trade or use (the New Orleans Pelicans will activate swap rights), a few young guys to bring back, and, more importantly, up to $89 million in cap room (not counting Austin Reaves’ next deal, which will likely be double-digit AAV.)
LeBron says he wants to play for rings. Pelinka said the organization’s priority is to make that happen.
Trading for Beal midway through this season isn’t the answer. Yes, Beal is a great basketball player. The Washington Wizards agree! He’s available because his contract stinks! Why take that on? Same goes for a DeRozan/Nikola Vucevic package. Is that worth sacrificing future flexibility for? The Chicago Bulls are not good, either!
As long as Russ is playing decent and not causing distractions, stay the course and let his contract come off the books.
1. For now, though, at least throw LeBron James a bone
Pelinka and LeBron have to reach a common ground. The Lakers can appease their biggest star without mortgaging the future. Ham can ride LeBron without overtaxing the 20-year vet.
For the past few years, the Lakers, top-down, have acknowledged the need to ease the burden on LeBron. That’s why they wanted Russ. That’s why they want, so badly, for AD to become a steadily available franchise centerpiece.
And yet, here we are in 2023, and LeBron is averaging 28.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, and 6.6 assists in 35.9 minutes per game. He’s the sole reason to attend a Lakers game right now, and he’s admirably giving the people what they want. It’s spectacular to witness, but it’s just too much work.
The Lakers shouldn’t necessarily acquiesce to LeBron’s feelings and trade both picks for a high-profile veteran on a bad contract before the deadline. LeBron and Klutch spearheaded the Westbrook and Davis trades, among other transactions; the organization isn’t required to double down on those mistakes because LeBron is displeased.
That said, I keep thinking about the classic surf lesson scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, in which Paul Rudd tells Jason Segel that, while the key is doing nothing, Segel, at the very least, has “gotta do something.”
No banner is going up this year. The Lakers can point to the horizon, but they’ve gotta do something. LeBron can ask for a trade next summer — in search of one more perfect wave. These non-playoff summers are endless.