It’s been a rough year for the Los Angeles Lakers. After a disappointing 2020-21 season that was riddled with injuries and ended with a first round exit, the Lakers made a blockbuster move to acquire All-Star Russell Westbrook in a trade from the Washington Wizards. Westbrook was coming off arguably his worst season since 2010-11, but was still an All-Star caliber player for the Wizards and led the league in assists. Bringing him in was a chance to get the third star that the Lakers desperately wanted. After an offseason of hype from fans and the media, the Lakers were abysmal and wildly disappointing. They finished with a 33-49 record and missed the play-in. LeBron James and Anthony Davis dealt with injuries during the season, and Russell Westbrook had a terrible season. They weren’t able to stay healthy and when they were, it was clear this was not a team ready to compete with the top contenders.
This offseason, Westbrook was involved in several trade rumors, they lost many of their role players from last season, and they fired their head coach to bring in Darvin Ham from Milwaukee. It was clear that there was dysfunction within the organization and multiple issues with the process the team took to build a roster around their franchise players LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
A lot of the outlooks on the Los Angeles Lakers heading into the upcoming season are very negative for a multitude of valid reasons. But is there a positive side to look at?
They did miss the playoffs, but that was with LeBron James only playing fifty-six games and Anthony Davis playing just forty games (many of which he was clearly injured). Despite all of the issues with this roster, they still have two superstar-caliber players with role players who have something to prove. There are undeniably issues with the roster construction, but here are a few ways the Lakers can exceed expectations in the upcoming NBA season with their current roster.
Russell Westbrook 6th-man campaign
What is the best way to utilize Russell Westbrook? That’s a question Darvin Ham and his assistant coaches are going to have to answer this upcoming season. It’s clear that he was not being used correctly last season as a secondary creator. In reality, he’s at his best as a primary creator. However, he’s simply not good enough at this stage of his career to be the primary creator of a good NBA team. But can he be a primary creator off the bench playing against backups?
Westbrook has a lot of flaws, but also still has some pretty clear strengths. His ability to get downhill still at this age is incredible. He still has high-level rim pressuring ability (33.3% of his shots came at the rim last season) with the handle to break down the first level of defense and create offense for himself and others. He’s not a tremendous finisher, but he is a great passer who can create open looks for his teammates off of his rim pressure and slashing. His most valuable trait by far is his downhill playmaking, and that’s what helped him thrive over the years despite the lack of a jumper.
Using Westbrook off the bench might be the best way to maximize him. He gets the keys to the second unit and he’ll get to dominate the ball while going up against the other teams’ backups. His best skills require him to have the ball in his hands. But if you have him and LeBron James in the same lineup, it’s clear who you want initiating offense and dominating the touches. Staggering Westbrook’s and LeBron’s minutes is the best way to maximize Westbrook and not have to worry about taking the ball out of LeBron’s hands.
The Lakers won the 2020-21 NBA championship through their great defense. They were the number one ranked defense led by DPOY candidate Anthony Davis and they were able to smother their opponents on that end of the floor. The way the Lakers will have to get back to being a high-level team is by dominating that end of the floor again. The good thing is that they have the structure to do that.
Anthony Davis is one of the best defenders in basketball. With his high-level rim protection and incredible mobility as a 6’10, he can anchor a top defense. He’s utterly dominant on that end of the floor and he’s consistently been a DPOY candidate when he’s able to stay healthy. If he’s healthy, the Lakers should be able to be an above-average defense at the very least.
However, Davis can’t do it all, and the Lakers need other guys to step up on that end. Patrick Beverley is a huge addition for that reason. He’s long been one of the better defensive guards in the league. What he lacks in terms of physical tools he makes up for with smothering point of attack defense and a certain peskiness that can get in his opponents’ heads. Austin Reaves was also one of the better defensive rookies in the league. He has size and length to be a switchable defender and has an extremely high motor. With an offseason to add more muscle mass to his frame, Reaves could be a terrific defender who provides point of attack defense, help at the nail, and positional switchability.
Lastly, LeBron James had a miserable defensive season last year, but the capability is clearly there. We’ve seen him even in his later years have high-level defensive impact. The issue is simply effort with James. If he has a team around him that is willing to buy in defensively, he’ll likely be a good defender. But if the season turns disastrous and his team is going through turmoil, we could likely see another disappointing season for him on the defensive end of the floor.
The Lakers have enough offense to make a push. When you have LeBron James and Anthony Davis leading the way offensively, you’re going to be fine on that end. But the Lakers need to reestablish their defensive identity from previous years if they truly want to contend. If they start a lineup of Patrick Beverley, Austin Reaves, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and a fifth starter with some semblance of defensive capability, they can rise to the top of the standings again through their defensive prowess.
Role players stepping up
The Lakers do not have a deep roster. It’s very clear that after their top three guys, there is not a lot of surrounding talent. Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schroder are two solid role players and Austin Reaves showed a solid amount of potential last season, but each of those three have their warts. Beverley is coming off of his worst shooting season to date, Schroder’s shooting woes and ball-dominance as a role player make him a questionable fit next to the stars, and Reaves doesn’t have a ton of upside considering he’ll be turning 25 this upcoming season as a second year player.
Are there other players that can step up and prove to be reliable pieces of the rotation? There’s only a few that stick out at first. Thomas Bryant is sneakily one of the better offensive bigs in the NBA. His health is his biggest issue but when he’s on the court, he’s one of the more productive centers in the league. He’s a monster interior finisher who’s incredibly strong who can thrive in the PNR as a scorer and roller. He’s also a pretty solid shooter who shot 36% on 253 attempts with the Wizards. He’s limited athletically which hinders his rim protection and ability to guard in space but for a backup center, he could be a nice surprise for this team.
Juan Toscano-Anderson is an interesting connector piece who’s a jack of all trades player. The Lakers could use his monster athleticism and passing vision to be a short roll creator off the bench. Lonnie Walker is a young, athletic two guard who hasn’t been able to put it all together yet, but still has some impressive flashes of scoring and slashing. If he can shoot the way he did in the 2020-21 season (36% on five attempts per game), he can be a solid off guard for the Lakers. Rookie Max Christie may not see the court much this year, but his defense could earn him some playing time. At Michigan State, he displayed advanced defensive technique and focus. The shooting form is smooth, compact, and fluid, but the results have never been great throughout his career. If his shot comes around to pair with his defense, he could sneak his way into the rotation.
There’s not a lot of reliability throughout this Lakers roster. But if one or two of the players above is able to prove themselves to be solid bench pieces, that could be enough. They don’t need to have thirteen guys who can close playoff games. They just need seven or eight guys who can competently play around ten to fifteen minutes per game.
Can the Lakers succeed?
The path back to contention for the Los Angeles Lakers will be a difficult one. But there is a clear path for them to be a great team again. If they can find a way to maximize Westbook by letting him be the second unit engine, develop a strong defensive foundation, and see a few of their role players take a leap, they will be back at the top of the Western Conference. Staying healthy will also be key for them. Anthony Davis and LeBron James both missed at least twenty-five games last season and even when Davis did play, he wasn’t his usual self. It’s unfair to completely write the Lakers off for the upcoming season and it seem that they have a chance to exceed their preseason expectations.