Russell Westbrook did not play for the Lakers in their game Wednesday night against the Denver Nuggets. It would’ve been very funny if this had been a demotion, but alas, it was simply a sore hamstring. And it would’ve been very funny if Westbrook’s absence had corresponded with a dramatic flourishing of the team’s league-worst offense, but alas, the Lakers scored 99 points in 103 possessions in Denver, lowering their offensive rating to a sickening 96.9 through four games. Westbrook ails the Lakers, but he is clearly not all that ails the Lakers.
Westbrook’s place in Los Angeles’s starting lineup was filled Wednesday by goofy second-year wing and meme-star Austin Reaves. Head coach Darvin Ham doesn’t have many great options for fill-in starters, but the selection of Reaves for the job hints at the team’s biggest need, which is someone—anyone—who could make some three-pointers. The Lakers are attempting a very healthy 37 threes per game to start the season, but they are making just over eight of those attempts per night. That’s the fewest makes per game and the lowest team shooting percentage in the league, a nice round five percentage points below the next worst team. The broadcast crew for Wednesday night’s game missed zero opportunities to point out that these Lakers are putting up the worst shooting stats to start a season since the advent of the three-point line. Reaves at least looks the part, even if he is neither a particularly audacious three-bomber (about 5.5 per hundred possessions on his career) nor a particularly accurate one (he shot 31.7 percent from beyond the arc last season, about four points worse than league average). On this roster, a vague physical similarity to young Jeff Hornacek is what passes for shooting credentials.
The individual numbers are just insanely grim: Patrick Beverley has made 4-of-16 attempts; Kendrick Nunn has made 4-of-17; Lonnie Walker has made 4-of-23; Anthony Davis has made 2-of-11; Westbrook has made 1-of-12. LeBron James is the team’s most productive shooter, and he’s shooting just over 25 percent from deep. The Lakers made just 8-of-30 attempts Wednesday night, sans Westbrook, and lost their fourth consecutive game to start the season. Hunting around for silver linings, Beverley had the gall to point out their shooting. “Well, I think we were shooting 20 percent [on the season],” he said after the game. “And today we shot 26 percent. So we got better.” While I am inspired by Beverley’s optimism, this is a dubious marker: If you are submerged in a flooded pit latrine and you manage to lift your eyes above the surface, yes, it is an improvement. But unfortunately you are still very much drowning in shit.
What makes this frustrating, just as a basketball problem, is that the theory of the Lakers is both proven and simple as hell: If you have LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the same team, and both are healthy, it should be easy to win basketball games. Even if you prefer to put an asterisk next to the Lakers’ 2020 Orlando bubble championship, that team was a buzzsaw, both before and after the mid-season pandemic shutdown, and without anything even approaching a third star on the team. The Lakers added James and then Davis to a weird, young, and unimpressive roster, and they won 73 percent of their regular-season games, and a title. The whole benefit of having players the caliber of L.A.’s star duo is they cover for a lot of deficiencies, and allow less talented teammates to slide into easily defined roles. That title team wasn’t especially impressive offensively, but it defended like hell, spread the floor reasonably well, and could lean on James and Davis when the chips were down. That’s the formula, and when it works it really, really works.
It’s funny to say it about this year’s miserable, winless team, but in some ways, the formula is working again. The Lakers are long and intense and disruptive on defense and, before Wednesday’s loss, the team had the best defensive rating in the league to show for it. It’s reductive, but they simply have to make shots. If you can still build a top defense around James and Davis, then all that’s left is to make some shots and the wins will come. It just so happens to be the case that this Lakers roster, as constructed, isn’t particularly suited to, uhh, making the ball go into the basket. And the problem is already out in the open.
“To be completely honest, we’re not a team constructed of great shooting,” James admitted after their opening-night loss to the Warriors. “It’s not like we’re sitting here with a lot of lasers on our team.” It was worrying enough even after one game for James to wonder whether opposing defenses are happily giving them open shots that might otherwise look like the work of a smart and well-oiled offense. It’s good in theory to attempt 37 three-pointers per game, unless you are the sort of team that considers it a noteworthy accomplishment when you make 26 percent of them.
In the end, this does come back around to Westbrook, who, again, cannot be blamed for the loss Wednesday night. His humongous salary means that the Lakers could and would take back a lot of active players from within the NBA’s middle class if they could work out a trade. Even if none of those players are stars, almost by default they would be better fits in a bucket-starved offense than an unhappy, ball-dominant guard shooting 8.3 percent from beyond the arc. Even if you buy that Westbrook can still earn a paycheck in the NBA, the Lakers simply do not need whatever it is he can do—and they badly need a lot of what he cannot. In the meantime, the team’s vibes are getting worse by the hour:
For now, the Lakers seem inclined to stand pat: Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times reiterated Thursday that general manager Rob Pelinka will not consider departing with the team’s few remaining tradeable future draft picks in order to offload Westbrook and, from the sound of it, it would take two unprotected future first-round picks to facilitate Westbrook’s departure. The season is still very young, but the Lakers are 0–4, coming off a massively disappointing year, with a very good defense, two extremely frustrated superstars, and the worst offense in basketball. There’s not an obvious win on their schedule until mid-November (Sacramento, natch). How long is Pelinka willing to put off doing whatever it takes to fix his busted roster? And if a championship is the potential reward, what is the point of waiting? The formula works, but only with the right inputs.