What has been your favorite moment of the Lakers season? Was it Beef Stew going after LeBron James? Was it the renaming of their arena? Was it when Russell Westbrook freaked out during a loss to a team actively trying to lose games and got booed by his former fans? Was it the Celtics broadcast twisting the knife? Here’s mine:
The Lakers right now are putrid. The team sits 9-10, having lost four of five. Five of their wins have come against actively tanking teams. They are 25th in offensive efficiency and 24th in defensive efficiency, despite having played the sixth-easiest schedule in the league. They turn the ball over at an astonishing rate, surrender oodles of rebounds, and have the oldest roster in the NBA. The team is pretty obviously broken, and the only conceivable route back to legitimate contender status would be LeBron reemerging as the best player in the league and smoothing over this roster’s many structural flaws.
As for that roster: Management’s idea of leveraging a handful of younger players in exchange for a canonical “third star” was not a bad idea in the abstract. Fellow contenders in both conferences had followed similar paths, and James can’t be expected to make a deep playoff run if he spends the whole year running point. L.A. could have taken the opportunity to meaningfully add spacing and energy to its offense, but instead, they added Russell Westbrook and a bunch of old guys. Westbrook’s contradictions as a basketball player are nothing new, though his usage rate has not tailed off as his efficiency has, which is a potentially fatal problem. The whole idea behind adding Westbrook on this team is to use him as an “innings-eater,” allowing him to take over games against bad teams so the Lakers elder corps can chill. He has his moments, though he no longer has the juice to make anything of his bone-deep commitments to hoisting whatever shot he wants, refusing to do anything off the ball, and running headlong into unsalvageable situations.
Westbrook’s style certainly makes the rest of the roster worse—another of his commitments—though their comprehensive sourness isn’t all on Westbrook. Aside from a slightly diminished James, an overwhelmed yet productive Davis, and an oddly resurgent Carmelo Anthony, the Lakers have gotten basically nothing from the rest of the team. The eye test returns grim results, yet their Basketball Reference page is astonishing. In theory, L.A. buffed its depth with cheap deals for proven veterans that, in sum, added up to more than Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Montrezl Harrell, all of whom departed in the offseason. In practice, those three players are thriving (it’s legitimately unnerving to consider how much more helpful Alex Caruso would be to the Lakers right now that Russell Westbrook), while everyone L.A. picked up is rusting. Kent Bazemore is unplayable. Malik Monk is missing his threes. DeAndre Jordan looks every bit the player who was benched by the Nets last season. The only non-star who has provided any juice is Talen Horton-Tucker, who put up a goose egg yesterday. There’s a clear Kendrick Nunn-sized hole on the team, which is a grim state to be in.
What all this adds up to is a bad team. Because they’re the Lakers and they have LeBron James, they will always be conceived of as a championship contender that’s an adjustment or two away from course-correcting back to the top, but nothing about their play or statistical profile validates that framing. They will be paying Russell Westbrook $47 million to miss shots next year, when LeBron James will turn 38, and barring a sudden and drastic change to the way he’s played basketball for 1,073 games, this is who they are.