In August of 2021, Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James crafted a tweet in regards to criticism surrounding his team. The Lakers at the time held the second-best odds to win the title at +325. There was legitimate hype around the NBA surrounding the complementary play of James and Anthony Davis, while the team also added Russell Westbrook to increase their chances in the Western Conference. Last October, I even predicted the Lakers to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. The Lakers had just acquired Westbrook via trade with the Washington Wizards, James was coming off a great season, and Davis was expected back at the peak of his career. Sure, there were questions regarding the team’s shooting, but the Lakers still appeared to be in a promising position.
The Lakers now hold the 11th seed in the Western Conference and have been eliminated from playoff contention. For James, he only missed the playoffs in four of his 19 seasons in the NBA. This fifth year would not only hinder his legacy, but for Lakers fans, it puts doubt in the team going forward. The Lakers would never go as far as to trade James, but the level of intrigue for the Los Angeles Lakers to shake things up hasn’t been this high in awhile.
There is no question that the primary struggle this season for the Los Angeles Lakers has been the irresponsible play of Russell Westbrook. The nine-time All-Star sported his worst statistical season since his early days in Oklahoma City. Westbrook is owed a great deal of money next season and is unsurprisingly difficult to trade because of that. It is in the best interest for the Lakers to move on from the former MVP point guard, but saying that and doing it are two very different actions.
For Westbrook, the financial implications are too heavy for him to consider a buyout, making Los Angeles’ hopes of an agreement dwindle as time goes on. Rumors of a John Wall trade surfaced at the previous NBA Trade Deadline, but with Westbrook’s standing as a asset in the league in question, it’s difficult to imagine a team giving up enough salary to match Westbrook’s current contract.
While it hasn’t officially been reported, the Lakers seem to be looking to move on from Head Coach Frank Vogel just two seasons removed from a championship run in 2020. Vogel, who has spent three seasons with Los Angeles, has struggled to establish a culture and an emphasis on effort with his time at the helm this season. Roster construction issues aside, the blame for the myriad of mistakes and lack of care from this roster starts with the coaching staff.
With Vogel likely fired this offseason, the Lakers would be looking for the perfect coach to fit culture for the coming seasons with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Finding that coach, however, is possibly the biggest challenge for the team this offseason. A large portion of well-respected coaches are already employed and the list of possible candidates grows fewer as the days roll along. The Lakers have been beacon of drama as of late, and a well-adjusted coach is in dire need for this organization. An experienced coach may see the pros and cons of championship contention differently, leading to a possible pass from some notable coaching prospects.
However, former Brooklyn Nets coach Kenny Atkinson is a personal favorite of mine to take the position in Los Angeles this summer. His forward-thinking mindset, ability to coach to the strengths of his team, and a “no nonsense” approach on scheme fit versus personal relationships could vault the Lakers back into a respected team to play around the league. While his attitude towards superstar players has been in question in the past, Atkinson’s ability to hold his superstars accountable is exactly what this team needs.
LeBron James-lead teams have always relied on one thing from its role players: Shooting. Whether it’s J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver in Cleveland, or Mike Miller and Mario Chalmers in Miami, James’ teams have been most successful with a dominant shooting wing for James to kick out to. Surprisingly, the Lakers didn’t seem to prioritize this in the previous offseason. The team actually traded away two of their plus shooters in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, and failed to re-sign another decent shooter in Alex Caruso.
To replace the production, the Lakers signed an aging Carmelo Anthony, who was somewhat efficient this past season, but is not the player to rely on to be your premier spot-up shooter. Wayne Ellington was also expected to add to the Lakers shooting barrage this year, but couldn’t replicate the magic he had in his previous seasons with the Miami Heat.
James should not be the one to rely on to play at the center position in his 19th season, but due to a lack of shooting, the Lakers were borderline forced to play four smaller players alongside him. I would look for the Lakers to reach out to numerous three-point specialists this offseason, easing up the minutes James has to play in the paint. Davis remaining healthy helps in that regard, but with a down year for him, shooting seems to be a more dire need than ever. Although the list is slim, guards Jeremy Lamb and Gary Harris are promising names for the Lakers to explore.
When it comes to defense, the Lakers have been horrid. They ranked 21st in defense this year, and at times it has looked even worse. Most would point to the injuries of Davis as the reason for the struggle, but roster construction has to be a factor as well. With Caldwell-Pope and Kuzma being traded to Washington, the Lakers lost two of their top five defenders on their team. In addition, the loss of Caruso has been greatly missed.
It seems obvious to say that defense matters, but it’s often overlooked by some of the best General Managers in sports. The Lakers would be silly to ignore their defensive struggles this offseason. Isn’t defense what brought them the bubble championship in 2020? James has been to more NBA Finals than anyone not named Bill Russell or Sam Jones and he knows better than anyone how important that side of the ball is. An NBA team has not won a Championship with a defense lower than 21st in the league since the 2001 Lakers. That being said, it is safe to say that while dominant in their primes, LeBron James and Anthony Davis are not near the offensive talents that a prime Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal were.
For Los Angeles, the hope for James carrying the team on his back to Championships is seemingly long gone. His days in Cleveland and Miami are no more and his reliance on his teammates to shine is higher than ever. While pointing the finger at James is the popular thing to do, he has proven for long enough what he used to be capable of.
For the Los Angeles Lakers to reclaim the respect of other NBA teams, the roster needs massive improvements. The new coaching staff needs to emphasize defense, identity, and hold players accountable. The stars need to lead by example and stay on the court. The disrespect for the Lakers this season is at an all-time high, but with changes and improvements, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest to see LeBron James and the Los Angels Lakers back in the Finals next season.