We are past the halfway mark of the 2021-22 NBA season, and it’s clear the Lakers haven’t made any real progress. Their current record is 23-24, one game below .500, good for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. This means that like last year, the Lakers would have to fight their way through the play-in in order to just make the playoffs.
You know its gotten bad for the Lakers since every time they have a sub-par win, everyone talks about that win as though is might be the “turning point” of the season, where they become the Lakers that some expected to see from the start. The most recent “turning point” game came against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz. On January 17th, 2022, the Lakers beat the Jazz with a final score of 101-95 at home, with the most memorable moment being a Russell Westbrook poster dunk that ranks up there as one of his greatest. Guys played decently off the bench, as Talen Horton-Tucker had 11 points, Malik Monk had 14, and Stanley Johnson had 15 points. However, this game wasn’t a turning point, for a few reasons.
The first was that the Jazz have trouble with small-ball lineups (currently and historically), as they haven’t figured out how to exploit the matchup of Rudy Gobert against whatever smaller big on the offensive end. On the defensive end, Gobert is pulled out of the paint, and when the three-time Defensive Player of the Year is on the perimeter, he is a defensive liability. Donovan Mitchell had an off shooting night on January 17th, going 6-for-18 and scoring 13 points. However, in a seven-game series, there’s a very low chance Mitchell’s production could consistently be limited this much. On the season, Mitchell is shooting 45% from the field, so if he shoots that well during the game, the Lakers could leave with a loss.
Either way, it’s clear the Lakers haven’t had their true “turning point” this season, if they ever will. LeBron James‘ teams have never had this bad of a start; not since his early days in Cleveland when his next best teammate was either Mo Williams or an aging Shaquille O’Neal. We know James wants to get his fifth championship before he retires; the question is, what is he willing to do in order to obtain it?
James has had a great season so far, and there’s not that much else that he can do. So, it all comes down to his teammates. Anthony Davis has been out for a while due to injury, but we can expect him back soon. Unfortunately, he’s had a sub-par season, and while his stats haven’t dipped that much, you can see how different it looks and feels when watching a Lakers game. However, the biggest problem this season is easily Westbrook, and the massive amount that the Lakers had to give up in order to get him. Giving up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, future All-Star Kyle Kuzma, and 6th Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell doesn’t justify acquiring a former MVP who is past his prime, hogs the ball, can’t shoot threes, and turns the ball over too often.
Westbrook’s shooting has gotten worse as the years have progressed, and in this season in particular, Westbrook has chucked up more shots in less amounts of time, because Frank Vogel has decided to play him less. Why? Because in crunch time, Vogel plays who he believes will help his team win the game, and Westbrook simply isn’t one of them. Vogel knows how bad the front office and James screwed up; even James and Rob Pelinka probably know that. Even worse then the shots, however, is the defense, or lack thereof. At multiple points throughout Lakers’ games, Westbrook will leave his man wide-open, double-team another man while leaving his man wide-open, or simply get beat.
Casey Keirnan, founder of the YouTube Channel AM Hoops, made a really good point when he compared Westbrook to Allen Iverson. Both players won an MVP, and have made the Finals once. After they left their original team (in Iverson’s case, the 76ers), they bounced around the league, having trouble finding a home. Both played with scoring dominant shooting guards (Westbrook with James Harden and Iverson with Carmelo Anthony), but couldn’t get out of the second round. Eventually, Iverson would play limited minutes for teams, and wasn’t considered a starter by the league. After a short stint with the 76ers at the end of his career in 2010, Iverson retired after a year playing overseas. Westbrook hasn’t reached that point in his career yet, but I’m worried Westbrook’s career trajectory will pan out extremely similar to Iverson’s.
It’s clear the Lakers don’t want to admit that the Westbrook trade was a mistake; especially after they decided not to go along with the Buddy Hield deal with the Kings that they’d previously agreed to. So, instead of Westbrook taking the blame, the Lakers are blaming the rocky start to the season largely on head coach Frank Vogel.
It’s not as though Vogel’s rotations are trash; remember, in 2020, he led the Lakers to the championship inside the bubble. No, the front office has simply dealt Vogel an old team that doesn’t play enough defense, is injury prone, and often can’t shoot. It’s been reported that Vogel is on a game-to-game basis, with the Lakers front office very carefully monitoring the final score of games. It was reported that if the Lakers had lost their “turning point” game against the Jazz, Vogel would have been fired. Vogel has to try to get his team to buy in on defense, or he’s out of a job for the rest of the year.
With all this being said, don’t be surprised if Coach Vogel and/or Westbrook is gone by the trade deadline. James may not have the title of GM, but he’s so involved in every front office decision that he might as well be.
When James was on the Miami Heat, there were 11 trades for different players, all to accommodate him and help the team space the floor. The players traded from the Miami Heat in order to acquire new guys were Michael Beasley, Bojan Bogdanovic, Arnett Moultrie, Dexter Pittman, Sterling Brown, Joel Anthony, Jordan Mickey, Ben Bentil, Deyonta Davis, Roger Mason, Semaj Christon, P.J. Hairston, and Jaylen Nowell.
Throughout his second run with the Cavaliers, James was key in trading away Carrick Felix, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, John Lucas III, Erik Murphy, Dwight Powell, Malcolm Thomas, Abdel Nader, Kadeem Allen, Keith Bogans, Dion Waiters, Lou Amundson, Carsen Edwards, Furkan Korkmaz, Harry Giles, Tyus Jones, Rakeem Christmas, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, Justin James, Joe Harris, Anderson Varejao, Moritz Wagner, Albert Miralles, Matthew Dellavedova, Sasha Kaun, Caleb Swanigan, Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams, Chris Andersen, Kyrie Irving, Kay Felder, Richard Jefferson, Eric Paschall, Dwyane Wade, Channing Frye, Isiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Dimitrios Agravanis, and Iman Shumpert.
On the Lakers, it’s been Svi Mykhailiuk, Michael Beasley (again), Ivica Zubac, Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Moritz Wagner (again), Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, De’Andre Hunter, Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and Marc Gasol.
They don’t call him LeGm James for no reason.
So, at the trade deadline, don’t be surprised if James has to get Westbrook off his team in order to save the season, a run at a championship, and his legacy.
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