The Los Angeles Lakers were at their best before the start of the season – when on paper and according to bettors, they were considered among the favorites to win the NBA title.
Once the games started, the Lakers were average and by the end of the week of the season, they weren’t very good at all – a $150 million roster with big names and nothing to show for it.
The Lakers were knocked out of the playoffs with Tuesday’s 121-110 loss to the Phoenix Suns, a fitting and disappointing conclusion to the 2021-22 season.
A confluence of damaging factors emptied into a sea of problems: injuries; poor roster construction, including trade for Russell Westbrook; inability to improve the roster before the February trade deadline; a strong and improving Western Conference.
All this creates another problem: next season could be even less promising than the current season.
The Lakers will finish with a losing season, marking the seventh time in nine seasons that they have been below .500. In this run, the Lakers have had four coaches, and it could be a fifth if they decide to move on from Frank Vogel, who led the franchise to a title in 2020.
This championship was important, tying the Lakers in Boston for the most titles (17) in NBA history. There are teams that would love to have a title in the last four seasons, including teams that have never won a title or haven’t won one in five decades.
But the Lakers aren’t most franchises. When they signed LeBron James four years ago and acquired Anthony Davis three years ago, competition for multiple championships was expected. And the Lakers only did it once. They missed the playoffs in James’ first season, won a title in the Orlando bubble his second, lost in the first round last season and missed the playoffs again in 2021-22.
Regardless of how it’s framed from the Lakers’ perspective, more was expected over the past four seasons.
Injuries have hurt the Lakers, no doubt. Davis missed 38 games, James 21, Kendrick Nunn most of the season, Talen Horton-Tucker 18 and Trevor Ariza 30.
Healthy Davis and James certainly elevate the Lakers to playoff status, but not sure that makes them a title contender. Durability is also an issue. Davis has played in just half of Los Angeles’ games this season and half of last season, and James has missed about a third of possible games over the past two seasons.
If this continues to be a problem, roster changes won’t be enough. The Lakers need a healthy James and Davis to compete in the West.
And if James and Davis are healthy, they need a better roster. Misguided and ill-advised, Westbrook’s trade was a gamble that lost. Westbrook didn’t have his best season and struggled to find a role that allowed him to thrive. His shooting percentages and turnover rate were similar to other seasons, and he was not expected to match his scoring, rebounds and assists on a team with James and Davis.
In the 21 games James, Davis and Westbrook played together, the Lakers were just 11-10. Westbrook was not a good candidate. He was part of the problem, but he was not the problem. The Lakers needed more players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Alex Caruso — precisely the players they traded for Westbrook or left walking in free agency.
After acquiring Westbrook, the Lakers couldn’t afford to sign the type of players who provide the skill and depth needed to win in the West.
The Lakers weren’t very good early on and only had a winning record a few times during the season – from 6-5 to 8-6; 14-13 to 16-13 to 16-15; 20-19 to 21-19 to 21-20.
From 22-22 on Jan. 17, the Lakers were never .500 again, going 9-26 after Tuesday’s loss to the Suns. Only three teams had worse winning percentages, and the Lakers were unable to make a significant move before the February trade deadline.
Even at the All-Star break, Los Angeles was 27-31 and in ninth place – in position to make a run for the seventh seed, plus 2½ games ahead of Portland and 4½ ahead of New Orleans and San Antonio. When the Lakers had to win games in late February, March and April, they went 4-17. Only Portland had a worse winning percentage, with San Antonio and New Orleans entering playoff contention.
The Lakers just weren’t good enough – 23rd offensively and defensively. The Lakers gave up too many points in the key (27th in the league) and did not have enough outside shots. Malik Monk, perhaps the Lakers’ best free agent signing in 2021, wasn’t deep enough, and his performance this season likely landed him a better offseason deal with another team.
This season is over. And next season? It doesn’t look promising.
In the short term, look at what the Lakers do with Vogel. Sometimes someone has to take the fall. With limited roster flexibility, trying out a new voice isn’t unusual.
The NBA Draft? Well, there’s a tasty morsel here. If the Lakers pick is 1-10, it goes to New Orleans, a byproduct of the 2019 trade that sent Davis to the Lakers and Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart to the Pelicans.
After that, the responsibility falls to the vice president of basketball operations, Rob Pelinka. He designed this list, and it’s his job to improve it. It won’t be easy. The Lakers have no salary cap space as long as Westbrook declines player options on the $47 million owed to him in 2022-23. Between James, Westbrook and Davis, they eat $129.45 million next season, which is above the projected team salary cap of $122 million.
They’ll have to build around the fringes with the ratepayer mid-level exception (targeted at $6.4 million for the season) and veteran’s minimum ($953,000-$2.72 million). It’s not a great way to rebuild a competitor. Their margin for error is narrow and there is competition from top teams to sign those same players. If you’re a title-seeking player looking to sign at a discount, would you rather sign with Phoenix or the Lakers? Nuggets or Lakers? Celtics or Lakers? Sixers or Lakers?
A trade for Westbrook is not impossible. Less than a year ago, the Wizards pulled it off, finding a team willing to do anything to get moving. That same desperation is hard to imagine this offseason, especially at $47 million for 2022-23.
The Lakers could take the extreme option and try to trade Davis. That seems unlikely given James’ relationship with Davis and the fact that James and Davis are represented by the same agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports.
Any team with James and Davis provides a solid starting point even in a deep Western Conference that could be even better next season.
But Pelinka — if Lakers owners Jeanie Buss decides to keep him in charge — must provide quick fixes in a scenario where quick fixes seem unrealistic.
There’s another wrinkle in the Lakers’ front office machinations, and that’s the influence of former Lakers forward Kurt Rambis, who holds a nebulous title: director of basketball affairs. Rambis and his wife, Linda, who is the team’s executive director of community relations and special events, are close to Buss. Their influence, especially Kurt’s, shouldn’t be underestimated when it comes to, uh, basketball business.
The Lakers were adrift after the departure of Phil Jackson and amid Kobe Bryant’s final seasons. They rediscovered the magic with James and Davis in 2020 but that seems the exception to the Lakers’ last decade of prom.
Follow Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers knocked out of playoffs again as roster of big names plummets