Los Angeles Lakers
2021-22 record: 33-49
Key additions: Troy Brown Jr., Thomas Bryant, Damian Jones, Lonnie Walker & Juan Toscano-Anderson (free agency), Patrick Beverley (trade), coach Darvin Ham
Key subtractions: Talen Horton-Tucker & Stanley Johnson (trade), Malik Monk (free agency), coach Frank Vogel
Last season: If Hollywood wanted to script the perfect basketball horror movie, then it wouldn’t need to go very far. Overall, the Lakers were the picture of disappointment by failing to reach the playoffs, coping with the almost-nightly bumblings of Russell Westbrook, wasting a fight-Father-Time-and-won season by LeBron James and dealing with a season-ending injury by Anthony Davis (yet again), all of which failed their fan base. The person who suffered the most was Vogel, shown the door mainly because the Lakers’ defense was spotty, but also because … they didn’t win enough.
Summer summary: The rebuilding of the once-proud Lakers was handed an instant and largely expected setback once Westbrook exercised his player option for 2022-23. Of course, had he declined, an entire basketball world would’ve had him checked for a fever. The chance to make $47 million isn’t easily dismissed, no matter how checkered of a season Westbrook is coming off of, or how much the fan base wanted him gone.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) September 5, 2022
But once Westbrook locked himself into the upcoming season, the Lakers’ options became limited. They couldn’t trade him without packaging him with sweeteners — they’re still paying off the Pelicans for getting Davis in 2019 — and also taking back bad contracts and/or players from another team. Basically, the Lakers tried this summer, but keeping Westbrook was their best option (unless something changes at the 11th hour prior to training camp or the season).
Westbrook might be secretly unhappy as a Laker, given what he went through — he’s hard to read — however, testing the market would’ve been financially disastrous. As an unrestricted free agent, Westbrook would’ve been lucky to get a fraction of that $47 million. If he decides to continue playing beyond this season, he’s certain to set an NBA record for biggest payout. So, yeah, Westbrook was gonna return.
Strained by the salary cap, the Lakers could only offer exceptions to rotational add-ons: Brown, Walker, Bryant and others. None are projected to be primary options this season or drastically change the team’s fortunes. In a better scenario, the Lakers would’ve retained Monk, who at times exceeded expectations last season. But he fled to the Sacramento Kings in free agency for a bit more money and, perhaps, a meatier role.
In that sense, maybe the most important addition was Ham. He’s a first-time coach walking into a potential quagmire, but Ham comes highly recommended. He spent much of his apprenticeship with Mike Budenholzer, first with the Atlanta Hawks and then, most recently, with the Milwaukee Bucks (where he won a title in 2021).
Ham seems even-tempered and reasonable, the ideal qualities for the job. He says he has a plan for Westbrook to be less reckless with the ball, and also to put him in spots where he doesn’t need to rely on outside shooting (which was horrific at times). Defenders gave Westbrook all the room he wanted and dared him to shoot, which seemed to work as he shot 29.8% on 3-pointers (and is a career 30.5% 3-point shooter).
It would make sense for Westbrook to play more on the ball, which would mean taking the ball from James, whose court vision and passing remain sharp as he turns 38 this season. It’ll be very interesting how Ham handles this delicate situation … and how Westbrook handles it as well.
Speaking of delicate situations: the trade with the Utah Jazz for Beverley that puts him in the same locker room as his longtime rival, Westbrook, seemed cartoonish. You can’t find two players who loathe each other more. Again, let’s see how Westbrook handles this.
Mostly, the success rate of the Lakers this season will depend less on Westbrook and more on Davis’ health. He had all summer to mend from a foot sprain and, barring a setback, is expected to go full-tilt when training camp opens.
The last bit of summer business involved the Lakers and James agreeing on a two-year extension, with him holding an option year on the second year. Everyone by now knows the game plan: LeBron wants the chance to team up with his oldest son, Bronny, when the kid is eligible to play in the league in two years — if he’s indeed good enough. But that’s an issue for the future.
The Lakers are too occupied with the present, and this summer didn’t offer many, if any, major solutions.
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