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NBA mailbag: Can Lakers fix problems, salvage season?

Can the Lakers right the ship? How are players reacting to the new Wilson game ball? Mark Medina answers your NBA questions.

LeBron James, Russell Westbrook and the Lakers are struggling to find a rhythm in 2021-22.

Usually, the NBA’s most glamorous team has plenty to cheer during the holidays.

The Los Angeles Lakers historically have featured the league’s top stars, while collecting 17 NBA titles along the way. They have performed in front of a celebrity-crazed and locally loyal crowd. Because of those qualities, the Lakers have become a staple on Christmas Day, the NBA’s showcase holiday.

But the Lakers hardly looked deserving in their Christmas Day loss to the Nets. They wasted another brilliant LeBron James effort. They sorely missed Anthony Davis (injury) and a group of players (Health and Safety Protocols). And they still haven’t found the right chemistry with Russell Westbrook and a handful of role players. All of which has contributed to the Lakers’ up-and-down season in 2021-22.

No surprise that this week’s mailbag featured some questions and concerns about the state of the Lakers.

Mark, A fan of your writing (and honesty), we’re seeing the cost of impatience and foolish choices. Dwight Howard and especially Deandre Jordan are worn out, and their limitations have forced Anthony Davis to play the five, where in stretches, when in good health, he excels — but which wears him out as he throws his body around like few others …

Having no first-round draft picks for the next seven years in return for the single championship? This superteam-trade-off left them no chance to obtain a consistent wing-shooter now during LeBron’s remaining window, much less a decent Big …

One can’t make short-terms trade-offs and compound them with poor choices and expect anything other than what we’re seeing — watching three great athletes spin their wheels — all horsepower and no torque. Good for you for calling out the wishful thinking and mythology. I don’t think these players themselves, even believe what they’re telling the press and media.

— Ned Einstein, Warwick, N.Y.

Thanks for the kind words and interest, Ned. I try to call it like I see it. And even when the Lakers account for their injuries, overlapping injuries and time needed to foster chemistry, this team has dealt with two serious problems that won’t improve even as the season goes on. One, it’s a pipe dream to think the Lakers will ever have “a full team.” They have an old roster, a fragile Davis and an overworked LeBron while navigating a pandemic that has no end in sight. Two, the team has shown that neither LeBron, Davis nor Westbrook can make up for all of the Lakers’ warts, either single-handedly or even as a trio.

The Lakers have leaned on hope that their three star players will eventually have consistent playing time together. Perhaps that happens whenever Davis returns. But given James’ workload and age (37 on Thursday), he has become increasingly more vulnerable toward wearing down. And in Westbrook’s case, he has not lived up to the Lakers’ advertisement that he can carry the team by himself or with one other star teammate.

Despite this gloomy outlook, I don’t fault the Lakers for changing their roster from their championship year (2020) and their first-round exit (2021). Although they had the right ingredients for a championship run, the Lakers did not retain a lot of the supporting cast in hope of having a younger roster that could get them through the compressed 2020-21 season. Though the Lakers were not wrong with that philosophy, they were wrong with who they chose for replacements. Hence, their course correction on acquiring Westbrook.

That came at the cost of losing some of their depth and youth. But even so, the greater Lakers sin happened afterward. Though they still fulfilled perimeter defensive and outside shooting needs, the Lakers did so with way too many veterans that would increase their odds of having an injured roster. They also inexplicably let Alex Caruso walk simply because they did not want to pay the additional luxury taxes.

So, the Lakers are in a hole that they dug themselves and there won’t be a market before the trade deadline for any of their damaged goods. Hence, their only hope hinges on LeBron and AD playing at their best and healthiest later on in the season. That worked in the bubble season, but that also coincided with the right personnel around him. You can expect to see the rest of the season playing out with LeBron simply offering worthless brilliance.

Matt Winer, Dennis Scott, and Sam Mitchell discuss the Nets handing the Lakers their 5th straight loss.

The NBA should not allow Kyrie to come back unvaccinated. He is going to affect other players on the floor. He must be vaccinated. The Nets should be fined by NBA for allowing such.

–Isaiah Robinson Jr.

I understand people’s criticism of Kyrie, and his vaccination decisions. But here’s a few things to clarify:

The NBA can’t fine the Nets for allowing Kyrie to play despite being unvaccinated. The NBA and National Basketball Players Association agreed that the vaccine would be voluntary. Beyond touting the health benefits, the NBA has outlined different incentives for players to take the vaccine, including reduced protocol restrictions. But there’s no requirement that Kyrie — or any other player – get the vaccine. By and large, that approach has worked. The NBA says that 97% of players are vaccinated and that 65% of eligible players have also received the booster shot. So in the grand scheme of things, Kyrie represents only a minority of the player population.

The reason this has become such a sticking point? For one, Kyrie is important to the Nets’ championship runs. But Kyrie also can’t play at Nets home games because of New York City’s mandate for all people to be vaccinated at large indoor events. That’s not the NBA’s ruling — that’s a city ordinance. With all of that being said, I do think the Omicron variant should give the NBA cover to negotiate again with the NBPA about making it mandatory for players to become fully vaccinated and receive the booster. It already is mandatory for coaches, staff workers, and reporters. Players should carry the same burden.

Nets guard Kyrie Irving (right) walks courtside during the second half a Seton Hall game at Prudential Center on Dec. 1.

I’m a huge fan of the Washington Wizards. What happened with Davis Bertans getting injured this season?

–Parker Lerdal, Houston, Texas

It doesn’t take a savvy executive or salary cap guru to see how regrettable Bertans’ five-year, $80 million contract has become only two years later. During Bertans’ 10-game absence because of a left ankle sprain, the Wizards went 6-4. Upon his return, Bertans went a combined 1-of-22 in his first four games. And Bertans recently had an argument with Deni Avdija during a timeout following a missed 3-pointer.

But it would be a stretch to say that Bertans is bringing the team down. They signed him to a lucrative contract at the time because the Wizards didn’t have many other options because of John Wall’s burdensome contract. That didn’t prevent the Wizards from making substantial moves, though. They unloaded Westbrook to the Lakers while acquiring a promising young wing (Kyle Kuzma), a quality perimeter defender and shooter (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and an efficient pick-and-roll big man (Montrezl Harrell). The Wizards also have benefitted from Bradley Beal’s ongoing presence as well as Spencer Dinwiddie’s arrival in free agency.

No doubt, the Wizards have hit a rough patch. But not all of it has had to do with Bertans specifically. The Wizards haven’t played as consistently as a team since their strong start. In fairness to Bertans, he has posted solid numbers (7.2 points on 43.5% shooting and 39.2% 3-point shooting). But those numbers don’t justify the contract. The Wizards’ fortunes mostly rest on Beal and their young roster. And maybe Bertans will come out of his slump.

How is the new Wilson ball different from the old Spalding ball?

— Stephan Goodrich, Frederick, Md.

The NBA says that the Wilson and Spalding balls are comprised of the same materials, including the same leather. But it also adds that the new ball features full grain pebbling as well as the Wilson logo, including an anthracite inline.

There has been some grumbling about the new ball. Clippers forward Paul George blamed the new ball partly for the league-wide low shooting numbers to open the season. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said the organization has tracking data that has shown that players have changed the arc of their shot because “the depth of the grooves are not there.” Keep in mind, though, that Wilson, the NBA and NBPA worked jointly with teams and players on developing the new game ball, which included a series of evaluation sessions.

Andrew Greif, the Clippers’ beat writer at the Los Angeles Times, had an in-depth feature with more detail on the Wilson ball.

Hoops Around the World

We all know that the NBA has become a global brand and that basketball has become a global game. But what fuels your basketball fandom?

We’ve love to see a photo of the hoop you play on, whether it be in your neighborhood gym or in your backyard or driveway. Got a good image? Send to me for use in this feature.

We’re also interested to hear about how you become a basketball fan. Got a good basketball story to tell? Write it up and send it my way. The best essays will be used in this feature throughout the season, such as this one:

“My ‘story’ is probably similar to the ones of most international fans: I went to summer camp in Northern Germany in ’92, ’93 and ’94. One of those years, there was a boy/teenager wearing a basketball jersey — No. 23 of the Chicago Bulls. I thought it looked really cool, the aggressive Bull and the colors. At that time, it was an extremely rare sight, Germany just started to take notice of the league, due to the NBA going international with Michael Jordan as the global icon. People wearing sports’ attire was almost exclusively soccer jerseys, usually without player names on the back, at times not even a number. So that stood out and I really wanted such a cool-looking shirt.

Take a look back at the legendary career of Hall of Famer Michael Jordan.

The boy also had some sports magazines with articles about the Bulls and the NBA. I started following as much as I could, which meant watching highlights of selected games once or twice a week. That was all the coverage back then. My fandom was limited to the Bulls initially, knowing absolutely nothing about the Western Conference. After MJ retired for the second time, there wasn’t any kind of coverage on TV that I recall. I lost interest, apart from checking some news about Allen Iverson occasionally, until the Dirk Nowitzki hype started and the internet made following the NBA infinitely easier. From there, basketball quickly became my favorite sport to watch. Now, I can watch full games, watch the ’90s Bulls full length on demand, learn more about their rivalries with the Pistons and Knicks, then watch Knicks vs Pacers.

Watching live games was still a pain as almost all games are at night time in Europe. After moving to Asia in early 2017, that problem was solved and I watched games 5-7 days a week. I became a fan of basketball in general rather than following just one team or a single player. Now it’s the games, stories, fan pages, stats, analytics, strategy, team building, intangibles, coaching. There’s soo many variables and interesting aspects to the game, yet still individuals can have a tremendous impact on it. However, nobody can win by himself and that mix between individuality and team sport makes basketball so fascinating to me.

In conclusion, I’d say individual athletes becoming brands (in this case MJ) along with availability and coverage from TV, newspapers and magazines were crucial in creating interest. Availability via internet increased my interest and brought me back as a fan. The sport itself then got me hooked me for life.”

— Frank Forster, Warburg, Germany

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NBA Digital Sr. Analyst Mark Medina will be answering questions each week in his NBA Mailbag.

How can you participate? Simply email your question to Mark here, or use your Twitter account and get your question to him here.