The Los Angeles Lakers were “gifted” 12 of their first 15 games at the supposedly-friendly confines of the Staples Center (er, Crypto.com Arena). The schedule looked relatively light: only four games against teams who qualified for the 2020-21 playoffs.
They came out of that stretch 8-7 and, seemingly, without having figured anything out. Alas.
Now, the sputtering Lakers will venture to the East Coast for the first time of the 2021-22 NBA season, beginning with a matchup against the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks (without Giannis Antetokounmpo) on Wednesday. Following the team's blowout loss to the Chicago Bulls, Frank Vogel expressed hope that the road trip would offer a productive respite for a Lakers team still getting to know each other — on and off the court.
“We welcome the road trip,” Vogel said. “It’ll be good for us. We’ve been struggling, a little bit up and down. A change of environment should be good for us.”
Ahead of the first excursion east of the Mississippi, let's posit five major question marks facing this Lakers group.
Who will be healthy, and when?
To be fair, the Lakers' struggles can be partially chalked up to injuries. LeBron James has missed nine games. Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn are yet to debut. Rotation wings Austin Reaves, Wayne Ellington, and Talen Horton-Tucker missed multiple contests.
Here's the good news: When Reaves, Ellington, and THT have been on the court, they've looked good. Horton-Tucker has especially shined in his two games since returning from thumb surgery. Ariza is seven weeks into his eight-week recovery timetable and went through an extended shootaround before the Bulls game without an ankle brace (Nunn is a ways away.)
Trevor Ariza back out here working, doesn’t seem to have any type of ankle brace on. He’s missed 7 weeks, was initially ruled out for 8 pic.twitter.com/ZCSexPpM5s
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) November 16, 2021
Oh, yeah: LeBron is expected to return on Friday against the Boston Celtics, per reports.
How will they shoot away from home?
Let's put the Lakers' 6-of-32 performance vs. Chicago aside, as the Lakers entered Monday sixth in the NBA in 3-point percentage (albeit at low volume). Prior to that debacle, they were shooting 39% at Staples. However, in the team's three road games, they've shot 10 percentage points worse.
More specifically, here are Carmelo Anthony's shooting splits:
- Home: 51.4% FG, 52.2% (42/79) 3-point FG
- Away: 28.6% FG, 6.3% (1/16) 3-point FG
Whether the Lakers ultimately materialize as an above-average three-point shooting team will not just go a long way to determining their ceiling, it will also validate (or not) the front office's bold offseason overhaul.
Can they bring it every night?
We can give the Lakers' a relative pass for their schematic issues (though they should be more prepared for teams double-teaming AD): They're an utterly renovated squad with multiple players out, including their fulcrum (LeBron). Subpar effort, though, is inexcusable.
Certainly, teams are entitled to lay eggs here and there — it's unavoidable in a long season — but the Lakers' uninspired showings have been particularly poorly timed. Right when they seem to be turning a corner, they put forth a dud.
The road trip will offer a delayed opportunity to jumpstart their campaign. It's not exactly now or never, but it's close. You would think LeBron's return will provide a much-needed energy boost.
Which Russell Westbrook will show up?
Monday's loss to Chicago was a perfect encapsulation of the Russell Westbrook experience (as Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan, who could have been Lakers had they not targeted Russ, played excellent games).
Westbrook kept the Lakers in the game in the first half with 19 aggressive points, mostly coming in the paint. Then, within the first six minutes of the third quarter, he committed two sloppy turnovers, bricked three long jumpers, and was yanked by Vogel as the Bulls' lead ballooned.
Russ has had plenty of encouraging moments in Los Angeles. But, he's shooting 42.7% from the field and is the only player in the NBA averaging more than five turnovers per game (5.3 to be exact — remember when he said his preseason TOs didn't matter?).
“It creates more togetherness, cohesiveness and finding ways to lean on each other,” Westbrook said about hitting the road. “You know when you go on the road you go against a home crowd, so you have no choice but to lean on each other. If you don’t, you don’t have a chance to win.”
A few games away from Staples could serve him well.
Which wings will step up?
Kent Bazemore started the first 13 games before losing his gig due to a brutal shooting slump that began affecting the rest of his game. He was a DNP against the Spurs on Sunday, then committed 5 fouls in 12 minutes on Monday. We mentioned Ellington, Monk, and THT. Reaves remains out.
Fleshing out roles and finding consistency within the supporting cast will go a long way to stabilizing the team as a whole. A road trip provides an ideal opportunity to make progress in this regard.
This is connected to another question: what does Vogel do with the starting lineup once LeBron returns? His preference, rightfully, is to go with AD at the 5, though he said that will be a matchup-based decision. Multiple players — namely, THT, Ellington, and Avery Bradley — have cases to start at the 2.
Of course, who finishes is more important.
Assuming LeBron does return on Friday, we might learn a lot about this Lakers team on this trip — which will end with their 20th game of the season. Then, according to Carmelo, we can truly evaluate the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers.