OK, fine! It’s time, I guess. We shall grade the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2022 offseason!
Of course, a Russell Westbrook trade is still possible before training camp — if real estate listings are any indication — which would fundamentally shake up the Lakers’ roster (talks with the Utah Jazz are ongoing). Yet, here we sit in mid-September, two weeks before Media Day, and Russ remains a Laker. With each passing day, it looks increasingly likely that Westbrook will be wearing a purple pinny when camp commences.
So, going by the current roster, let us holistically evaluate the Lakers’ unexpectedly lengthy hiatus from basketball.
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Lakers Offseason Grades
Way back in June, the Lakers hired Darvin Ham to succeed Frank Vogel.
Just being around Ham at Summer League, his gravitas and communication skills were glaringly apparent. He’s huge, affable, naturally commands a room, and knows everybody.
I asked Darvin Ham at halftime of Lakers-Suns about what he wants to see from THT (then he clowned me) pic.twitter.com/616UqpTMDe
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) July 9, 2022
In his introductory press conference and ensuing media appearances, Ham has repeatedly laid out his vision for the Lakers as a defense-first, selfless, and tough squad (Vogel had the same idea).
Ham has the same intentions for Westbrook, specifically: an elite role player who can set the tone on defense and make an off-ball impact on offense — a role that Vogel idealized, too. But Westbrook refused to adapt for Vogel and then fired his agent for suggesting that he embrace that vision.
Whether Ham can be an effective Russ-whisperer is the biggest question entering his first year on the job. If he can’t do it, nobody can (well, maybe Scott Brooks). Considering how much Ham has talked up Westbrook and his personal commitment to executing the plan this summer, it will be fascinating to see how long of a leash Ham, and the Lakers, afford Russ should he fail to evolve.
Ham plans to institute a 4-out, 1-in scheme that was employed by Mike Budenholzer. Only time will tell whether the Lakers have the roster — namely the shooters — to make that work.
Ham was long-deserving of a head coaching opportunity. He holds stars accountable and has improved defenses and developed talent throughout his career as an assistant. He was the right man for the gig.
As for the staff, the Lakers let go of David Fizdale, Mike Penberthy, and John Lucas III, while retaining beloved assistant/developmental guru Phil Handy (smart) and Quinton Crawford. Ham brought in Chris Jent and Jordan Ott.
The drafting and developmental track record of the Lakers’ scouting department over the decade is inarguably impressive. They’ve selected well atop the draft (Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram), later on (Kyle Kuzma, Talen Horton-Tucker, Jordan Clarkson, Ivica Zubac, Larry Nance, etc), and afterward (Austin Reaves).
Therefore, I’m optimistic about their 2022 haul, though patience will be necessary. After trading into the second round — higher than expected, at No. 35 — they nabbed a first-round talent in 19-year-old Max Christie (I graded it here). Christie was a mildly surprisingly selection considering his rawness, but the Lakers opted for potential and talent as they strive to balance now and later after fielding a historically old team in 2021-22.
Christie has plenty of work to do. His outside shooting performance at Michigan State and in Summer League doesn’t align with the smoothness of his stroke. He needs to bulk up to be a true stopper.
Christie’s IQ — on both ends — is obvious, and he flashed impressive play-making, rebounding, and midrange skills in Summer League. His lateral agility and 1-on-1 defense stood out. He’s a mature, thoughtful kid whose work ethic is unquestioned. Christie contributing in 2022-23 may be a longshot, but his future is bright. I’d wager on him becoming a solid, versatile 3-and-D.
After the draft, the Lakers added Scotty Pippen Jr. and Cole Swider, both of whom signed two-way contracts and will float between the G-League and the pros this season. Pippen Jr.’s spunkiness, defensive tenacity, and speed jump out, as does his confidence. His game needs plenty of polishing, but the Sierra Canyon alum (and Klutch client) with Hall-of-Fame hoop genes has preliminary looks of a rotation-caliber NBA player.
Swider, a 6’9 forward, shot the lights out in Summer League. He’s the best shooter on the Lakers right now, and might be their best “movement shooter”, per Pelinka, in years. His defensive limitations may render him unplayable in 2022-23, but he projects as precisely the type of difference-making, floor-warping sniper the Lakers have long lacked.
I asked Lakers’ Cole Swider about how he became an elite movement shooter. He credited his HS coach and the systems at Villanova and Syracuse. He cited Duncan Robinson and Joe Harris as NBA influences.
(He also said he was a better shooter than Buddy Boeheim, unsurprisingly.) pic.twitter.com/NhNodvaIn9
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) July 11, 2022
I previously appraised the free agency class, which Los Angeles compiled with no cap space and one taxpayer mid-level exception. They added a handful of respectable players with room to grow — none of whom will ultimately determine whether the Lakers can hang in a tough Western Conference.
Damian Jones is an underrated big who gives the Lakers shot-blocking, verticality, and rim-running. He even flashed a three-point shot in 2021-22 amid a break-out year with the Sacramento Kings. He’s the favorite to start at center.
Thomas Bryant — genuinely thrilled to be back in Los Angeles — is an adequate stretch-5 alongside Anthony Davis.
Juan Toscano-Anderson is a fringe rotation piece, but he’s a proud daily culture-setter and versatile defender.
Troy Brown Jr., 23, possesses the highest 3-and-D ceiling on the team. He can provide occasional secondary play-making, as well.
Here's Troy Brown Jr. telling @BA_Turner why putting on a Lakers jersey brings his NBA journey "full circle": pic.twitter.com/kiGYwgiWPC
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) July 6, 2022
The most divisive signing is Lonnie Walker IV, who can replicate Malik Monk’s athleticism and microwave scoring, but whose defensive metrics pale in comparison to other TPMLE candidates.
Crucially, the Lakers didn’t add any large, rangy wings, and have a surplus of 6’6-and-under dudes. Plus, coming off an unremarkable three-point shooting season, the Lakers neglected to signn anyone with a career three-point percentage above 35%, despite the departures of Monk, Carmelo Anthony, and Wayne Ellington (a trade for Eric Gordon, Buddy Hield, and/or Jazz veterans — Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley Jr., Clarkson — remains plausible.)
The most encouraging aspect of their free agency haul was the emphasis on youth. The Lakers needed to get bouncier and hungrier across the board, and they did just that. One year ago, they added eight free agents over 30 (and more in-season), each of whom was some degree of #washed. Now, they boast a roster featuring just three players over 30 (Westbrook, LeBron James, Patrick Beverley).
The Lakers’ most impactful addition might be the long-awaited debut of Kendrick Nunn — now the team’s fourth-highest paid player and owner of the highest career three-point percentage (36.4) on the team. He’s the early favorite to start at two-guard.
The most notable move of the Lakers’ offseason thus far — besides Ham, arguably — was inking LeBron to a two-year extension that will tie him, like AD, to the Lakers through at least 2023-24 (he has a player option for 2024-25).
LeBron has an agenda here. The option allows him to maintain leverage, his commitment should provoke the Lakers into repaying him with aggressive, win-now moves, while he retains flexibility for when Bronny (possibly) enters the league.
For the Lakers, securing The King eliminates any distractions that would have loomed over this season. LeBron could have flexed his muscles and kept the NBA waiting until June — prompting free agency suspense. Instead, the organization knows he’s committed, and Jeanie Buss can sleep soundly knowing that another all-time great superstar relishes life with the Lakers — a win for the brand and the business.
Instead of Kyrie Irving, the Lakers traded for another outspoken veteran point guard. (One could denigrate the Lakers for not pouncing on Kyrie when he was seemingly available, but the ball was in the Brooklyn Nets court and dependent on a Kevin Durant deal. They can position themselves to sign Irving outright next summer.)
I already graded the Beverley deal, so I’ll refer you there for a deeper analysis. To summarize: Pat Bev checks the boxes Ham is looking for in role players: two-way capabilities, a team-first mentality, grittiness, and floor-spacing.
Simply put, the Lakers acquired a starting-caliber player on an expiring deal for two fringe rotation pieces (THT, Johnson) without surrendering a draft pick. That’s a win. As long as Pat and Russ can coexist — Beverley’s intro presser was an auspicious start — the trade makes the Lakers better in the present without compromising the future.
Lakers’ Offseason Grade: B, with potential to tick up if Russ is traded