The Los Angeles Lakers want to contend for the NBA championship in 2022-23.
Whether that’s a realizable or humurous goal is beside the point. With LeBron James entering Year 20 and increasing pressure placed on the front office by Jeanie Buss to rebound from an embarrassing 33-win campaign, the NBA’s most prolific franchise has to, at the very least, put forth the belief that they coulda be a contenda. After all: rings or bust is the Lakers — and now LeBron’s — brand.
Either get on board or get out of the way. 🗣 @KingJames
He breaks down his mentality on a new episode of #TheShop.
📺: https://t.co/RuzMhFtsb5 pic.twitter.com/SUWnuKNURZ
— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) July 16, 2022
Let’s get one thing out of the way: The Lakers aren’t raising a banner unless LeBron and Anthony Davis stay healthy and resemble their bubble forms. That goes without saying, though Darvin Ham has repeatedly pointed it out. Here’s what else needs to happen for the Lakers to transition from epic disappointment into surprise contender amid an ascendant Western Conference.
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What The Lakers Still Must Address
2) Get rid of Russ
Russ Stans don’t want to hear it, but the Lakers aren’t sniffing a ‘chip with Russell Westbrook.
As somebody who was at (nearly) every home game and around the team after throughout last season, the Westbrook-related struggles, while not exclusively his fault, were toxic, infectious, and exhausting. He soured his reputation internally by resisting film room feedback and adaptation. He pointed the finger at everybody besides himself (including LeBron and AD) in his scorched-earth exit interview. His and LeBron’s non-interaction at Summer League (one phone call aside) and follow-up subtweets paint a cold picture.
On the court, Westbrook’s unwillingness to modify his game and become a more malleable, off-ball, two-way player — as Ham, like Frank Vogel and his now ex-agent, knows he needs to do — made the clunky fit with LeBron and AD even more detrimental. To expect the forecast to suddenly turn sunny is delusional. The Lakers know this — evidenced by their efforts to trade him. The Athletic’s Jovan Buha recently described the relationship between Russ and the organization as “becoming more untenable with each passing week as the two sides seemingly head for an inevitable divorce.”
The Lakers have to decide whether shedding two distant first-round picks — which LeBron, extension-eligible on Aug. 4, literally could not care less about — for the outside chance to contend in 2022-23 is more beneficial than sending Russ home (if no trade materializes) or attempting to repair the relationship and fit and freeing up $47 million for future seasons.
If the Lakers want to contend ASAP, their only route is to pony up the picks for Kyrie Irving and hope the Brooklyn Nets and Kyrie are still down to deal (the momentum is seemingly heading towards Brooklyn running it back). Despite Irving’s unreliability concerns, the ceiling of a squad with LeBron, AD, and Kyrie is considerably higher than any other fathomable Lakers roster construction combination, including one featuring Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, and Eric Gordon.
“We need to get younger, we need to get more athletic, we need to get more shooting,” Ham said earlier in the summer. “And it’s so far so good in my opinion.”
The Lakers checked two of those boxes — youth and athleticism — in free agency. But shooting remains a glaring area of need.
Each of their signings has shown flashes of perimeter prowess, but none are expected three-point contest entrants, a la the departed Malik Monk.
Walker IV is an explosive finisher who can score in bunches, but his three-point shooting regressed to 31 percent last season. (FWIW, he’s not worried).
“There’s various circumstances as to why people have a dip in shooting,” Walker IV continued. “Sometimes it’s injury-related, sometimes it’s minutes, who you’re out on the floor with, how many touches. So only thing we’re worried about is what we’re doing going forward, and we feel we’ve got a good group – a good young group of free agents that’s gonna come in and make an impact.”
Troy Brown Jr. brings 3-and-D potential, but, like Walker IV, is a career 34 percent shooter. Thomas Bryant is a capable stretch-5 (35 percent career from 3) but isn’t Dirk Nowitzki. Juan Toscano-Anderson shot 32.2 percent in 2021-22.
Undrafted rookie Cole Swider is an elite shooter but is a long way from seeing meaningful NBA minutes. Austin Reaves shot 32 percent as a rookie. Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson haven’t developed consistent jumpers. Kendrick Nunn, who hasn’t played in a year, is the only player on the roster with a career rate above 36 percent. LeBron may be the best shooter on the roster.
As currently constructed, the Lakers could be the worst three-point shooting team in the league. Ham is implementing Mike Budenholzer’s 4-out, 1-in system based upon spacers orbiting one player inside. At the moment, the Lakers don’t have four above-average snipers on the depth chart, let alone for a single lineup.
The Lakers’ only free agency avenue to acquiring a difference-making shooter was the midlevel exception, which they handed to Walker IV (you’re not getting one on the minimum). All along, the Lakers have felt like a trade is the most practical route to meaningfully address their biggest need.
Bringing in Hield, Turner, Gordon, or, of course, Kyrie, would surely help. Retaining Carmelo Anthony (37.5 percent from 3 in 2020-21) in a reduced role at the minimum would make sense, too.
It’s almost August — the pickings are slim.