Los Angeles Lakers: 5 big questions for 2021-22 NBA season
They’re back. Tuesday, the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers — the NBA’s Waystar Royco, if you will — will play a real basketball game.
Following an endless offseason, barely over a year after the bubble title, and, fittingly, days after the Succession premiere, the game’s ultimate power broker, LeBron James, and his expensive running mates, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook — flanked by unprecedented star power — will kick off their season of must-see TV against Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and the Golden State Warriors at Staples Center.
Before the games can begin, though, here are five essential questions for the 2021-22 Lakers — who should produce one of the most fascinating and compelling seasons in NBA history.
5) Offensive spacing or defensive fortitude?
How the Lakers stagger lineups will go a long way to determining their regular-season win total (O/U 52.5) and minute-to-minute productivity. It’s undeniably important.
However, in crunch time and in big playoff moments, the Lakers will have to excel with LeBron, Russ, and AD on the court together. Perhaps sheer talent and devastating fast-breaking will be enough. Perhaps not.
At the beginning and end of games, the Lakers will have two choices re: lineup construction, and what direction Vogel goes in will reveal where his confidence levels are at: Do they emphasize offensive spacing or fortify their defense?
If the Lakers play Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan alongside AD, that will indicate a need to buoy their perimeter defense. If they put AD at the 5 and floor an extra shooter/scorer, that will tell you they feel good enough about their D and want to create buckets. Keep an eye on how Vogel shuffles between these identities.
4) How long will the injuries last?
Talen Horton-Tucker will be “reevaluated” in four weeks. Trevor Ariza will be out for at least two months. Wayne Ellington is out for Opening Night, and Grade 1 hamstring strains are typically three-plus week matters (early in the season, it seems prudent to be extra-cautious with hammies). Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn, fortunately, seem to be fine.
These ailments don’t necessarily move the needle on the Lakers’ title chances, but they could affect which players see opportunities early on, and, in turn, how the rotation ends up shaking out. Is that HBK’s music??
If we’re being honest, one implicit question matters above all else: Will the stars stay healthy?
3) Who will emerge as the most reliable shooters?
Here’s the thing: not all of them will repeat those levels of accuracy.
Last season, for instance, Wesley Matthews went unexpectedly ice-cold in sunny Los Angeles. The year before his peak 2021-22 campaign for the Detroit Pistons, Ellington was a brick factory for the New York Knicks.
Monk was anything but microwavable for his first two seasons with the Charlotte Hornets. Bazemore’s 2020-21 season could be an outlier, and he’s already been profoundly self-critical of his play in the preseason. Ariza’s advanced shooting metrics paint a darker picture than his percentage. Just saying.
Collectively, the Lakers will be a vastly improved three-point shooting squad. However, who is able to consistently drain jumpers throughout the season will go a long way to determining the rotation.
2) Who will Russ be off the ball?
This ponderance is already tired, but it can’t be overstated. In fact, it’s the biggest schematic question of the Lakers’ season.
The great irony of Russell Westbrook — of the many — is, for as über-energized as he is with the ball in his hands, he tends to be equally unengaged without the rock.
Zach Lowe raising a key thing to watch for the Lakers this season: Russell Westbrook’s off-ball activity/screen setting. Per Lowe, Russ only set 19 screens for the Wizards in 2020-21https://t.co/kFIONLYDix pic.twitter.com/U1rvL8SAP3
— michael corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 6, 2021
Frankly, besides his shooting woes — though not bashfulness — there’s no reason why Russ can’t be an exceptional off-ball player. Come to think of it, I can recall a certain explosive Miami Heat guard and teammate of LeBron who couldn’t shoot threes yet was one of the most dangerous cutters of all time.
We’ve seen flashes of Westbrook setting screens and darting into the lane in the preseason. More of that.
not to overreact, but this, consistently, goes a long way to a banner https://t.co/gXjmTCdQsL
— michael corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) October 15, 2021
In his defense, Westbrook has never played with a passer nearly as good as LeBron James (who has?), who encourages cutting and head-swiveling as effectively as any player since either Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, or Magic Johnson.
If the Lakers are going to win close playoff games, then Russ is going to have to be a useful player when LeBron or someone else has the ball.
1) Will egos truly be checked at the door?
There have been two overarching themes since free agency — whether Pelinka, Vogel, LeBron, Russ, AD, Melo, or anyone else is behind a mic: 1) We’ll figure it out, and 2) the mindset is solely championship-focused. You’ve probably more than one Laker utter the word “sacrifice,” over the past few weeks.
Besides the superstars, THT, and Nunn, everybody else is on minimum deals. The Lakers have, by far, the oldest roster in the league, and the oldest Opening Night squad in NBA history (#NBA75). LeBron is beginning Year 19.
All the talk of checking egos at the door for the greater good is admirable and genuine. It’s also easy to say before anything counts. There will be stretches when accomplished vets are booted from the rotation, on the bench in big moments, or subbed out when they don’t want to be.
The scrutiny and attention on the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers will be as intense and microscopic as any team since the 2010-11 Heat. And, like that group, it won’t be smooth sailing right away, as the Lakers have repeatedly acknowledged. They’re banking on wisdom and experience to weather any impending Santa Ana winds.
In the words of Cousin Greg: “Wherever you hide, the party finds you.”