The 2021-22 NBA season begins on October 19, and between now and then, the Crossover staff will go through all the big stories ahead of what promises to be an unforgettable campaign. You can find our NBA breakthrough stories here.
It is the most important question. Maybe it’s the only question: Why? It was last October when the Lakers were celebrating their 17th NBA championship. If Anthony Davis hadn’t pinched his groin in Game 4 of Los Angeles’ first-round series against the Suns this spring, perhaps the Lakers would have dispatched the battered Nuggets and Clippers en route to the Finals. That is not only possible. It is probable.
So why would LA, with the bones of a starting team, move into 10 new bodies, including one of the NBA’s most polarizing stars? Why would a franchise with seemingly so few questions on the list build an old lady loaded with them? Rob Pelinka pauses to consider the question. “One of the things that is lost when building a roster is that although talent is the most important thing, we are operating in a system, within a collective agreement, that has taxes and fines,” says the general manager of the Lakers. “The job of every basketball executive is to thread that needle.”
There is part of the answer. It explains the loss of Alex Caruso, a key backup guard who signed a four-year, $ 37 million deal with the Bulls after the Lakers decided keeping him would push them too far into luxury tax territory. It explains why Dennis Schröder, who turned down a four-year, $ 84 million extension last season, signed a one-year deal with the Celtics in the offseason after that longer contract had been taken off the table. It doesn’t explain why Pelinka sent what was left of Los Angeles’ business assets, including 26-year-old forward Kyle Kuzma and last June’s first-round pick, to Washington for Russell Westbrook.
LeBron James has operated as a de facto point guard for the past two seasons; in 2019-20 he led the NBA with 10.2 assists per game. Pelinka envisions Westbrook as someone who will take the pressure off LeBron while creating easy opportunities for Davis. James, Pelinka notes, has won titles with strong leading bases. In Miami, it was dwyane wade; in Cleveland, it was kyrie irving. Westbrook, still a blur in transition at age 32, should drive the attack (the Lakers were 16th). To help with rebounding, the Lakers brought back Dwight Howard, a key backup on the 2020 championship team, and signed DeAndre Jordan. “Two years ago we were a great running team,” says coach Frank Vogel. “We took a step back last year. I think [Westbrook is] it’s going to make us one of the best again. “
Westbrook arrives with luggage. He’s still a great stat accumulator: 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds and 11.7 assists last season, the fourth time he’s averaged a triple-double. But the Lakers will be his fourth team in as many years; the Rockets and Wizards each fired him after one year. He has the second highest usage rate in NBA history (32.5%, just behind Michael Jordan’s 33.2%) and joins a team with two players (James and Davis) who ranked among the 25 best last season. Pelinka, however, says she has seen an evolution in Westbrook’s game in recent years. “Now he plays with more empathy,” says Pelinka. “Sometimes young, athletic guys see things blindfolded. I think you have opened your lens. ”
Vogel believes that Westbrook’s season in Houston, where he paired with James Harden, another player who dominates the ball, will make it easier for him to integrate with James and Davis: “He is willing to do whatever we ask of him to help this team win. a match. championship. It is the only thing that matters to him. He doesn’t care about anything else. “
The key to the Lakers’ success in the Westbrook era will be spacing. Davis hit just 26.0% of his 3s last season and Westbrook 31.5%. Then Pelinka signed deep threats: guards Wayne Ellington (42.2% of three last season for the Pistons) and Malik Monk (40.1% for the Hornets), and swingman Kent Bazemore (40.8% for the Warriors). Guard Kendrick Nunn showed the knack of creating his own shot over two seasons with the Heat, while the Lakers hope playing James and Westbrook will get him some more jump shots from Carmelo Anthony. Internally, LA is bullish on Talen Horton-Tucker, the third-year rising point guard who signed a three-year, $ 32 million deal this offseason. “There is nothing that Talen doesn’t have to prevent him from being an elite player,” says Pelinka. Vogel plans to use more small lineups, with Davis in the middle, to get more shots on the floor. “We walked away from that last year,” says Vogel. “He will play more in the middle. You may also see some centerless lineups. We have the kind of team where we can really open the field. “
But can the Lakers continue to defend? They had the highest ranked D in the NBA last season. Davis returns as the centerpiece, but LA lost two key perimeter defenders in Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, as well as Kuzma. Vogel has challenged Horton-Tucker to play a bigger role defensively, and the Lakers will have a combination of Bazemore, Monk and veteran forward Trevor Ariza to force threats from the opposite perimeter to settle for jump shots and avoid. let them celebrate in the painting. “These guys are going to have to learn from each other,” says Vogel. “We will have to develop the chemistry necessary to win and put everyone on the same page.”
The Lakers still have James, who, in his 19th season and two months after his 37th birthday, remains one of the best players in the league. Anticipating a faster offense this season, he reported to camp leaner than in previous years. He has a close relationship with Westbrook – James and Davis “enthusiastically” endorsed the trade, Pelinka says, and has posted photos of the two working together in the offseason. Westbrook’s “competitive spirit,” says Vogel, will give the roster new energy. “I think the question is, What will be the collective mentality of this team? ”Says Pelinka. “Are we going to come to the table with some sense of sacrifice? If a star player wants to play alone, be the only All-Star, put crazy numbers on a mediocre team, that’s fine. Perhaps that is satisfactory for some. For these guys it is not. “
Indeed. James, a magnet for motivation, has found something in the criticism of the Lakers roster review. “I don’t think this will work,” James posted sarcastically under a photo of him at the gym with Westbrook. You have noticed the criticisms of the previous template. He says the Lakers have “recalibrated” after a four-month offseason, which followed a historically short 71-day layoff after exiting the NBA bubble a year ago. “The greats like to be dismissed or questioned,” says Vogel. “And I think he hears the rumors about those things with our team.” Two years ago, the Lakers came into camp with a new star, Davis, and a renewed roster. That team won a championship. This group faces comparable challenges. LA hopes the results will be the same.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.