It would be an understatement to suggest the Los Angeles Lakers were in a worrying position heading into free agency on Monday night.
After all, Luol Deng, who has not played a minute of basketball for the franchise since 2017 and actually retired in 2019, was the fourth-highest earner on their books before all the madness started.
Madness it was.
Over the course of 24 hours, the Lakers – sorry, Shams Charania and Adrian Wojnarowski – announced the free-agent signings of Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn.
One thing should jump out at you about that collection of players brought in to replace almost the entirety of the team. Other than Monk, Horton-Tucker and Nunn, there is a lot of NBA experience in that group. Which you should accept in the same way as someone telling you there is a lot of experience in The Rolling Stones. They are old. Really old. Anthony is 37, Ariza 36, Howard 35, Ellington 33 and Bazemore 32.
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They join a Lakers roster headlined by LeBron James, who is 36 years old himself. Starting center Marc Gasol is the same age. Russell Westbrook, who was added in an earth-shattering trade last Friday, is 33 in November, a relative spring chicken. That move caught even the apparently omniscient Wojnarowski napping as he tweeted about interest in Kings guard Buddy Hield instead.
In fact, to acquire Westbrook, the Lakers had to stump up Kyle Kuzma (26 and drafted by the franchise), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (28) and Montrezl Harrell (27), three core guys nearing their prime years, along with the 22nd pick in this year’s draft.
Add to that general manager Rob Pelinka’s decision not to use their bird rights (meaning they could go over the salary cap) to re-sign Alex Caruso, 27 years old and a key bench piece, and it is clear the team is trending in only one direction. Experience, short-term contracts and huge amounts of player upheaval each offseason to maximise this, the home stretch of James’ storied career.
That, at least, is the method.
The Lakers, who were widely expected to cakewalk to a back-to-back championship at the start of the season, fell apart in last season’s playoffs for a few reasons. Neither James nor Davis were anywhere close to fully fit entering the post-season, or during it. That alone is enough to derail any title run. Let’s not forget they faced the eventual Western Conference champions in the first round, and that they needed a 34-foot miracle three from LeBron to beat the Warriors to even get that far.
Whatever their prestige and expectation, last season’s team never actually looked like getting anywhere close.
LeBron James scored the game-winning three with less than one minute to go as the Los Angeles Lakers booked their spot in the NBA Playoffs
Add to that Dennis Schroder’s inconsistency as a third option, particularly his woeful shooting performances without Davis in Games 4 and 5 against the Suns (there is a reason he remains unsigned at the moment of writing) and back-up plan Andre Drummond’s, shall we say, supreme and perpetual ineffectiveness when it comes to playoff basketball, and it seems evident Pelinka is attempting to pre-emptively mitigate against these doomsday scenarios as much as possible.
Westbrook was the first step in ensuring a repeat of that campaign is impossible. He is, as safety nets go, a pretty significant one, given his ability to handle the ball, create shots for team-mates, score at will and rebound like a man possessed. If the Lakers have to go stretches without James, Davis, or, heaven forbid, both, Westbrook is the exact kind of player you can rely on to put the team on his back in their stead, for better or worse.
Russell Westbrook scores 19 points, 14 assists and 21 rebounds to help the Washington Wizards claim their first victory against the Philadelphia 76ers in their first-round playoff series.
The problem with Westbrook, the Tasmanian Devil disguised as a point guard, is twofold. The first is that he cannot shoot. You could say that is of pretty grave importance given the maxim around LeBron James has never really changed: Surround him with shooters and a championship awaits. Westbrook, quite unfortunately, is literally the worst high-volume three-point shooter of all time.
Secondly, he also needs the ball in his hands. Westbrook, for all his otherworldly athleticism and ferocity around the rim, does not cut to the basket off the ball nor does he screen for others. He is either in the play – read is the play – or is not involved at all. Whether James’ presence alone is enough to coax some meaningful off-the-ball activity out of him remains to be seen.
Davis is the same as LeBron. The more space on the floor he has in which to operate, the more dominant and effectively unstoppable he becomes. Westbrook is not the player who is going to stretch the floor for either, but maybe that’s the point. Westbrook is there to take over when one or both of them sit, a plug-in superstar to ease the burden on two players who perhaps felt they could not afford to take a single minute off over the course of the past couple of seasons.
In essence, Davis proved both his and James’ lack of faith in the rest of the team when he rushed back for that decisive Game 6 against Phoenix, only to last all of five minutes before limping to the locker room.
Los Angeles Lakers Depth Chart
|Point Guard||Russell Westbrook||Kendrick Nunn|
|Shooting Guard||Wayne Ellington||Monk/Horton-Tucker|
|Small Forward||LeBron James||Bazemore/Ariza|
|Power Forward||Anthony Davis||Carmelo Anthony|
|Center||Marc Gasol||Dwight Howard|
As for shooting, that now comes in the form of Ellington (42.2 per cent from three last season), Anthony (40.9 per cent), Bazemore (40.8 per cent), Monk (40.1 per cent), Nunn (38.1 per cent) and Ariza (35 per cent). This bodes well. What does not is how much each player can impact the game beyond standing in the corner waiting for a kick out.
Let’s start with Ariza, who has been an extremely valuable role player for well over a decade, particularly as part of the ‘Moreyball’ Houston Rockets. Now he’s a 3-and-D player without much of the 3 and barely any of the D.
Carmelo Anthony, a future Hall of Famer and for a time the Yin to LeBron James’ Yang, is still a walking bucket from the three-point line, midrange and post. Defensively, well… given both his age and the fact it was never his strong suit to begin with, the less said the better.
Ellington and Bazemore are catch-and-shoot threats and very little else. Nunn and Monk are more intriguing, with untapped playmaking potential as well as being respectable shooters in their own right. Nunn, who is 26, is the much better defender of the two, while Monk, 23, can create offense out of nothing off the bench. Together they could well prove to be the Lakers’ ‘X factor’ by the time the playoffs roll round.
Horton-Tucker, only 20, can’t shoot a jot (28.2 per cent from three last season). However, he is young, fearless and in Rich Paul of Klutch Sports shares the same agent as both James and Davis. That may well explain why he was awarded a three-year, $32m contract to stay in Los Angeles rather than Caruso, who played every game in the post-season and averaged far more minutes.
Howard, now entering his 18th season in the league and third separate stint with the Lakers, has completely shaken off the toxic reputation that followed him around for much of his career, evolving into something pretty close to the perfect back-up veteran center. As was the case in their 19-20 title run, he should once again prove invaluable.
Bar a surprise late addition or two this is very likely to be what the Lakers are bringing to the party on the first day of the new regular season in October. Simply put any team boasting James, Westbrook, Davis and a host of three-point shooters has to be taken seriously as legitimate contenders, if not favourites, even if this is not the year 2013.
That being said, it will once again fall upon James to make all this work.
The fit with Westbrook is not clean, there are too many ageing legs in the rotation and injury concerns will follow this squad every step of the way. Despite the additions, a couple of untimely knocks to the big three could see the whole house of cards topple over once again. Just ask the Brooklyn Nets how last season went for them after adding James Harden, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge to a team already containing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
LeBron will have to juggle everything in the way only he can. Egos and energy as much as minutes and touches. He did so in Miami with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a host of below-average role players and vet minimums filling out the roster. The same happened in Cleveland, with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Square pegs were made to fit round holes. There is no reason to bet against him this time, even in what will be his 19th season.
James is the reason most of these players have taken lesser roles and less money to sign for the Lakers, despite all that inherent glamour. They all believe he is the path to earning a ring. Given the inevitable sway he has over the front office of any team he joins, it’s logical to assume James believes in them, too.
In the end, that may well prove enough. Whether this wild patchwork of a team was assembled on the fly or not. If James thinks he can get it done these guys then chances are he can, one way or another.