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Lakers stars Anthony Davis and LeBron James will miss this years NBA playoffs (Photo: sportingnews.com)

The Lakers have been embarrassed.

It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Loaded with five future Hall of Famers, albeit most of them past their primes, this revamped version of the 2020 NBA Championship winning Lakers was supposed to push the team back towards the top of the standings after a less than ideal championship defense.

With yesterdays loss to the Phoenix Suns, the Lakers long, slow capitulation is finally complete, the team now mathematically eliminated from the play-in race. Yep. They’ve not only failed to qualify for the playoffs, but were so poor that the 10th seed proved beyond them.

From the moment the Lakers chose Russell Westbrook, a slew of minimum salaries and washouts instead of their incumbent solid if unspectacular supporting cast – and possibly Buddy Hield – there were concerns.

LeBron James is and has been many things across his illustrious career. One thing he is not, though, is an off the ball offensive menace. Out of all of the high usage NBA players that have graced the league in this writers lifetime, Russell Westbrook might be the single worst off ball threat to take to the hardwood. Blind Freddy and his deaf dog could see the fit between those two was going to be awkward, at best.

LeBron, at least, is a passable shooter from deep. Anthony Davis shot just 26% from beyond the arc last season. In Westbrook’s seemingly never ending NBA odyssey his greatest success came in the back half of his season in Houston, where the team played with no traditional centre thus clearing the lane for his trademark marauding drives to the bucket. Playing Davis at centre would only clutter the lane for Russ.

Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka (possibly with LeBron’s ‘guidance’) found a solution to the AD at centre conundrum: play AD at power forward. Of course that opened up so many more fit issues. Let us count the ways:

  • A centre rotation of Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan (combined age: 93)
  • LeBron and Carmelo Anthony playing small forward, something they haven’t done for a decade)
  • Playing a single off ball threat – the rejuvenated Malik Monk.

When you throw in the acute lack of depth – traded away for Westbrook – and even in the moment many questioned if this plan was at all thought through.

The Lakers playing their version of 90’s basketball with a bunch of blokes in their mid 30’s went even worse than expected. They opened the season playing .500 basketball before a five game losing streak in mid December saw them fall below that marker. A run of four games over the new year saw the Lakers get their heads above water but a January 9th loss to Memphis would mark the last time this team would hold a better than .500 record.

Capped by their current seven game losing streak, the Lakers sit at 4-17 since the All Star break. That run saw the team drop from 5th in the conference to their current lowly status.

So, aside from trading away their depth for an ill-fitting 3rd wheel, aside from signing a raft of over-the-hill supporting players, aside from trying to play a style of basketball that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Michael Jordan’s prime, what else went wrong for the Lakers in season 2021/22?

Let’s be fair to the Lakers and cite an extraordinary injury record. James has missed 23 games (an aside, he requires two more appearances in the Lakers final three games to qualify for the league scoring lead – he’s currently just 0.1 points per game behind Sixers centre Joel Embiid), Davis has been absent on 39 occasions. For a team with precious little depth, that pair missing 60+ games proved disastrous. When the best of those depth pieces missed time (Talen Horton-Tucker missed 22 games, Avery Bradley 18, Howard 21, Kent Bazemore 47, Trevor Ariza 55, Kendrick Nunn is yet to play) it left the team relying on unproven talents like Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel or retreads in Stanley Johnson, Avery Bradley and DJ Augustin.

There have been success stories in amongst those dart throws: Melo has looked good in a reserve gunner role, Monk played career best ball, Reaves looks a player. Overall though, it left too much on the shoulders of players that were either not ready or not capable.

The Lakers front office haven’t exactly helped things. The obvious place to start is the Westbrook trade. Enough has been said about that monstrosity. Instead, lets focus on the lack of coherency and planning demonstrated by this management team.

The Lakers have clearly gone all in. That’s fine – it’s part of the pact you make when you sign LeBron James. Yet, when this team was most in need of a mid-season boost, the front office faltered. With any number of trades on the table potentially hinging on Rob Pelinka relinquishing the Lakers 2027 1st round pick, a front office that had to this point been all about the here and now suddenly became future focused. An ownership that had spent freely suddenly became conscious of the luxury tax.

That pick could prove quite valuable. The Lakers of five years ago were poor. Without LeBron and with Davis at age 33, the Lakers could well be just as poor. But that pick is five years down the road and as the saying goes, Banners Fly Forever. When you have LeBron James you simply have to go for it. Otherwise, what’s the point in having him on roster?

As for ownership the Buss family are, by NBA standards, middle class. They can’t spend like cross town rival Steve Ballmer. That said, the Lakers do have a https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/time-warner-cable-cuts-first-major-lakers-deallocal TV deal that is reportedly worth in the vicinity of $3 billion over 20 years. The luxury tax shouldn’t be a concern when you’re trying to compete for a title.

Laying the blame at the feet of coach Frank Vogel is a tempting – and frankly pretty easy – target. It’s a mark that this writer will avoid. Fifth-Choice-Frankie has been dealt the worst possible hand, here. He has a crew of entitled stars with sky high expectations and a supporting cast that is not fit for purpose. Vogel is a defensive mastermind. He turned Roy freaking Hibbert into an All Star, after all. What he’s not is MacGyver with a clipboard. Given the NBA’s defensive equivalent a paperclip, some twine and a stick of chewing gum he’s proven unable to construct a workable NBA defense. True, he hasn’t coached particularly well this season, surely his last as a Laker. It’s hardly his fault that the team is the tyre fire that it is, though.

At the beginning of the season may pundits, this writer included, theorised on how Westbrook would fit with this Lakers roster. The consensus was that whilst there was a way for this to work – namely, taking control of the 2nd units, becoming a willing screener and working harder off the ball) it would take an awful lot of adaptation from nine time All Star.

It’s fair to say that adaptation did not occur.

Despite the fact that nobody bothers to go near him when he’s on the perimeter, Westbrook is shooting 29.8% from beyond the arc this season, a hair below his already horrid career mark. He’s posting career lows all over the place: win shares, free throw rate, steal percentage – practically all of his per 36 numbers are career lows. Oh, there’s also this:

Despite Westbrook’s stubbornness, the lack of front office cohesion, the poorly constructed roster and the injures, the Lakers did hold a trump card: LeBron Raymone James.

The all time great was supposed to be the ointment that soothed the Lakers ailments. On an individual level, nobody can argue against James’ production: 30.3 points (his best since 2006), 8.2 boards, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks. These are All NBA numbers in any language. However this version of James, at age 37, wasn’t able to do the work of five men.

LeBron’s decline, however slight, is to be expected at his age. What is unforgivable, though perhaps no less unexpected, is LeBron’s less than team oriented behaviour. The leaked reports, the subtweeting, the passive aggressive statements, the media massaging…it all points to LeBron not wanting to stick around for another non contending campaign.

So what do the Lakers do next? Where can they go from here?

The team does, on paper at least, carry the look of a contender. LeBron is still a proven centrepiece and a healthy Davis a worthy number two. What the Lakers must decide is which direction to go beyond those two.

If they are to take another stab at a Big Three, then a 3rd star that actually compliments James and AD is a must. Ideally that would be a lead guard who can succeed off the ball and play acceptable defense. Sadly for Lakers fans, Kyle Lowry or Marcus Smart are not walking through that door. An interesting option could be Malcolm Brogdon, should Indiana decide to give Tryese Haliburton full control of their offense.

Los Angeles could decide that LeBron and AD are enough and pad out the roster with high end role players. Kind of like the ones they traded to Washington. To open up the sort of cap space needed to facilitate that sort of rebuild, moving Westbrook would be imperative. The trouble is who would take him? The Lakers, Wizards and Rockets have all fallen prey to the myth of Westbrook in the past three seasons. As NBA GM’s are prone to say, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me four times….

There will be changes, of that we can be sure. Vogel will go. Westbrook will likely be moved for pennies on the dollar. Pelinka may or may not survive.

The Lakers have been embarrassed this season. For a franchise that has too often landed on it’s feet through a mystique built on a storied past, a built in geographical advantage and some sheer dumb luck, this was a much needed humiliation.

No, it wasn’t meant to be this way. But let’s face it: we all suspected it could happen.

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.

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