How Can the Lakers Turn Things Around?
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It is no secret that the Los Angeles Lakers’ season has not exactly gone as expected thus far. The team has a lackluster .471 record, injury problems, and subpar performances from star players. The Lakers currently have a record of 24 wins and 27 losses, making them the ninth seed in the Western Conference. They are two wins behind their rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers, who are without Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Fans have pressured the front office and Lakers General Manager Rob Pelinka to make changes immediately. So, what happened to the Lakers this season?
Pelinka has always been known for taking risks, such as drafting Lonzo Ball second overall in 2017 and trading away the Lakers’ young core for Anthony Davis in 2019. There’s no doubt that he took a huge risk with the acquisition of Russell Westbrook in last summer’s offseason. Westbrook has been a picture of inconsistency throughout his NBA career. Ever since Kevin Durant’s departure from Oklahoma City, Westbrook hasn’t made it out of the second round of the playoffs. He had one MVP season back in 2017 and has averaged nearly a triple-double ever since. However, those triple-doubles are not consistently equating to wins, and at times, it seems as if Westbrook cares more about the stats than winning.
The Lakers added Westbrook to an already average three-point shooting team and signed other free agents, such as Wayne Ellington and Carmelo Anthony, which made the team’s average age one of the highest in the NBA. The Lakers’ old age hasn’t helped their effort, as they frequently get outhustled by teams objectively worse than them. Davis put it bluntly after a blowout loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. “We sucked. No defense. Can’t score,” he said. “We come out slow, lackadaisical offensively and defensively. We got to get it together.” Though Davis is having a good season, averaging 23 points and 9.7 rebounds, he is still nowhere near the level he needs to play at. The dominant, shot-blocking, tenacious AD just isn’t there anymore. The fact that Davis is injury-prone does not help either. When he is out for many weeks at a time, it hurts the team’s ability to develop chemistry with their strongest lineup in play.
Amidst the team’s struggles, recent signings have been a breath of fresh air. Austin Reaves and Stanley Johnson were both unsigned to NBA teams, and Pelinka took them on. Johnson plays strong defense and puts in all his effort each match. Reaves is defensively tenacious and provides good three-point shooting to help space the floor. Nowadays, with Davis out, the Lakers feel like a version of a LeBron and Co. team. This team is heavily reminiscent of the 2018 Cavaliers, who were also riddled with veterans and semi-star players who eventually got traded away. The LeBron and Co. formula only works if you go all in on it. Trade away “better” players to acquire good three-point shooters, and let LeBron James run the offense surrounded by shooters. However, this solution may not work for this Lakers team, seeing as James is 37 years old and no longer able to carry the load he used to.
It’s time for the Lakers to trade Westbrook. His turnovers are, simply put, demoralizing. When you have a player who is often the very reason you lose games, it’s quite clear what your problem is. In games where Westbrook has six or more assists, it is probable that he has four or more turnovers. It cannot be overstated how devastating turnovers are, especially in the last quarters of close games. When a team turns the ball over, the other team has a chance to counter, which often leads to an easy three-point shot or layup. This issue is not a new one for Westbrook, as we have seen for several years now. He has proven to be a stubborn player, and James’s window in Los Angeles is rapidly closing. The Lakers don’t have time for Westbrook to figure it out, and they need to implement changes immediately.
Another point of interest regarding the Lakers is their coaching staff. Head coach Frank Vogel led them to a title in 2020, but many have felt that his coaching has been subpar since then. Vogel is a traditional, defense-minded coach who hadn’t seen much success prior to being with the Lakers. His questionable rotations and insistence on playing with Dwight Howard or DeAndre Jordan as opposed to younger players has made some Lakers fans push for his dismissal. Things would be easier for Vogel if Davis wanted to play his natural center position. This way, the team would have spacing and defense at the center position. Assistant coach Phil Handy has emerged as a candidate for the head coaching role amid Vogel’s dismissal rumors. Handy was an assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Toronto Raptors, and the Lakers. Clearly, he knows his way around a James-led team.
The Lakers are truly in a tough situation, but fans remain hopeful that Pelinka will come up with a solution soon. Trading Westbrook for another guard on a bad contract may be feasible, but Pelinka should keep in mind that in the NBA, your point guard must be able to shoot. A new voice in the dressing room might be the answer the Lakers are looking for. Handy has a great relationship with James, and he possesses a stern toughness that is necessary to control the many personalities on the Lakers. Whatever Pelinka and Lakers owner Jeanie Buss decide, they need to decide quickly. The trade deadline is fast approaching, and Lakers fans are expecting change.