Lake Show dead? Why no one should be surprised about the state of the Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers lost 49 games last season, finished 11th in the Western Conference and made no offseason upgrades to their roster, so why is anyone surprised they have been so bad to start this season?
Why should anyone be surprised the second year of the Russell Westbrook experiment is no better than the first, and probably worse, since the Lakers spent the summer failing to trade his expiring $47 million salary, with their last available first-round draft picks, for any player(s) who could vault them back into contention.
This is just who the Lakers are now.
The only one who should be surprised by the state of the Lakers is their managing partner, Jeanie Buss, who gave general manager Rob Pelinka a contract extension in the midst of this precipitous fall from grace.
And that should tell you all you need to know about how the Lakers arrived here.
The Lakers did not own a first-round draft pick in June, because they traded a decade's worth for Anthony Davis, who delivered them a championship in 2020. Since then, they have butchered the roster so badly that the New Orleans Pelicans are licking their chops at the thought of receiving three consecutive top-10 picks from L.A., including the possibility of swapping into the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes in 2023.
Without picks to retool around Davis and LeBron James, who also just received an extension that will take him through his 40th birthday, the Lakers turned to free agency, where the $6.5 million taxpayer midlevel exception was their best chance to add talent. They used it to sign Lonnie Walker IV, a 3-and-D player who neither makes threes nor plays D, and to whom the San Antonio Spurs would not even tender a qualifying offer.
After swapping one misfit collection of role players for another in free agency, the Lakers used their only mid-tier contract to acquire 34-year-old guard Patrick Beverley, whose beef with Westbrook has been one of the league's juiciest for almost 10 years. They have publicly mocked each other's accomplishments.
Oh, and the Lakers also re-signed Dennis Schroder, who said after his 2020-21 stint with the Lakers, "I don't think I fit in 100%," and has struggled to find NBA work ever since. It could be worse. Schroder could have taken Pelinka's four-year, $84 million contract offer and eaten their salary-cap room for the next few seasons.
Not only did the Lakers retain a player who subverted their chances of making the playoffs last season, they traded for the one player he might dislike most in the NBA and signed another who may do his job even worse.
The Lakers touted head coach Darvin Ham as their biggest offseason addition. That may be true. He is also a first-time head coach replacing one who led the Lakers to a championship two years ago. Even if Ham proves better than Frank Vogel, there is only so much a coach can do to turn a 33-win team into a winner when management saddles him with what James called "not a team that's constructed of great shooting."
Shooting, as you may know, is a prerequisite to successful team-building in today's NBA, especially when your offense runs through one of the greatest passers in league history. We have 20 years of James' career to support this. Pelinka's tenure is a master class in deconstructing a title contender into a laughingstock.
Everyone knew Westbrook was miscast as a third star with James and Davis, except for the Lakers. Now, Pelinka is trying to avoid attaching first-round picks in 2027 and 2029 to Westbrook's deal in his attempt to salvage the end of James' career. That is the only play to improve this roster, and even that may not fix it.
The Lakers are now debating the choice between mortgaging their future now, when they could turn Westbrook and two first-round picks into Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, or a few months from now, when the Chicago Bulls and other fringe playoff teams could shop veteran stars like DeMar DeRozan.
James is doing things nobody thought he could two decades into his career, and Davis is still 29 years old, but both are far from being feared as the league's elite and neither has finished a full season for nearly five years — save for their title campaign, which provided them with a four-month hiatus before the playoffs.
One or two players, even high-end ones, cannot transform what is the NBA's worst offense through the first week of the season (by almost six points per 100 possessions) into one worthy of contention, nor can they turn last season's bottom-10 defense into a championship-caliber one. The Lakers are too far gone now.
Promoting the documentary she executive produced for Hulu, "Legacy: The True Story of the L.A. Lakers," Buss told USA Today in August that the decision to fire her brother, Jim, in 2017 came down to, "The way he was operating the team, we were making a nice home at the bottom of the standings year after year. That wasn’t the brand that [their father] Dr. [Jerry] Buss created. No one has the formula to win a championship, but you should always be relevant and be part of the conversation and give yourself a chance to win."
Jeanie Buss doubled down on her displeasure with her brother's decision-making in the documentary, which felt like a vehicle to illustrate how she restored glory to the franchise her father built into a dynasty. Jeanie cited Jim's incompetence in the years after Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to titles in 2009 and 2010. Jim Buss handed Bryant a massive extension in 2013, as he battled back from his Achilles injury, and their desperation to build around an aging legend spiraled into a six-year playoff drought before James' arrival.
"Looking back at some of the decisions Jimmy made, was he making those decisions to undermine the organization and my authority to run the team?" Jeanie Buss said. "Or was he just making poor decisions?"
Now that the script has been flipped and the Lakers are reliving past mistakes, is she asking the same questions of herself? She hired Lakers legend Magic Johnson to run the team, before the operation became too much for him, and then replaced him with Bryant's agent as a rookie shot-caller. It worked for one season in the bubble, but we have plenty more to suggest the family business is not what it once was.