Teams led by LeBron James aren’t supposed to miss the postseason. That’s why Los Angeles has a lot of work to do this summer.
It’s hard to classify the 2021-22 Lakers’ season as anything other than a disaster. LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook were supposed to lead Los Angeles to a title. Instead, they rode injuries and dysfunction to an ugly 33-49 regular-season record.
Former head coach Frank Vogel was the fall guy for the team’s failure to stand up to lofty expectations. Darvin Ham has been hired to inject some new life into the veteran roster but it’s unclear just how much power he’ll have over such a star-studded roster.
In particular, Ham is tasked with finding a way to get something out of Westbrook. He’s a talented, but deeply flawed player whose lack of shooting ability and need to dribble the basketball can irritate teammates. Expecting him to live up to his $47 million+ salary is a pipe dream. Expecting him to contribute to winning basketball during the regular season should be the Lakers’ goal.
It might be unfair to call next season championship or bust for the Lakers but James doesn’t have time left in his career to waste. It’s a big offseason for Rob Pelinka and the team’s front office.
What will the Lakers roster look like come September?
It’s largely going to continue as a stars and scrubs sort of roster. The chances of dealing Westborok’s massive salary are pretty small so it’s safe to assume he’ll return alongside James and Davis. Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Stanley Johnson, and Wenyen Gabriel are other “safe bets” to remain in the team’s rotation next year.
This year’s second-round draft pick Max Christie is the only other player who should feel comfortable about his chances of starting the regular season with this roster. The Lakers are going to scour the open market for veteran free agents who want to chase a ring in Los Angeles and those sorts of guys will make up the bottom half of the regular-season roster.
Projected Lakers starting 5
The Lakers might not want Westbrook to be their starting point guard but he’s the only logical option on the current roster. That means it’s safe to pencil him to the staring lineup alongside James at the small forward spot and Davis at either power forward or center.
Horton-Tucker is another guy who needs to find a way to fit into the starting group. For now, he seems like a nice option to start as an undersized four next to Davis at the five.
That leaves the shooting guard spot as the big mystery. Nunn is an option there but he makes a bit more sense as a third guard who can handle the ball off the bench. Don’t rule out the idea of Los Angeles finding a way to bring Malik Monk back to fill that void or landing a veteran free agent shooter to help give the starting unit much-needed space.
Who should the Lakers target in free agency?
Patty Mills would be a wonderful fit for this group now that he’s formally opted out of his contract with the Nets. The only problem is the tax-payer MLE might not be enough to bring him to Los Angeles.
Gary Harris is a more versatile off-guard that won’t give Los Angeles the shooting they would get with Mills but can give them more on the defensive end of the floor. He’s made a lot of money during his career and might be willing to take a one-year deal to see if he can secure a championship ring.
If the Lakers want to keep Davis from getting worn down by playing center in the regular season a reunion with JaVale McGee might do the trick. He’s a different sort of personality but James seems to have the ability to keep him focused. Plenty of teams will be interested in adding him this offseason but he might naturally gravitate towards a return to the Lakers.
Possible Lakers trade targets
The Pacers seem determined to offload Malcolm Brogdon this summer and a package built around Horton-Tucker and draft picks might be enough to tempt Indiana to make a deal. His lack of durability should concern the franchise, but he’s the sort of guard who can elevate this team’s postseason ceiling.
An interesting idea for Los Angeles to consider might be calling the Hornets about Gordon Hayward’s availability. Such a deal would permit the Lakers to offload Westbrook’s bloated deal in exchange for Hayward’s less lucrative deal. If healthy, Hayward’s combination of shooting and playmaking from the wing could really unlock the Lakers’ offense with and without James on the floor.
Projected Lakers cap space
Any team paying over $37 million to three individual players will struggle to create cap space. That’s the Lakers’ reality both now and in the immediate future. They’ll need to do clever work around the margins to improve.
Lakers NBA Draft results
The Lakers deserve credit for doing what was required to trade back into this year’s draft to take a swing on a talented wing. Selecting Max Christie at No. 35 might not work out, but he’s the sort of long, athletic prospect that’s worth rolling the dice on. He won’t play meaningful minutes this season but might give them a low-cost 3-and-D option somewhere down the line.
Lakers outgoing free agents
This team could lose a lot of free agents from last year’s team. The aforementioned Monk might be the most impactful potential departure. Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard join him as big names who could depart. Lakers fans should expect the bottom half of their roster to continue to be a revolving door of minimum guys as long as they are paying their top guys so much cash.