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10 games, 10 questions about the Lakers

What the hell is going on with the Lakers?

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Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

We’re only 10 games into the 2021-22 NBA season, and I already have so many questions about the Los Angeles Lakers.

Here are 10 of them.

What’s up with Russ?

I think most people expected Russell Westbrook to struggle to start the season. Not only has that historically been the case with him, but his role with the Lakers is so different than any role he’s played previously.

However, I don’t think anyone expected Westbrook to struggle this much. Through 10 games, Westbrook has posted averages he hasn’t posted since his sophomore season in Oklahoma City, and not for the better. The most worrying stat with Westbrook, though, isn’t his field goal percentage (41.8%) or his career-high turnover percentage (19.6%); it’s his on/off point differential.

Per 100 possessions, the Lakers have been 5.8 points better with Westbrook off of the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. The only players with worse on/off point differentials are Avery Bradley (-13.2), Rajon Rondo (-17) and Wayne Ellington (-57.1).

Like most players on this team, Westbrook’s struggles can be traced back to the injuries on the roster, but the problem with that reasoning — while completely justified — is that he was supposed to be the answer to the Lakers’ injury problems, particularly as it pertained to their star players. Perhaps he still will be, but so far, he hasn’t been, and there doesn’t seem to be a concerted effort to get him going, from him or the coaching staff — that’s a problem.

Can Melo keep this up?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Carmelo Anthony’s season couldn’t have started much different than his former Thunder teammate’s. In fact, more often than not, Anthony has looked like the Lakers’ third star.

In 10 games off of the bench, Anthony has averaged 16.5 points per game on a career-high 61% effective field goal percentage, per Basketball Reference. For context, his previous career-high in effective field goal percentage was 51.1%. And the best part is, Anthony has done it all while keep his beloved long mid-range jumpers in his bag.

Anthony’s defense still leaves a lot to be desired, but it’s a far cry from what it was in his most recent stops. Plus, in spite of his defense, the Lakers are 8.4 points better per 100 possessions with Anthony on the floor, which is highest on/off point differential since the 2014-15 season.

Now, is Anthony going to shoot nearly 50% from 3-point range for the remainder of the season? Probably not, but it’s very easy to see him continue to be productive in the role he’s in, and that’s more than what can be said about a lot of players that were brought in during the offseason.

Where did Reaves come from?

The short answer is “Newark, Arkansas”; the long answer is “the same lab that Alex Caruso was created in.”

Despite looking like someone who makes school survival guides for middle schoolers in his spare time, Reaves has been one of the Lakers’ most impactful players and that’s not hyperbole — the only player with a better on/off point differential than Reaves is LeBron James. James is at +12.4 for the season; Reaves is at +12.3.

Catch and shoot jump shots make up the majority of Reaves’ shot profile, but he’s shown that he’s capable of much more than that: he can pull up from behind the 3-point line, he can drive at defenders and take it to the basket and when a shot isn’t there for him, he doesn’t force it. He may be a rookie, but he already has such a good feel for the game.

Defensively, he tries his ass off and the numbers reflect that. Per 100 possessions, the Lakers are 4.1 points worse defensively with Reaves on the bench. Only Dwight Howard and Malik Monk have made a bigger impact in their role.

Reaves will almost certainly have his minutes cut into once Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn recover from their respective injuries, but it would be a mistake to keep him buried on the bench — he’s really, really good. Not Alex Caruso good (at least not yet), but good nonetheless.

Who’s the odd man out?

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

The Lakers have so many guards on their roster and more than one of them are going to be relegated to the bench once Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker are fully integrated back into the rotation. Wayne Ellington seems like an obvious DNP candidate, as does Rajon Rondo, but after those two the puzzle get a lot more difficult to solve.

Avery Bradley should probably be lower on Frank Vogel’s list of priorities, but it’s clear that Vogel values Bradley’s familiarity with the team’s defensive system. Bradley’s started four of the nine games he’s been available for, including the last four.

But even if Bradley is benched, the Lakers have five (5) guards that have all made cases for playing time. Monk has quietly been one of the team’s better perimeter defenders, Reaves has taken the offense to another level when he’s been on the floor, Nunn projects to be the best shooter on the team and Horton-Tucker and Bazemore’s ability to play up a position makes them invaluable.

Suffice to say, Vogel has some things to sort out in the event that he ever has a fully healthy roster.

Is Bradley going to stick on the roster?

As I mentioned, Vogel has leaned on Bradley pretty heavily since the veteran guard arrived to Los Angeles on the eve of the regular season opener, but I’d be surprised if he’s used as anything more than a bridge for the new/injured guards. He still does some things well, like move without the ball, but the Lakers would be better off using that roster spot to get some help on the wing in the buyout market or at the trade deadline.

What’s Rob’s next play?

Speaking of getting help, Rob Pelinka should probably start making some calls. While it’s far too soon to call the offseason a complete failure, it’s certainly trending more towards the worst-case scenario than the best-case one.

Have injuries played a huge part in that? Absolutely, but injuries are part of the game, and the ones the Lakers have suffered through have highlighted the very obvious flaws with this roster, starting with the depth at the forward positions. If James Ennis isn’t the answer, then that’s fine, but something needs to be done — the problem is that there’s not a whole lot they can do right now.

The Lakers can’t trade the free agents they signed in the offseason until Dec. 14 and that’s operating under the assumption they’re in a hurry to ship them out, which is bold. Because of the amount of names on the injury report, it’s been almost impossible to evaluate the talent on the roster, which is why I’d argue it’s more likely that the Lakers make a move closer to the trade deadline.

What would that move even look like? I don’t know.

NBA: AUG 10 Russell Westbrook Introduced as a Los Angeles Laker Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Lakers have five players under contract for more than $5 million: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Antony Davis, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn. Everyone else is on a minimum contract, so a blockbuster trade probably isn’t in the cards — probably. They do a trade exception worth $2.69 million, though, and it can be used to claim players on waivers.

Where they have the most potential to make a splash is the post-trade deadline buyout market. In a cap-savvy move, the Lakers saved a small portion of their taxpayer mid-level exception, which, unlike the veteran’s minimum exception, doesn’t depreciate in value as the season progresses. That’s huge for the post-trade deadline buyout market.

Neither of those avenues are going to get the Lakers a superstar player, but they should be enough to get them help to balance the roster, which is what they need more than anything else right now.

How much is AD willing to compromise?

Davis’ willingness to play center goes up substantially when the postseason starts, which is great, but if the Lakers are really committed to making this Westbrook thing work, he’s going to need to buy in a lot sooner than that.

Yes, Davis has played a majority of his minutes at center thus far, but that’s mostly been out of necessity. When Jordan and Dwight Howard have been healthy, Davis has moved back to the 4, which, in past years, hasn’t been a detriment to the team. However, with Westbrook now in the fold, every game Davis plays at the 4 feels like a waste of potential and time, the latter of which the Lakers are running out of quickly.

In Davis’ defense, we don’t know for a fact that he’s being asked to play center and declining. What we do know is that he’s been vocal about preferring to play the 4 in the past and the front office has jumped through hoops to pair him with a starting-caliber center. Remember Marc Gasol? And then Andre Drummond?

And maybe the Lakers do find a suitable center for Davis by the end of the season, but until that happens, he’s their best option by a considerable margin.

Is Frank on the hot seat?

Cleveland Cavaliers v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

If he is, that’s a mistake. The Lakers are comically injured and the roster he was given isn’t exactly the the type of roster he’s had success with in the past. But Vogel isn’t blameless when it comes to the Lakers’ slow start either.

A big part of Vogel’s job is player management, especially on a star-studded, veteran-heavy team like this one, but it’s also to win games and in the Western Conference, the latter should be at the forefront of his decision-making. So far, it doesn’t seem like it has been.

Hopefully that changes as players get healthy and his options open up, but if it doesn’t, it would be better for to him hurt some feelings and win games than to keep everyone happy and lose — after all, winning fixes everything in the NBA.

Can the Lakers count on LeBron?

Surprise: LeBron James is still good at basketball when he’s healthy, but the “when he’s healthy” portion of that statement has been the story of his last two seasons with the Lakers.

Last season, James missed 37 games and wasn’t 100% when the playoffs rolled around. This season, he’s missed four games so far, with more expected to come. Luckily none of the injuries he’s suffered this year seem to be serious, but even his small injuries are a huge blow to the Lakers in their current state.

If James can stay healthy, the Lakers will be as big of a threat as anyone when the playoffs roll around. If he can’t, then getting the playoffs will be as challenging as it was last season.

Will health make the Lakers elite?

There’s no doubt that the Lakers will be better once they’re closer to full strength, but will they look like a title contender? Offensively, maybe. Defensively, I have my doubts.

Ariza and Horton-Tucker will shore up the Lakers’ defense on the perimeter, but each of them have flaws in their game that will prevent them from closing games and playing long stretches in the playoffs with this roster.

Meanwhile, Nunn will be a major improvement over Rondo and Bradley offensively, but defensively he may not be much better. Last season, the Miami Heat were 2.9 points better on defense per 100 possessions with Nunn on the bench.

That’s not to say the Lakers can’t be a great team without being a great defensive team, but it would definitely be a shift from the type of team they’ve been since Vogel took over, and too much change at once can be bad. We’ll see if that’s the case for the Lakers as the season moves along.

Do you agree with these takeaways? Have other questions? Let us know in the comments below, and for more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts.