When the NBA trade deadline buzzer rang at noon pacific time Thursday, there was no player or consolation prize waiting on the other side for the Lakers. The golden carriage did not arrive to rescue them from their self-created nightmare, nor would even a pumpkin make an appearance.
Instead, only a mirror emerged, one featuring a damning reflection of all of the misfortunes the team has experienced in the last year.
For better or for worse, this roster will now essentially be the group that is relied upon to salvage a season that has been nothing short of a disappointment. Ironically, that reality, and the concreteness of it, will be one of the few certainties the club has had in a year marred by fluctuations that have taken various forms, from injuries, to Covid, to ultimately their own shortcomings.
There is still tinkering that can be done around the margins via the buyout market, an area the Lakers plan to focus on. However as history has readily shown, finding and securing impact players through this avenue is easier said than done. Especially for a team who likely will not be at the front of the line as suitors, given that they (self-admittedly!) won’t be able to truthfully pitch competing for a title as a perk for signing.
The burning questions on the minds of most shellshocked fans likely now revolve around where the team goes from here? And more importantly — how do they fix this?
What follows are just a few of the most immediate areas the team will need to address if they have any hope in turning the tide in their final 25 games.
The mending of Russell Westbrook and Frank Vogel
It’s no secret that the Russell Westbrook experiment has not gone according to plan for the Lakers. From the on-court fit proving to be clunky, injuries prohibiting any chance of building tangible chemistry between him, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or his clashes with the coaching staff going public, Westbrook has simply felt like a player out of place.
While there are some aspects that may ultimately prove unsolvable, like Westbrook’s shaky perimeter game or his tendency to turn the ball over, the interpersonal side of basketball feels far more important when it comes to managing the rest of the season with this flawed group’s best foot forward.
The area that likely needs the most mending, and soon, is that of the relationship between Westbrook and Frank Vogel. The root of the issues between the two has stemmed mainly around Westbrook’s role, and more specifically, his standing within the team’s closing lineups.
Although Westbrook has publicly stated winning is ultimately what is most important, his recent comments following the team’s loss to the Bucks — where he sat for the entirety of the final frame — suggests he feels a level of hostility towards the notion that he has to “hit benchmarks” in order to play during crunch time.
Westbrook has also has stated multiple times that there has been an absence of communication in regards to his benching, and when he does or does not play. This is something Vogel has rebuffed, but that they’re doing so publicly instead of just talking to each other only further highlights a clear disconnect between player and coach.
There were also the not so hidden attempts from the team to exile Westbrook prior to the trade deadline, with the coaching staff reportedly applying “pressure” to get a deal done.
If the team hopes to push forward with Westbrook as an active and contributing member of the roster, as well as Vogel as head coach, damage control will need to occur between both sides, and preferably with James and Davis’ involvement as well. It will be through the creation of a baseline level of understanding where egos can be massaged and hurt feelings be heard, rather than continuing to be swept under a rug or burbling out to the public.
Every party is ultimately at fault in some form in this situation, and until that is acknowledged, aspects like moving Westbrook to the bench or refining his schematic fit next to the team’s star duo feel arbitrary. So before the on-the-court issues can get better, dealing with what’s happening off-the-court must be tackled.
Play the young guys
One of the biggest downsides of the Lakers being unable to pull off a trade on Thursday is the potential continued reliance from the coaching staff on specific veterans over the team’s younger talent.
While the likes of Avery Bradley and Trevor Ariza have had their moments, in aggregate, their impact has to be viewed as a net negative. Especially when considering how it has impacted the playing time of Talen Horton-Tucker, Austin Reaves and Stanley Johnson.
There was probably no better example of this than Bradley logging 35 minutes (nearly matching Johnson and Reaves’ output combined) in the Lakers’ recent loss to the Blazers, despite posting a -5.8 net rating within the team's last ten games.
Bradley — who has been a firm staple of the rotation, and even a starter for a good portion of the season — is the physical manifestation of a clear divide between those who the coaching staff “trusts,” and those likely better equipped at this stage to provide a spark.
In terms of the results (the Lakers are a +11.8 when Reaves has shared the floor with James and Davis), and the sheer improvements kinetically when the younger players have been deployed, optimizing every minute from a game management perspective needs to be a priority given the he team’s thin margin for error.
Players like Horton-Tucker, Reaves, and Johnson are of course not without their warts. And there will be instances where the veteran’s talents — like Ariza’s length, or Bradley’s peskiness — will come in handy.
However, for both the short and especially long term, the team is likely better off empowering those who give them even slightly more juice and effort.
Create any semblance of an identity
There may be no more damning statement of the Lakers season than the fact that after 52 games, the team’s identity still mostly resembles that of a Rorschach blot: Formless nothingness whose form is only determined by the eye of the beholder. There have been unpreventable external factors at play like injuries and COVID that have been culprits for this. However, it’s hard to ignore the mostly self-inflicted elements that have come either because of roster construction or coaching decisions.
Despite starting Westbrook and his spacing limitations, the team initially aimed to go big, playing a traditional center next to Davis, which was probably always going to be destined to go south and also set up key players up for failure.
The team then took a hard right turn, detouring into playing small and found moderate success doing so. The defense would ultimately be the sacrifice however, as the combination of questionable player combinations in conjunction with still deploying a drop coverage for large segments of the game led to a barrage of points from the opposition.
There is also still the question of what pace and style the team wants to adapt. The squad has looked considerably better when they have been able to attack in a free-flowing, early offense, rather than attempt to counter a set defense that routinely loads up in the restricted area.
Yet they are often found pressed against the shot clock, and take way too long to execute the simplest of entry passes. The disorganization has resulted in the 23rd ranked offense and sixth-highest “long” midrange shot frequency, according to Cleaning the Glass.
With essentially the entirety of the team’s core rotation finally healthy, it would behoove the Lakers to firmly establish a semblance of how they want to play, and stop attempting to split the difference between multiple identities.
For example, if they choose to play small as it appears they are, then switching far more often on defense would likely yield better results than the aforementioned drops they’ve been utilizing. And on offense, embrace the benefits of downsizing by incorporating more creative actions and picking up the pace instead of pounding the ball into oblivion.
These are all aspects of a basketball team that should have been drilled down by now, and it still being a topic of debate and conversation speaks volumes about why the club is in the position it currently finds itself.
There is still time to pick a route and go full steam ahead, and even if it doesn't result in immediate success, it will at least provide a level of comprehension for the players, and sample for the front office to use for evaluation heading into what is shaping up to be critical offseason for the LeBron James/Anthony Davis Lakers era.
Although the Lakers are not on track to meet expectations, this doesn’t mean they have to lower their heads and kick the metaphorical can down the road.
They still have the likes of James and Davis to keep them competitive, and with Westbrook secured the rest of the way, they can at least see if their initial vision could come close to fruition than it has so far.
There may ultimately be no fixing this roster. Perhaps it was doomed to begin with, or just another victim of bad luck. Regardless of the defining reason, no one is going to feel sorry for them, nor should they. This season is the hand they were dealt, and — in some cases, at least — the hand they intentionally picked out. That’s the game.
All the Lakers can do from here on out is to try everything in their power to make the best of all this, and try to live with the results. And hopefully, in the process, pay very close attention to what’s gone wrong, and reshuffle the deck enough to make their own luck moving forward.