As much as the narrative of the season has been dominated by blame for Russell Westbrook, who has played inconsistently, sometimes very poorly, but sometimes pretty good as well, the real story of this Laker season is LeBron James. The guy is a freak of nature, to be sure, to be busting out 25 point scoring streaks at this age, and literally looking unstoppable for stretches in games. But, there was a systemic problem with a team organized around an aging, utterly age-defying player who arguably is the GOAT. He's still 37. It doesn't mean that he can't get himself into elite shape through a more-than-famous work ethic. It doesn't mean he can't physically dominate the playing space and opponents. It means, he's 37. The elasticity and durability of the body changes. It doesn't mean that there are no windows to a Championship team and season, but given the state of the league and the cap, the moves necessary to create the right roster occupy a small window of chance. Westbrook - like him or hate him - had an incredible year practically willing a team to the playoffs last year. In the minds of a few, an even MVP type year (Oscar Robinson). He had big impact on a team with a fairly low usage (for him). LeBron on the other hand broke down at the end of the year last year, ending the hopes for a run at the ring, a sign of what was likely in the future for him and the Lakers in seasons to come. They tried supplementing his uniqueness with a young-ish talent picked to be high-value in thinking that Schroder could shoulder the load. They almost gave Schroder a ridiculous contract in fact, a narrow miss.
They brought Westbrook in with an eye toward the likely future they were facing. LeBron simply cannot physically carry this team. It's not that his talents have waned. He may be as good as ever in some ways, even better in others. It's that he's 37. As tough as he is, you cannot load a roster onto his back. What they thought was: Let's bring Westbrook in to do what he just did with Washington...be the ultimate insurance. LeBron isn't going to play all the games. And he isn't going to be 100%. In fact, he just compared his knee injury to his ankle injury of last year:
Yes, they knew that it was going to be a bad fit when everyone was on the court. They just have no shooting, and no defense, and no height. But the assurances were from the Big Two: We can work it out! One way they thought they can work it out was to play at a fast pace. Get in the open court and spacing doesn't matter. You'd have two of the best (albeit older) downhill, bully ball players who can pass running in the open court. Theoretically it makes sense. Add in Davis who could be a wicked finisher, and it made for a nice idea. Despite a half-court offense that lacks movement or intelligent design, that often seems to grind down into poor last second shots, the Lakers have the 4th highest pace in the league:
Part of that is that they can't stop anybody, but they by design have wanted to play fast, because they have no real half-court solutions. Think about this, because this was woven in from the start. LeBron James is averaging more minutes per game than any of the last last 4 years...at 37, the most minutes he's averaged as a Laker.
This is a recipe for eventual disaster. It might look really good for stretches, but you are structuring a team around high minutes and a fast pace. LeBron tells you he can do it, and in fact he can...but you are rolling the dice each game, every game. The ridicule over Kawhi and the Clippers' load management approach probably factored into it, and LeBron's own experience of his body as pretty much unbreakable for the first decade or so of his career as well, but the Lakers were building in serious risk of LeBron breaking down this year, in this set up. To their credit, they thought they were also building in a back-up plan (Westbrook still may be that backup plan, his second half bounces are well-known, and he's had time with a roster that he didn't know, and didn't know itself), but this is a very small window through which to fly a franchise. I'm sure LeBron said "I can do it."
You don't think LeBron is exhausted? Watch this play that Vogel called specifically for LeBron to open the 4th quarter vs Warriors. This is off a quarter-ending commercial break. Especially note LeBron's hands on his hips body language in the early part of the clock, it's noticeable. He not only just holds the ball the entire time once he gets it and airballs the shot with no legs, he'd end up shooting 1-10 in one of his worst quarters in memory, basically taking the Lakers out of any sense of offense and blowing the game. He's beat to even begin the quarter. Is this on LeBron who is giving his all, a coach who can't see or is unable to respond to what's happening right before his eyes, or the built-in limits of a LeBron-oriented team at 37?:
But this is when systemic problems get subtle. In order to bring in a minor version of Lebron at 37, in Westbrook at 33, and playing at a fast pace, there were going to be problems that were different than things like fit and spacing. LeBron, even though adamant about not load managing, was going to load manage on defense. I don't know if this is strategic, or just subconscious, but he just wasn't going to bring the intensity on D...and, he was going to load manage early in games as well, on offense. Let Westbrook do his thing, coast. The guy cannot go 100 mph during those 36.7 minutes, nor even is it advisable. But this is the thing. He's the metronome. Like it or not, he sets the tone of the team. People look to him and vibe off him. LeBron was load managing on the court, but so was the entire Laker team (with a few exceptions, probably including Westbrook for much of the year). The team was plagued by a lack of effort and a lack of urgency. The entire team (more or less) was a reflection of this built-in problem...LeBron's minutes. Only a few weeks ago he was talking about how he's carried franchises on the court since he was 18...but, he isn't 18. Add in the very big other systemic problem with this approach. With almost zero dollars to bring in talent to surround the big three, they had to either go with cheap unproven young players, or cheap proven but very old old players. They thought they hit it big with a semi-proven Nunn, he hasn't played. Monk's been good. But all those old vets you had to strategically take on, they fit right into LeBron's on the court load management, the slack, not-so-urgent style of play. They too had to load manage. It created a culture. All of this flows from building a team around LeBron, and much of it can't be helped. He's a huge asset, but he also imposes limitations. He's expensive, he wants to play all the minutes, he wants to be the hero at end of games, he wants control over the roster and who he plays with. He's incredible, but this entire set up is just built-in. When the Lakers are running at a fast pace they can be pretty good, but every time you do that you are burning through LeBron's health points. When the offense stalls and LeBron dribbles or holds the ball tired for much of the clock, that is (hidden) load management.
This is without even talking about Davis, who was also supposed to be a deciding piece. We can accept now, he isn't a Top 5 player, and isn't going to be, and there are pictures of this team that do see that he can be super effective and dominant in stretches, especially on defense. But...the big problem is, because he's physically fragile - and he is, don't deny it - all the problems facing LeBron's health and elasticity are actually mirrored in Davis. You run at a fast pace, you burn through his health points. He too will (hidden) load manage on the court. Factor in the other Big 3 strategy that was planned at the start, moving Davis to center, and you have even intensified the problem. At PF Davis can coast more vs defenders he has size or length on and take jumpers. At center he has to bang a bit more, face bigger, stronger opponents, fight more for rebounds vs size in the paint, and most importantly chase down mistakes on the interior on D (especially in the back line of a Vogel defense). Davis said he's sacrifice for the Big 3, but its one thing to say it and another to be able to pull it off, as the team culture is reflecting LeBron's lower key approach to big minutes. You aren't getting 100 mph Davis for 36.5 minutes (like LeBron, his most minutes per game since 2017-18). Big games, yeah maybe...but maybe not. He isn't going to be an every-game, tick-tock metronome like say Kevin Garnett was. And he too with that pace, and those minutes, he's going to go down. It's like the whole team either plays too fast to last, or too slow and stagnant to be effective. More on quantitative evidence of Laker offensive stagnation.
Yes, you can construct alternate rosters involving Kuz or Hield, or Wall, whomever, but the one thing you can't get around is LeBron. He's an incredible complicated puzzle to solve, because of the limitations he places on roster spots, and on pace and minutes played & the tone of the team (through hidden load management). Add in Anthony Davis and it makes for a precarious Batman and Robin, where Robin shares many of batman's flaws, and won't ever be Batman.
Now think about Westbrook, and why he was brought into this. He's a fast paced, high-energy player, asked to spell and duplicate the impact of LeBron, but also to "fit" with him when LeBron wants to hold the ball on offense and rest while the team stands around as the shot clock goes down. It's crazy schizophrenic. I'm not saying that Westbrook can't play better, or even a LOT better (his poorest play likely is also related to back issues), but he stepped into a very weird team that suffers from the weaknesses of LeBron at 37...and benefits from many of his wonders. But the problem isn't actually Westbrook. It's the entire attempt to solve the LeBron load problem, and his probable injury through wear and stylistic explosiveness.
None of this is to say that this is LeBron's fault. He's heroic by many measures. It's just that the Lakers have gone all in on LeBron and face unique challenges to putting all the pieces together. Whatever configuration that one might fantasy-league come up with, it had to factor in LeBron's likely injury, LeBron's likely (hidden) load management on the court, non-ideal supportive players, and the weaknesses of Anthony Davis as well.
The only way forward I would imagine is just turn this team over to the youth and try to build a young core that might be ready and cohesive for the playoffs. Turn all the vet minutes down (something that Vogel has done the opposite of - he rides vets like nobody's business), and play them enough to effect games in targeted ways. Be willing to sit vets for rest, even lots of rest maybe games at a time, and pray that Nunn comes back on fire. Change the culture of the team through its youth on the court, and get the vets chomping at the bit to play.
This is something to be solved this year, because it's going to be an even bigger issue next year, an issue which no roster move is likely able to fully address.
[update: this was written before Anthony Davis's most recent ankle injury]