There are countless reasons why the 2021-22 Lakers season was such a failure. But whether one blames the roster construction, Frank Vogel’s inability to adapt to said roster, or Russell Westbrook’s resistance to change or even play well… things all seem to trace back to that fateful transaction that saw Russ come to the team.
However, if you dig in a little further, the terrible state that the Lakers find themselves in seems to not only stem from acquiring Russ, but from the philosophy the front office (and LeBron James) adopted over the last several years in the lead-up to that trade: They wanted to surround LeBron with another playmaker to ease his usage as he enters the final years of his career… something they’ve been doing for basically his entire Lakers tenure up to this point.
Playmaking isn’t the only thing that Rob Pelinka and the front office have focused on. For example, following the trade for Westbrook and prior to the start of the season, Pelinka noted that the team wanted playmaking, 3-point shooting, and to shift back to the type of two athletic/defensive center model that they had in the 2019-20 championship season.
Those three goals have basically been there since acquiring Anthony Davis in the 2019 summer, however, the desire for additional playmaking around LeBron has been there even before that.
LeBron, Pelinka and the rest of the front office have had their sights intensely focused on that goal, with it now seeming like they’ve had blinders on the past four years, keeping them from making impactful decisions on any other aspect of their team since winning the 2020 NBA Finals.
Coincidentally enough, the year that the team didn’t pay a high premium for playmaking was the offseason leading into that championship, although not for a lack of trying. Take a look below into the moves around playmaking that did or did not happen in each offseason while Pelinka and LeBron have been with the franchise:
2018: Having second and third-year lottery picks like Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram wasn’t enough for Pelinka (and at the time Magic Johnson), as they also decided to sign Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson along with the massive signing of LeBron James. Even Michael Beasley was seen as a potential isolation scorer with decent passing who could help with the same off the bench. At the time, this was seen as a response to LeBron’s intense desire for more playmaking around him near the end of his second stint with the Cavaliers.
2019: After trading for Anthony Davis, the Lakers set their sights on one Kawhi Leonard. They came close to forming what would have been one of the best trios of recent memory, but Kawhi ended up signing with the Clippers with the knowledge that they’d subsequently be trading for Paul George. Although Kawhi isn’t a point guard like the Lakers have targeted to fill those playmaking gaps, there’s no question that his elite shot-making would have helped non-LeBron lineups, and allowed James to do less ballhandling when they shared the floor. The Lakers quickly moved to “plan B”, which included a lot of new players with little playmaking ability such as Danny Green, Avery Bradley, and JaVale McGee, forcing James to play nearly all of his minutes at point guard. We know how that all worked out.
2020: They shipped out Green after only one season with the team — attaching their 2020 first-round pick as well — to acquire Thunder point guard Dennis Schröder. Although Pelinka did note that Schröder brought a defensive ability they valued in the trade, he also noted his abilities as a creator. This marked the Lakers’ highest price paid for a playmaker since LeBron came to town until, well...
2021: The Lakers traded Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, and their 2021 first-round pick for Russell Westbrook and two second-round picks. The team also signed Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn, creating a crowded backcourt (that got less crowded once Nunn missed the entire season). Hell, even the decision to sign re-sign Talen Horton-Tucker over Alex Caruso (politics and luxury taxes aside) displayed a preference for playmaking over defense.
Injuries to LeBron and Davis the last two seasons harmed the chances of really seeing what Schröder and Westbrook could have done for the team at full strength. But still, while LeBron was active, the two weren’t enough to lower his usage rate game-to-game. With Schröder in the fold, that rate saw a small bump up from LeBron’s first two years with the purple-and-gold, while his 2021-22 usage rate of 32.3% was the highest LeBron has had since the 2014-15 season. So it’s safe to say that acquiring more playmakers didn’t necessarily lessen James’ offensive load at all, even if it did sap in other areas like defense and size the Lakers de-emphasized to target it.
In regards to raising the team’s offensive floor, Schröder did little to improve the differences in offensive rating when LeBron sat. The Lakers scored six more points per 100 possessions in the 2018-19 season while LeBron played than they did when he sat, with that gap actually widening to 6.9 during the 2019-20 season, followed by a small improvement of 6.6 with Schröder during the 2020-21 season.
With Westbrook on the 2021-22 team, that same statistical difference did drop to 4.7… but that doesn’t even seem to be because of Westbrook the more you look into it. It may have been because of Malik Monk, a different playmaker on the team, who definitely out-performed the veteran minimum contract he was paid this season. That can be seen in the 104.1 ORTG with Russ on and both LeBron and AD off, compared to the 110.7 ORTG when Monk was on and all of LeBron, Russ, and AD were off.
And with the Lakers’ most aggressive move towards adding shot-creation around LeBron in acquiring Russ, the front office completely decimated what remained of their defense, arguably the team’s “third star” of the 2020 championship run. That’s seen in the team’s 21st-ranked, 112.8 defensive rating this season compared to the 1st-ranked, 106.8 DRTG of last year and the 3rd-ranked, 106.1 DRTG in the championship campaign.
After the 2020-21 season and even while nearing the end of this one, injuries to LeBron and AD have been used as excuses as to why the Lakers weren’t able to reach championship levels. That was definitely credible in the 2021 offseason, but it’s a little pathetic to use that same excuse now given the fact that the team touted Westbrook’s ability to raise the team’s floor with those two superstars out as a reason they traded for him. The numbers show that didn’t happen.
Sure, the Lakers aren’t going to win a ton without LeBron or AD. Those two are what make them a championship-level team. But when combining that fact with the reality that it doesn’t seem like getting these playmakers is meaningfully reducing LeBron’s load or raising the team’s offensive floor while he’s out… what’s the point?
Sure, the Lakers need a backup point guard with some sort of playmaking and a 3-point shot. But the cheap Malik Monk and even D.J. Augustin late in the season seemed to pay off well enough for the team while checking those boxes. Paying a high premium for that type of player needs to stop, as this season has shown that the Lakers are damned if they do have a higher-paid playmaker with LeBron out due to injuries, and damned if they don’t have capital going towards three-and-d type players surrounding him when healthy. After several years of chasing the former and only succeeding by accidentally getting the latter, maybe it’s time to lean back into the only model this group has actually had any real success with.