The Lakers' chances at championship contention start (and stop) with LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ performance and availability, though after splashing turpentine all over the depth of their championship-winning roster, that alone may not be enough.
That’s why the Lakers need to do everything within their power to maximize their championship chances this season, especially since it could be LeBron’s last as as a member of the franchise.
When I first analyzed how Russell Westbrook would fit on last season’s squad, I contrasted the way the Nets’ former Big 3 fit together with how the Lakers’ then-new trio would hypothetically coalesce. It was easy to see how a trio of highly-capable playmakers and scorers could supercharge each other's games, and when the Nets’ trio actually played together, they did.
Even at the time of the trade, it was harder to imagine how the Lakers’ Big 3 could enhance each other the same way the Nets’ did. I struggled to make sense of the duplicative nature of Westbrook at his best with what LeBron already does better.
LeBron’s greatest talent, other than his ability to do basically everything on a basketball at a high level, is his ability to create for his teammates. Despite already being the NBA’s second all-time leading scorer in the regular season (and first in the playoffs), his team is at its best when he’s leveraging his constant scoring threat and court vision into even more buckets for his teammates. He is, of course, also the game’s seventh-most prolific assist-man in the regular season and second in the playoffs.
And despite nearly leading the league in scoring this past season at 30.3 points per game — his highest total since he led a Cleveland Cavaliers team to a 45-37 record and the 17th-ranked offense in his age-23 season — his Lakers were famously disappointing, finishing with a 33-49 record and the 23rd-ranked offense. Conversely, his best seasons since leaving Miami have been those in which he’s had some of his lowest scoring averages of his career, averaging just 25.3 points per game in his title seasons for both Cleveland and Los Angeles.
To dramatically oversimplify things, this pattern seems to suggest that one of the highest predictors of team success for a LeBron James team is a relatively low scoring average compared to his own lofty standards. When given the opportunity to get qualified teammates maximally involved, James has shown that he can and will, while also picking up the slack in terms of scoring when they cannot.
While playing next to Russell Westbrook, James demonstrated just how dynamically talented he is by doing exactly what Westbrook couldn’t, warping his traditional role as de facto point guard in taking a greater share of his on-ball reps as a screen-setter, often operating out of the short roll. Meanwhile, Westbrook, for whatever reason, was unable to make an impact off the ball, at the same time significantly regressing as a scorer and playmaker when he did have the rock in his hands. Despite assisting less to score more for the betterment of his team, James’ team was still very, very bad.
It does not take a particularly wondrous imagination to conjure the potential benefits of a James-Irving partnership — one only needs a stable internet connection and an unblocked pathway to YouTube.com.
Kyrie’s ability to create space with or without the ball and utilize said space for offensive opportunities meshed perfectly with LeBron’s own playmaking abilities. Even when accounting for the disparity in their offensive environments around them, the gulf between the offensive rating of the LeBron-Westbrook partnership (112.1) and that of LeBron-Kyrie (120.5 in 2016-17, their final season together) is the difference between an average offense and the best scoring lineup in the NBA.
For those with a shorter-term NBA memory, look only to the synergy LeBron shared with Malik Monk last season. Inconsistency in performance and rotations statistically sullied what was at times an extremely dynamic offensive partnership, dragging the Lakers’ net rating with both on the floor to just -0.1 points per 100 possessions. Still, on a team that was -3.6 overall, and -2.2 with LeBron on the floor, mere viability represented a marked improvement.
Although they were able to win just one championship during their three-year partnership, LeBron and Kyrie made it to the Finals every season they played together as one of the great offensive duos in NBA history. Although they have each aged further into the latter parts of their careers — with Kyrie now just 30 years old but rarely available, and LeBron 37 but often injured — they were able to reach the aforementioned heights as the two best players on their former team. If Kyrie were to join the Lakers, he’d climb no higher than third on the team’s non-astrological star chart.
I am empathetic to those who would prefer for Kyrie to have nothing to do with their Lakers, and to a certain extent, I sympathize. As talented as he is, he is often not available, due to a combination of injuries, personal absences, and his choice not to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
However, as LeBron’s favorite columnist Bill Oram of The Athletic wrote yesterday, through a series of net negative asset plays, one of which was the trade for Westbrook himself, the championship-or-bust Lakers have backed themselves in between a rock a $47 million expiring contract who simply can’t be on their roster on Opening Day if they hope to contend.
If the opportunity to swap him for a proven championship-level No. 2 who fits perfectly beside their franchise player (and only needs to be their third-best player for them to have a chance), they simply have to seize it and figure the rest out later.
Again, the Lakers’ only chance of winning a championship next season, with or without Kyrie, is for both LeBron and AD to stay healthy and play up to their abilities as the absolute forces of nature on both ends that they can be. With playmaking and defensive anchors, the team needs not another playmaker, especially one as sloppy and inconsistent as Russell Westbrook, but could absolutely use a third guy capable of putting the ball in the hole at an elite level to keep opposing defenses on their toes — something Kyrie Irving knows how to do as well as anybody in basketball.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can hear him on the Lakers Multiverse Podcast and find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.