There is always a natural level of buzz and excitement that circulates the Lakers ahead of their annual Media Day festivities.
It is the starting line of a new season where we get our first glimpse at a crop of fresh faces donning their purple and gold jerseys for the first time, familiar ones kicking off the remnants of their summer tans, and with all gathered together in the same place, hope again springs eternal.
This year’s event, however, evokes other feelings. There is a significant degree of curiosity, awkwardness and unpredictability due to the team’s action — and in one particular case — inaction, with the roster this offseason.
Monday will hopefully finally be the setting for players, Darvin Ham and Rob Pelinka to provide the answers to the burning questions much of that fanbase have shared all summer long.
Among those queries are three of particular interest: the status and expectations of a singular name, the management of the various configurations of the depth chart and if the team can finally find their way within space.
What is Russell Westbrook’s role?
When Russell Westbrook takes his first step back into Lakers headquarters he will not merely be the elephant in the room, but instead, will consume the oxygen, four walls and the entirety of the room itself.
After a tumultuous first season with the Lakers, Westbrook’s fate with the team seemed all but sealed heading into the summer. Yet with still no active movement on the trade front given the team’s continued resistance to part with two first-round picks in a potential swap, the polarizing point guard’s future will likely continue in Los Angeles to start the year.
Beyond the rampant rumors and hard feelings that may still be present, it will be in everyone’s best interest if we get more clarity on the situation from day one. In particular, a better idea when it comes to on-court elements like how Ham and his staff plan to optimize Westbrook’s game, disguise his weaknesses and make him a better fit alongside the team’s star duo, the latter arguably being the most important.
According to Cleaning the Glass, the trio of Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis that the team had high hopes for posted a net rating of minus-3.0 in their 818 (non-garbage time) possessions together last season. Individually, the team had a minus-7.3 net rating when Westbrook played without the two stars, as he noticeably struggled to adjust to his lowest usage rate since 2009.
The offensive fit was clunky as Westbrook’s unwillingness to act as an off-ball weapon (cutter, screener, etc) was arguably as detrimental as his inability to space the floor for James and Davis. On defense, Westbrook struggled to be a reliable cog within Frank Vogel’s scheme, often allowing his man a free path to the cup.
Given how poorly his first year went and the team’s suddenly now crowded backcourt, the prospect of Westbrook coming off the bench is also reported to be “strongly considered.”
Whatever Ham and his staff ultimately decide to do with Westbrook’s role could have combustible consequences if not managed properly. The team has the optionality now to not have to play him if he continues to be a net negative on the floor, but that also carries a risk of further splintering what is already a likely delicate relationship between him and the team.
With no trade likely imminent, how and when Westbrook plays will continue to be the story of the season. Our first glimpse of how that story unfolds will come during Media Day.
How does Darvin Ham plan to manage his rotation and minutes?
Westbrook’s role heading into the year is not the only question mark surrounding the team’s depth chart as the squad has a slew of players, and positions, that will be battling for minutes.
The Lakers, as currently constructed, are a team drowning with overlaps and little wiggle room to provide life jackets in the form of accommodations.
For example, with the acquisitions of Patrick Beverley, Dennis Schröder and the returning combination of Kendrick Nunn and Westbrook, there will be many instances when Ham will be faced with a dilemma of who to play in the backcourt.
And in a risk to allocate enough minutes to everyone, Ham may risk going too small by playing a combination of the guards at the same time. To that point, Beverley — who is listed at 6’1 — is reportedly being viewed internally as the team’s defender against “top-level wings”.
The aforementioned backcourt log jam does not even take into account where the likes of Austin Reaves, Lonnie Walker and Troy Brown Jr. fit into the team’s guard and wing slots. According to Cleaning the Glass’ position classification database, Reaves and Walker both played more minutes at shooting guard than small forward last season.
Although positions themselves are certainly fluid and are increasingly becoming antiquated in the modern game, the team's options on the perimeter also lack the necessary size, versatility and shooting acumen to effectively move pieces around to fill in the gaps.
Training camp battles will likely help thin out the competition and provide a clearer picture of the rotation heading into the season, but until then, Ham will have to be creative in devising a game plan that enables the team to be competitive and makes most happy.
Where does the shooting come from?
Despite a much-needed roster makeover, the Lakers enter next season primed to be as limited — or perhaps even more — when it comes to perimeter shooting.
Last year the team performed woefully from behind the arc, finishing 24th in 3-point percentage and 20th in wide-open (defender at least 6-plus feet away) efficiency. Both marks may have ultimately looked worse if not for the hot hands of Malik Monk and Carmelo Anthony helping bring up the averages.
Although this new crop of Lakers is undoubtedly more athletic and versatile, they will likely need to have big jumps in individual efficiency if the team hopes to see improvements. This will especially have to be the case given Ham’s reported plan to incorporate the four-out-one-in offense the Milwaukee Bucks recently ran during his tenure.
Three-point shooting from last season of current Lakers pic.twitter.com/ptObqUdp2f— pickuphoop (@pickuphoop) September 21, 2022
On paper, the prospects of the team being able to effectively provide spacing for the “one in” and their stars seems dubious, as among the new acquisitions, only Troy Brown Jr. shot above league average (when removing heaves and garbage time) on his 3-point attempts last season.
As a further sign of the confidence in the group’s ability, Rob Pelinka recently was reported to still be “very active” in attempting to acquire more shooting ahead of the season.
Individually, there is no marksman or player on the roster who possesses that level of spatial gravity. Instead, the team will have to bank on in-house improvements across the board and their stars to be healthy enough for the duration of the year to make the easy looks, even easier.
Ham being able to communicate what his plan is to alleviate these potential spacing issues scheme-wise, would be a great first step.
As with any Media Day, there will be many reasons for optimism and concern that will arise.
The Lakers still very much feel like a team that is a work in progress, and until we get to see what they actually look like on the court, they will continue to be outwardly viewed as a small, ragtag collection of overlapping and limited skillsets.
With that said, there is always the chance of lightning in the bottle. Perhaps this group, and their individual oddities, mesh in thanks to the spirited direction of a hungry first-time head coach and a star duo once again trying to recapture their thrones at the top.
Regardless of what is revealed or not on Monday, these questions will likely continue to loom over the season. How well the team and coaching staff ultimately answer them, could determine their fate.