The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2021-22 playoff hopes were mercifully put to rest on Tuesday night when their loss to the Phoenix Suns, coupled with the San Antonio Spurs beating the Denver Nuggets, officially eliminated them from Play-In Tournament contention.
It’s no secret that the Lakers came into this season with championship expectations, and there’s no sugarcoating that failing to qualify for the Play-In Tournament, which only would’ve required around 38 wins, is a massive organizational failure from top to bottom.
If there’s one thing that’s clear, it’s that no singular person is responsible for this season and everyone must accept responsibility. The following though will be a breakdown of what went wrong with the Lakers and where they go from here in order to fix things, if that’s even possible.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Why the Lakers 2021-22 season went wrong
Going back to before the draft last summer, all of the noise was around the Lakers flipping Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell to the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, giving the team some much-needed shooting after they struggled in that department a year ago.
Instead, at the last minute, the Lakers changed courses and instead traded for Russell Westbrook, not only sending Kuzma and Harrell to the Washington Wizards, but also Kentavious Caldwell-Pope AND the No. 22 pick in the 2021 draft, which actually held significant value.
When discussing why things went wrong for the Lakers this season, there’s nowhere else to start than right here.
The biggest part of why the Lakers were so successful the two seasons prior was because they surrounded LeBron James and Anthony Davis with role players who were tough-minded, defense-first players and didn’t mind doing all the dirty work. There’s no better evidence of that than the Lakers remaining the No. 1 defense in the league in the back half of the 2020-21 season, even when Davis and James were out with injuries.
Now, the idea of putting a third star around James and Davis to help pick up some of the slack, especially given the injury history of those two, is not a bad one.
The problem was that not only has Westbrook been a declining player, as evidenced by the Lakers being his fourth team in as many years, but from the jump, he was just not an ideal fit alongside James and Davis.
It’s no secret that James has the ball in his hands a lot, meaning it’s best to surround him with three-and-D type players, which is the opposite of what Westbrook is.
James wanting someone to take some ball-handling duties away from him in his 19th season is understandable, but there were much cheaper options out there than Westbrook, who not only cost the Lakers some key role players and draft capital but also had a $44 million salary in 2021-22 and a $47 million! player option in 2022-23.
Another problem with adding Westbrook, and this is where the salary comes into play, is that with the Lakers being a team over the cap with three max players, they had no cap space left over which forced them to find players on minimum salaries to fill out the roster.
The Lakers did have the ability to go over the cap to re-sign some of their own, but because they were already so far into the luxury tax after re-signing young guard Talen Horton-Tucker, they were unwilling to go further into the luxury tax to keep more players.
So effectively, trading for Westbrook and re-signing Horton-Tucker cost the Lakers Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, Harrell, the No. 22 pick, Alex Caruso and Dennis Schroder.
Much to the dismay of Frank Vogel, there went the Lakers’ defensive identity right there.
Now, while it would be easy to just put all of the blame on Westbrook because he didn’t live up to his All-Star reputation or contract this season, that wouldn’t be fair to all of the other people who were responsible for the deal taking place.
This is where James, despite continuing to play at an incredibly high level at age 37, should get some of the blame. From all the reports we’ve seen, Rob Pelinka was intent on following through with the Hield trade, which would’ve given the Lakers a knockdown shooter while also being able to keep key defensive backcourt pieces like Caruso and Caldwell-Pope.
But before the deal was completed, James and Davis stepped in and advocated for a Westbrook trade. So there is James and Davis’ section of the blame pie, although Pelinka is involved in that as well considering he ultimately is the final decision maker and completed the trade.
The blame on Pelinka only starts there though as he is responsible for basically all of the other offseason signings being an absolute disaster. The Lakers prioritized bringing in familiar faces that have played for the organization before, but what they clearly didn’t prioritize was youth, length and energy.
That’s why a number of guys who were brought in basically off the street throughout the season like Stanley Johnson, Wenyen Gabriel and DJ Augustin wound up contributing more than some of the guys who were signed from Day 1 of free agency.
When discussing blame though, it’s hard to put anything above injuries. Davis has only played 40 games, James only played 56 and Kendrick Nunn, the team’s only non-minimum signing from the offseason that received the mid-level exception, played a grand total of zero.
All in all, the Lakers’ “Big 3” of James, Davis and Westbrook played just 21 games together, which allowed for basically no continuity to be built throughout the season.
Now, I know, injuries are not an excuse considering every team is forced to deal with them at one point or another. Maybe it would have been a legitimate excuse for why the Lakers fell to seventh in the West or something of that nature, but it’s certainly not an excuse for finishing 11th and missing the Play-In Tournament altogether.
But when you have three players basically taking up all of your cap space, and two of those players miss significant time due to injury while the third underwhelms on the court, that is not a recipe for success and puts a lot of pressure on minimum players to play bigger roles than anticipated.
The perfect example of this is Carmelo Anthony, who is also 37 and in his 19th season. Anthony was brought in to give the Lakers some much-needed shooting, playing 15 minutes a game or so off the bench.
Instead, Anthony was forced into a much bigger role, playing 26 minutes per game across 69 contests and often being forced to guard opposing big men as the Lakers’ small-ball backup center.
With Anthony being forced to do that much, it was clear that he ran out of gas in the back half of the season and his shooting numbers reflected that (he shot 39.2% from three pre-All-Star break and 32.7% post-All-Star beak). We would be talking about Anthony’s first season with the Lakers much differently if he actually played the 15 MPG role that was intended for him.
So when assessing blame for the Lakers’ failed season, I’ve discussed the role roster construction has played, with Pelinka and James both needing to take responsibility for that, I’ve brought up the role Jeanie Buss and ownership played by getting cheap and not paying whatever it took to put a championship roster together, and I’ve also talked about injuries and how key players not being able to stay on the court affected continuity.
The last corner of the blame pie is reserved for Vogel and the coaching staff. The reason I bring them up last is because they are far from the main issue, but also are not absent of flaws.
It’s no secret that Vogel prefers defense-first players and this roster was not designed for him. But the truly great coaches are able to adapt their style and schemes to the roster they have, not the other way around.
Anyone who watched the team play this season knows that Vogel’s lineup choices and rotations were far from flawless (he penciled DeAndre Jordan into his starting lineup 19 times). And even though Vogel wasn’t on the court playing, he also shares blame with the players when it comes to their consistent lack of effort this season. Consistently playing hard should be the baseline for being an NBA player, and Vogel failed to get that buy-in from his roster this season.
Now, I just wrote a whole lot of words when talking about who to blame for this Lakers season all to conclude with the simple point that EVERYONE is responsible for this season and should take accountability if asked.
“Who is to blame?” is not really as important as “how do we fix this?” though, so let me now get into that aspect of all this.
Where the Lakers go from here
This offseason will unquestionably be one of the most important in franchise history for the Lakers as this ship can go in two different directions at this point. Can the Lakers make moves to salvage the James-Davis championship window, or is that unsalvagable at this point and it’s time to move on?
That’s the biggest question Pelinka will be facing this summer. And yes, I say it’s a question Pelinka will be facing because all indications point to him coming back despite everything that has transpired over the last 12 months. Whether that is the right decision by Jeanie or not is certainly debatable, but until there’s any sort of indication that she is leaning towards making a change, there’s no point in entertaining that thought.
Before getting to the roster, let’s just get this out of the way real quick. The expectation around the league is that the Lakers and Vogel will part ways at the conclusion of this season, so another coaching search is on the horizon.
The Lakers have already been linked to some coaches with reports indicating they are prioritizing someone with past experience and someone that has been in the organization before. Some names that have come up include Quin Snyder, Doc Rivers and Mike Brown.
Of that group, Snyder is the only one that would make some sense to me. Personally, I would love to see them give a young, up-and-coming assistant like Darwin Hamm, Randy Ayers, the Lakers’ own Phil Handy or a number of other qualified candidates a shot, although that seems unlikely.
Once the Lakers have a coach in place, they can then shift their focus to the roster, hopefully building one that fits the playing style of whatever coach they choose.
The first order of business will be figuring out what James’ plans are. He is heading into the final year of his contract but is eligible for an extension this summer. If he is willing to sign that then you can proceed in trying to put a quality roster together around James and Davis. If not though, then perhaps you seek a trade of not only James, but Davis as well and completely start over.
That’s not a realistic option to me unless James says he’s not signing an extension and planning on leaving. But unless that happens, it makes zero sense to trade Davis, particularly, when his value is at its lowest after two injury-plagued seasons.
Once that stuff gets figured out, the biggest question for the Lakers again this offseason will be what they do with Westbrook once he opts into his $47 million salary. They will have a few different options, none of which are great.
Option No. 1 is trading Westbrook, which is clearly the best option but also the most difficult. Even though Westbrook’s contract will be expiring, it’s hard to see any teams willing to take that on and help out the Lakers without getting any assets in return.
If the Lakers want to attach assets to Westbrook, they will be able to trade both their 2027 and 2029 first-round picks. Is it worth going that far into the future when perhaps both James and Davis are gone in order to get out of the final year of Westbrook’s deal? The answer is probably no, but it could become a yes if they can get two or three solid role players in return.
Not only would that make the Lakers better on the court, but it could also give them mid-tier contracts in the $10-$20 million range that could help make future trades.
If that option fails, Option No. 2 would be to go back to the Houston Rockets and try to flip Westbrook for John Wall, as they did at this year’s deadline. Is Wall a better player than Westbrook? It’s hard to say considering he hasn’t played basketball in over a year, but he at least may be willing to take on a reduced role to try to contribute to a winning team to revive his career. If additional assets are needed to complete this deal, then it’s probably not worth it.
OK, so let’s say no one is willing to trade for Westbrook though, then what?
That leaves two other realistic options for the Lakers. The first is to waive and stretch Westbrook’s contract, which would give the Lakers some salary-cap relief in 2022-23 (his $47 million salary would be split in thirds), but it would also have him on their books for two seasons beyond next one, turning a one-year problem into a three-year problem.
If the Lakers go this route, it would help keep a player like Malik Monk, who they currently do not have the cap space to sign for more than the mid-level exception (around $6 million annually). Monk is projected to get around $5 million to $10 million annually in free agency.
The final option would be to keep Westbrook and hope that they can turn things around with a new coach and better health for James and Davis. This personally would not be the option I would go with, but it’s seeming more and more likely by the day.
Westbrook himself said after the Lakers’ loss to the Suns that he is planning on running it back next season, although also acknowledged that’s ultimately not up to him.
Outside of James, Davis and Westbrook, the only players under contract past this season are Horton-Tucker, who they may try to trade again but will find trouble considering his poor play and contract structure, and Johnson and Austin Reaves, who will likely be back on minimum salaries.
The final player who may be under contract is Nunn, who reportedly is expected to pick up his player option and hopefully will be healthy enough to play next season.
That once again leaves a lot of question marks for the Lakers, who again have no draft picks in 2022, and depending on how they handle things with Westbrook, there are no clear answers right now.
One thing that’s for sure though is that they should prioritize signing more youth and length/athleticism, which is where the NBA has been trending for years now.
Depending on how things play out, this could be a make-or-break summer for the Lakers and they simply cannot have anywhere close to a repeat of last offseason or they risk falling back into mediocrity just two years after reaching the mountain top and winning the organization’s 17th championship.