Where do we even begin? The Los Angeles Lakers went from NBA champions to lottery fodder in about 18 months. They let go of their coach. They’ve changed the roster three years in a row. Their two best players are unable to stay healthy. They owe $47 million to a player they don’t want. More than half of their roster will be paid the minimum wage. Someone even hacked the team owner’s Twitter account to sell some PlayStation 5s.
Despite this, if you look at the championship odds available at Caesars Sportsbook… you’ll find the Lakers nestled snugly between the Denver Nuggets, who have the two-time reigning MVP, and the Miami Heat, who were one shot away from reaching the NBA Finals last season, at +1800. That is the power of having two superstars on your team.
The Lakers must be taken seriously because they employ LeBron James and Anthony Davis. They won a championship the last time they were both healthy for an entire season.
This season, the Lakers will put that theory to the test with a line-up comprised primarily of free-agent scraps, unheralded youngsters, and veterans desperate to resurrect their careers. So, aside from the medical issues surrounding James and Davis, let’s look at the most pressing issues confronting that group. Here are the major storylines surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers in 2022-23.
Top of the key: So… Russell?
Russell Westbrook is not wanted by the Lakers. We know this because they spent the entire summer attempting to trade him. Normally, the NBA would grant such unhappy partners a divorce, but none of the league’s other 29 teams are willing to release the Lakers from that $47 million albatross around their neck. So here we are, nearly six months after one of the most incredible exit interviews you will ever witness, preparing to watch Russell Westbrook play his second season in Los Angeles.
Everyone is putting on a good show. Darvin Ham, Westbrook’s new coach, says he wants to “diversify” and “redirect” Westbrook’s energy into defense and off-ball movement. “He’s all in to do whatever it takes for this team to win, in whatever role that means,” Rob Pelinka swears. Westbrook believes the trio of himself, James, and Davis is “unstoppable.” It should be noted that coach Ham has yet to commit to starting Westbrook in his starting line-up.
There have been gallons of ink spilled on the theoretical concept of “role player Russ.” For his entire career, the basketball world has expected him to cut, screen, defend, and chill with mid-range jumpers. Nothing has ever compelled Westbrook to take on a role like this before. Maybe the season from hell will change his mind. What if it doesn’t? Remember, the NBA quickly soured on players. Allen Iverson retired from the NBA at the age of 34. Westbrook will turn 34 in November. The Lakers are giving him a chance to develop into the type of player capable of assisting James and Davis in winning. He might not be able to get another one.
Following that: hamming it up
How many first-year head coaches have ever faced a more difficult task than Darvin Ham? Forget about the drama, the injuries, and the shattered roster. Consider the coach he is replacing. Frank Vogel has commanded three different top-ranked defenses. He last did it in 2021, when he got only 81 games from James and Davis combined. The Lakers have praised Ham for instilling a defensive-first culture in Los Angeles. Following a disappointing 21st-place finish last season, the roster is geared toward a defensive renaissance. And the coach against whom he will be measured is one of the most accomplished defensive leaders of the last decade.
That kind of spectre hangs over Ham everywhere you look. He is now in charge of the team that was previously led by Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. On his roster is arguably the greatest player of all time. And, with no prior head-coaching experience, he must figure out how to deal with all of these distractions and expectations.
Only time will tell what kind of coach Ham turns out to be. He could turn out to be a great one. Given the monumental task the Lakers have set before him, it’s difficult to say he’s a bad one. There may not be a coach in NBA history who can lead this team to a championship.But what if Ham manages to do so? Prepare his Hall of Fame plaque.
Another issue: they are losing their balance.
The 2020 Lakers’ line-up flexibility was a big part of what made them so special. In twin tower line-ups with Davis, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard provided elite rim protection, but the Lakers could just as easily downsize with Davis or even Markieff Morris at the centre. Morris and Kuzma checked every team’s Wishlist for versatile forwards. Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Avery Bradley provided an almost limitless supply of 3-and-D guards.
When playoff Rondo emerged from his regular season hibernation to wreak havoc in the bubble, they had a spare Hall of Fame creator to dust off for the final few rounds. They could play any style and impose their will on any opponent.
Take a look at the list above. Who is the most accomplished forward after James and Davis? Toscano-Anderson? He wasn’t even on Golden State’s postseason roster. Their centres are both making the bare minimum. Meanwhile, there are far more guards than rotation slots available between Schroder, Reaves, Beverley, Nunn, Walker, and Westbrook. This is a very small group.
That couldn’t have been avoided. It’s what happens when you build a roster on a shoestring budget. Players like Kuzma command much higher salaries. The Lakers could have taken a few more high-risk swings at forward, but the more proven available talent came at guard. They prioritized talent over versatility. Perhaps they’ll find a way to balance their roster as the season progresses, but for the time being, Ham must figure out how to juggle a group of players who largely do the same things.