Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook may be the face of one of the most disappointing seasons in franchise history, but he's really a symptom of a larger issue.
If Westbrook was the knockout punch, the front office's self-inflicted body blows have dismantled a championship roster.
In the NBA, resources are limited even for the wealthiest of franchises, and front offices must be thoughtful and diligent every year. Their 2019-20 title was a tremendous accomplishment, but the Lakers shouldn't get a pass for several obvious, costly mistakes that left the team paralyzed at the trade deadline even in the face of a clear need for improvement.
Now, the best-case scenario is surviving two play-in games for the privilege of a first-round matchup against the Phoenix Suns.
If the Lakers had a nearly spotless bill of health this year, maybe the raw talent of their top-heavy roster would have been enough. But how many teams—let alone one of the oldest in the league—get through a season without injuries?
A semi-miraculous postseason run remains a possibility, but the most likely outcome appears to be a long summer. If the latter comes to pass, how did the Lakers go from a championship just two seasons ago to falling apart so entirely in 2021-22?
Obviously, Westbrook Was a Mistake
With $76.5 million already invested in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers gave up Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick to acquire one of the most expensive players in the NBA.
At the time of the deal, many competing executives were perplexed. If the Lakers' high-end talent didn't overwhelm the league, the team had given up significant depth and flexibility for a risky "maybe."
Westbrook was never an obvious fit despite his impressive career credentials. Adding a high-usage point guard who doesn't spread the floor for James hasn't worked out.
Going Away from What Worked
The Lakers' wider misstep is more abstract.
Through the 2019-20 season, they established a championship identity based on impenetrable size and rim protection.
In winning the title, Los Angeles had just one regular rotation player under 6'5", Rajon Rondo. The Lakers were long, tall and a top-three defensive powerhouse.
At its best, the team struggled to score efficiently, finishing only 11th overall in offensive rating. They were notably below-average from three-point range (21st). That's who the Lakers were, but it worked.
The rush back from the bubble played a part in why the team didn't repeat. Legs were tired. The Miami Heat, the Lakers' opponent in the Finals, went through similar travails.
The roster changes from 2019-20 to 2020-21 didn't significantly derail the team last year. Fatigue and Davis' groin injury in the first round against the Suns were bigger culprits. The Lakers—including James, who lobbied for the team to trade for Westbrook—overreacted to their underwhelming season.
The franchise should have placed a greater value on continuity. Instead, defensive-minded coach Frank Vogel was given a roster that didn't fit his style. The Lakers handed him an older, slower roster with shooters who struggled to defend, defenders who struggled to shoot and a lead guard who neither defends nor shoots.
A front office should give a coach players who fit their system or replace the coach if the team's vision no longer aligns with their skill set. Asking Vogel to adapt was unrealistic—his strengths and weaknesses aren't a mystery.
Add in a top-heavy roster and no Plan B for injuries, and we get the Lakers of 2021-22, a poor defensive (20th) and offensive (23rd) team that still can't shoot (16th in True Shooting).
Talen Horton-Tucker's Contract Mishandled From Start
The Lakers saw enough in Talen Horton-Tucker to buy the No. 46 pick in the 2019 draft from the Orlando Magic for $2.2 million and a future second-round selection. Yet it's perplexing that L.A. didn't sign Horton-Tucker to at least a three-year deal as a rookie.
Of the first 20 second-round picks that were drafted and signed in 2019, Horton-Tucker was the only one to sign a two-year deal. Most (14) agreed for three or four seasons, three inked two-way contracts, and a pair didn't immediately join the league.
The Lakers, who were under the cap in 2019, needed to set aside under $1 million in cap space to ink Horton-Tucker to a three- or four-year contract. That could have come by shaving a combined total of $898,310 from free-agent signings Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Quinn Cook or DeMarcus Cousins.
While that oversight may not have seemed significant at the time, it has had lasting repercussions. Horton-Tucker has since re-signed to a three-year, $30.8 million contract (starting at $9.5 million) while his contemporaries of the 2019 second round—including Terance Mann and Daniel Gafford—are earning $1.8 million this season. Both Mann (No. 48) and Gafford (No. 38) have been rewarded with extensions, but their salary jumps don't kick in until 2023-24.
Compounding matters, Horton-Tucker's deal includes a player option for 2023-24. The Lakers passed on the opportunity to trade him (with Caldwell-Pope and Dennis Schroder) before the 2020 deadline to the Toronto Raptors for Kyle Lowry. The market wasn't as generous in February.
"He may be great in four or five years, but he's not right now," a Western Conference executive said. "If we trade for him and he blows up, he'll just opt out and hit free agency in 2023. We'd have no control over his contract."
Did THT Cost Caruso?
If budget were the issue, Horton-Tucker at $1.8 million would have solved that. The mistake in 2019 has had lasting repercussions.
While Caruso wanted to return to the Lakers last offseason, the franchise wasn't willing to offer him a contract on par with the $37 million over four seasons he got from the Chicago Bulls. If the decision was primarily based on a basketball evaluation of Caruso, it was the wrong choice.
Instead, the Lakers gave $10.3 million to Kendrick Nunn over two seasons (including a player option). He's missed the season with a knee injury, but even if Nunn were healthy, that money would have been better spent on Caruso.
Championship teams tend to favor continuity, but that has clearly not been a priority for Los Angeles. Caruso is the rare player who can help his team without scoring. With the Lakers struggling defensively, he has been sorely missed.
If the logic for passing on Lowry and Caruso was to preserve cap room for 2023, after James' contract expires, does the team expect James to move on? If not, cap space would never be plentiful enough to spend on players better than Lowry and Caruso.
A Master Class in Devaluing Players and Picks
The Lakers found Caruso in the G League, signed him to a two-way contract and developed him into a championship role player. That's extremely difficult to do, and the franchise deserves credit for finding a gem.
But L.A. let him go when he got too expensive—even though he's on a reasonable contract with Chicago. Getting the most out of resources hasn't seemed to be a priority for the Lakers.
Teams aren't going to keep every good player they find, but Los Angeles has a pattern of letting value go without recompense:
- 2018: Waived Thomas Bryant, who became a productive starter after the Wizards claimed him off waivers. If a young, talented big who can shoot the ball doesn't fit your plans, why not trade him?
- 2018: Revoked future All-Star Julius Randle's qualifying offer to let him walk as an unrestricted free agent. Randle was the No. 7 pick in 2014.
- 2019: Traded Svi Mykhailiuk and a second-round pick to the Pistons for Reggie Bullock, who left as a free agent after the season. Two smaller assets gone to rent the services of a veteran shooter. L.A. didn't even make a playoff run.
- 2019: Traded Ivica Zubac (and Michael Beasley) to the Clippers for Mike Muscala, who left as a free agent after the season. The Lakers wasted another quality draft pick (No. 32 in 2016), gave the Clippers a starter and haven't had anyone as good at center.
- 2020: Traded Danny Green and a first-round pick to get Dennis Schroder, who left as a free agent after the season. It was a significant step as L.A. broke apart its championship defensive identity, and it also threw away a first-rounder.
- 2020: Traded JaVale McGee and a second-rounder to the Cavaliers for Alfonzo McKinnie and Jordan Bell (waived immediately) to make salary-cap room for Marc Gasol. After the season, McKinnie was waived, and Gasol was traded with a second-round pick and $250,000 to the Grizzlies. McGee is playing a valuable supporting role for the first-place Suns. Neither Gasol nor McKinnie is in the NBA. That journey cost two second-round picks.
- 2021: Traded Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and a first-round pick for Russell Westbrook, which has been covered ad nauseam.
The Devil Is All in the Details
The Lakers still owe two first-round picks, plus a swap, to the New Orleans Pelicans. They can ill afford to be careless after having given up so much to get Davis.
Outside of Westbrook/Horton-Tucker/Nunn, James and Davis' supporting cast is manned by minimum players. Malik Monk has outperformed his deal and could be a challenge to retain this offseason.
The franchise had only one taxpayer mid-level exception of $5.9 million before the season and gambled most of it on Nunn.
Is history repeating itself? Nunn signed for $5 million of the TMLE, leaving $890,000. Had L.A. paid Nunn a slightly lower figure in his first year (just $35,258 less), it could have used the remainder to sign undrafted rookie Austin Reaves to a three-year contract starting at $925,258, instead of a two-year minimum deal for the promising rookie.
A non-guaranteed extra year for Reaves may not seem important now, but mistakes have a way of compounding, as they have since the Horton-Tucker miscue.
Westbrook will likely be remembered as the move that sank this era of the franchise, and rightfully so. It's difficult to imagine him returning next season, but he'll undoubtedly opt in to the final season of his contract for $47.1 million.
If the answer is a trade or buyout, can the franchise be trusted not to deepen its self-inflicted wound?
The Lakers haven't minded the margins well for several years, and their presumed downfall this season should not be a surprise.
Email Eric Pincus at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.