The Los Angeles Lakers are on the brink of postseason elimination.
With a loss at league-leading Phoenix on Tuesday night, plus a San Antonio Spurs win against the Denver Nuggets, the Lakers would officially become ineligible for the NBA’s second annual Play-In Tournament.
If not Tuesday, the chapter on this season seems all but inevitable to close sometime this week. Los Angeles stands two games behind San Antonio for the final, 10th spot in the Western Conference postseason and has also lost the tiebreaker to Gregg Popovich’s Spurs thanks to each team’s in-conference record.
Credit injuries or other misfortunes, but Los Angeles simply stumbled out of the playoff picture on its own accord. By all accounts, San Antonio had no concerted designs on competing for this postseason. While New Orleans acquired CJ McCollum at the trade deadline in pursuit of the Play-In Tournament, the Spurs completed a series of deals that swapped veterans such as Derrick White and Thaddeus Young for future first-round draft capital.
“I don’t think the Spurs were ever trying to make a run at it; it just came back to them,” said one Western Conference official. “The Spurs were good enough to just keep treading water and the Lakers kept losing.”
Los Angeles holds a worse record (10-27) during the second half of its season than Portland (11-26), while the Blazers dismantled their roster, that aforementioned McCollum deal included, and have designated multiple players inactive due to injury with clear intentions of securing greater positioning in the NBA draft lottery.
Now, as the finish line for this tumultuous 2021-22 campaign mercifully arrives, the Lakers are still expected to part ways with embattled play-caller Frank Vogel, sources told B/R, and the anticipated vacancy on Los Angeles’ bench has produced no shortage of potential candidates linked to fill the position.
As Marc Stein first reported, Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder is perhaps most often mentioned by league figures as a possible Vogel replacement. For now, Snyder remains entrenched in Utah and told Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune: “My focus is on our guys and our team. And as I said, addressing hypotheticals in these types of questions in any form I feel like is disrespectful.”
Yet that hasn’t dispelled the rumblings that Snyder, a Lakers assistant from 2011-12, may be inclined to step away from the Jazz following this season, especially as Utah has taken its own tumble down the Western Conference standings. The Jazz have dropped six of their last seven games. And once again, the microscope among league personnel has shifted back onto the long-term prospects of Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert’s partnership.
There is, however, a healthy dose of skepticism around the NBA that Snyder would have interest in a hypothetical Lakers marriage. Snyder would appear to be just as prominent a candidate to one day succeed Popovich in San Antonio, even if Popovich endures on the Spurs’ sideline for the 2022-23 season.
Doc Rivers, the Philadelphia 76ers’ head coach, is another active bench leader being mentioned by league personnel as a potential Lakers candidate. Rivers’ tenure in Philadelphia has also come into question of late, spurred by team president Daryl Morey’s deadline acquisition of James Harden and the mounting speculation that followed about a potential reunification with Harden’s former Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni.
Rivers has also been linked by several league sources as a potential replacement for the Jazz, in the event Snyder does depart Utah. Rivers was the head coach in Boston from 2004 to 2013 under current Jazz CEO Danny Ainge.
There will certainly be other candidates to replace Vogel. Multiple league figures contacted by B/R referenced the possibility that Lakers senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis returns to the sidelines after several previous coaching stops in the league, including an interim stint as Los Angeles’ head coach. However, Rambis is said to be an integral figure in the front office and unlikely to resume a coaching role.
As the Lakers are expected to focus on candidates with previous experience, former Los Angeles head coach and current Warriors assistant Mike Brown, who hired Snyder for that 2011-12 campaign, is known to have interest in departing Golden State for another opportunity in a team’s first chair. The same is said for Steve Clifford, most recently the Magic’s head coach from 2018 to ‘21, who served as a Lakers assistant in 2012-13. It’s also widely believed that Los Angeles, as has been the franchise’s custom, will prioritize coaching candidates with past connections to the organization.
Los Angeles will be limited in its options for turnover outside of the coaching staff. While some rival executives around the league have wondered about the Lakers’ willingness to discuss trading All-Star forward Anthony Davis this offseason, multiple sources with knowledge of the situation refuted that option will seriously be on the table for Los Angeles brass. Despite Davis’ battle with injury the past two seasons, Lakers figures still harbor faith that a healthy pairing of Davis and LeBron James can once more boast a championship-contending ceiling as it did in 2020.
How vice president Rob Pelinka and Los Angeles reshape the roster may be limited to a potential Russell Westbrook trade, or the Lakers revisiting their outgoing package of Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn that was frequently discussed with rival front offices ahead of February’s trade deadline. The Lakers nearly sent Horton-Tucker to Toronto in a three-team deal with the New York Knicks. And Nunn is expected to pick up his $5.25 million player option for next season, sources said, after not appearing in a game this year.
Yet the options to move Westbrook still appear limited outside of a Rockets framework that would deliver John Wall to Los Angeles. The possibility of that swap still seems predicated on the Lakers’ willingness to send Houston a future first-round pick. Once the 2022-23 NBA calendar begins in July, Los Angeles will have access to trade its first-rounders in both 2027 and 2029.
The Lakers will also have to consider a future without guard Malik Monk, who ranks third on the team in both total minutes played and points scored this season. Los Angeles landed Monk, the 11th pick in the 2017 NBA draft, on a minimum-salary contract after the Kentucky product spent four seasons in Charlotte.
While Monk did not garner much free-agent interest last summer, following intel from his Hornets tenure purporting a lack of commitment to basketball and unprofessional tendencies, Monk thrived alongside James this season, shooting over 39 percent from three for the second straight campaign and scoring 17.2 points per 36 minutes.
Expectations among league personnel polled by B/R for Monk’s next salary are quite varied but have ranged from an average annual value between $5 million and $10 million, far above the minimum number that the Lakers were able to sign him for this season.