Where Do LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers Go from Here?

Eric PincusFeatured Columnist IApril 6, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) smiles before an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Los Angeles, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
AP Photo/Ashley Landis

The Phoenix Suns (63-16) landed the finishing blow on Tuesday night, but the Los Angeles Lakers (31-48) were done weeks ago, if not months. Preseason expectations were unrealistic, the roster was never fully healthy and the pieces never seemed to fit.

The question of how the Lakers got here isn't as crucial as what they do moving forward. It's easy to point fingers, but mapping a viable path forward is more complicated.

Changes at the Top Unlikely

There's no evidence that team governor Jeanie Buss, who holds roughly two-thirds of the franchise alongside her siblings, is looking to sell the Lakers. Barring something completely unexpected, significant changes seem unlikely.

Buss relies heavily on the council of Linda and Kurt Rambis—professional and personal relationships that go back several decades. That, too, isn't likely to change.

The buzz around the league suggests general manager Rob Pelinka has another year to get the Lakers back on track. The blame internally appears to be focused on injuries, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James for pressuring the team to trade for Westbrook.

James may have as much power as any player in the NBA, but he's not in charge, and the front office celebrated Westbrook's arrival. Leadership must take responsibility for recent failures, but it doesn't sound like any key roles are set to change in the immediate future.

Coaching Search

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, left, sits on the Bech next to forward Anthony Davis as head coach Frank Vogel stands by during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Denver Nuggets Sunday, April 3, 2022, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

As detailed by B/R's Jake Fischer on Tuesday morning, Frank Vogel's time in Los Angeles appears to be coming to an end.

That Vogel was figuratively a dead man walking was evident in January, but instead of looking back at what he did right and what he did wrong, the pertinent question is, who will take over the Lakers' bench?

Several sources speculate that if the Philadelphia 76ers falter in the playoffs, Mike D'Antoni could get the call to reunite with executive Daryl Morey and All-Star guard James Harden. If so, and as Fischer reported, Doc Rivers could be a viable candidate for the Lakers.

Similarly, competing teams expect the Utah Jazz to go in a different direction this summer, making Quin Snyder potentially available. As Marc Stein wrote in March, Snyder is a "probable" candidate for the Lakers but also the San Antonio Spurs, should coach Gregg Popovich retire.

The Lakers do not seem interested in saddling a first-time coach with championship expectations. That may not apply to Juwan Howard, who has ties to Pelinka and James, was an assistant with the Miami Heat and previously interviewed with the franchise in 2019. While the Lakers may have interest in Howard, it's unclear if he's open to leaving Michigan with two of his sons on next year's roster.

If Rivers and Snyder aren't available, Fischer also listed Mike Brown and Steve Clifford as possibilities. The list will undoubtedly grow, assuming Vogel is out. It's vital that the Lakers make the right hire, but that may only matter if the roster improves over the offseason.

LeBron's Future

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 3: LeBron James #6 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during the game against the Denver Nuggets  on April 3, 2022 at Crypto.Com Arena in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Despite the team's mediocrity, James (37) was impressive offensively this season. He may finish with the scoring title if he can eclipse Joel Embiid, who holds a 30.4-30.3 lead over James in points per game. James has one year left on his deal but is eligible for an extension on August 4.

Even if the Lakers fault James for their decision to bring in Westbrook, would the franchise really look for a divorce? If the team doesn't believe it can build a contender while extending James for two more years (beyond his 39th birthday) at $97.1 million, would it decide instead to trade the superstar?

Would L.A. even consider that kind of business decision? Even if it remains a non-contender, keeping James may be the path forward regardless. The franchise needs a headliner.

And James remains an elite basketball player. He came to Los Angeles for several reasons and may not want to uproot his family to leave. Even if he's disillusioned by the team's direction, he may renew his vows with the Lakers in a marriage of convenience.

If so, the deal needs to be hammered out ahead of June's NBA draft so the team can determine any plans to return to championship contention, which may include sending off additional future assets.

Davis Needs to Get and Stay Healthy

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 03: Anthony Davis #3 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on after being defeated by the Denver Nuggets 129-118 in a game at Crypto.com Arena on April 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Some players don't have the body for longevity in the NBA. Brandon Roy, the Portland Trail Blazers' No. 6 pick in 2006, was immediately a special player, but injuries derailed what could have been a Hall of Fame career.

Davis already has a more substantial resume than Roy, but it's possible the All-Star forward isn't ever going to get through a complete 82-game schedule. Davis' career high in games played is 75 (2016-17 and 2017-18).

If there's an answer, he needs to find it.

The Lakers aren't likely to shop Davis unless the team and James don't agree on an extension. Should the franchise and Klutch Sports Group (representing both stars) decide to go their separate ways, the Lakers could look to remake the roster altogether.

Davis would have trade value, but not nearly what the Lakers gave up to the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019. Other teams are well aware of his injury history.

What About Westbrook?

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) talks to referee Derrick Collins (11) during the second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns, Tuesday, April 5, 2022, in Phoenix. The Suns won 121-110. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
AP Photo/Rick Scuteri

Solving the Westbrook issue is a difficult one. The team will have very few options, assuming he opts into the final year of his contract at $47.1 million.

The most direct path is to play it out and see if a different coach with a tweaked and (presumably) healthy roster would work with Westbrook, Davis and James. The roster tweaks won't come easily as the Lakers would only have the taxpayer mid-level exception at roughly $6.4 million. But that may be needed to retain Malik Monk if he'll return at that rate. Can the Lakers keep the young scoring guard and find minimum players to round out a competitive roster?

Another direction is trading Westbrook, but that relies on another team's willingness to make a deal built around his significant salary. What sweeteners would the Lakers be forced to give up to get out of Westbrook's final year?

Teams would presumably want at least one, if not two, of the Lakers' future firsts (2027 and 2029 can be made available after June's draft). That's too big of a commitment for the Lakers without getting real talent in return. For instance, Westbrook and the firsts to the Oklahoma City Thunder in June for Derrick Favors and Mike Muscala get the Lakers out of Westbrook, but for two players who don't move the needle.

While the New York Knicks may look to make some changes after their disappointing season, the buzz is they don't view Westbrook as a target. If the Indiana Pacers want to get out of salary commitments to Malcolm Brogdon and Buddy Hield, the Lakers could offer a solution.

But the Lakers are entirely beholden to another team to make a deal. If nothing viable emerges and the franchise decides Westbrook has to go, a buyout could be the answer.

Assuming James agrees to extend, Los Angeles isn't likely to have significant cap room in 2023. Stretching Westbrook's remaining salary at $12-16 million per season for three years would get the Lakers under the luxury tax ahead of the 2022-23 campaign. That could enable the team to offer Monk a non-taxpayer mid-level exception at approximately $10.3 million starting salary.

Westbrook's dead money wouldn't be pretty in years two and three, but it might only marginally impact the Lakers' already limited flexibility.

Round Out the Roster with Depth

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 03: Wenyen Gabriel #35 of the Los Angeles Lakers lunges for a loose ball during the second half of a game against the Denver Nuggets at Crypto.com Arena on April 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The additions of Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel infused the Lakers with greater size and athleticism. Paired with Austin Reaves and Monk, the Lakers found a somewhat viable combination (in stretches) around James.

The team should rip up Gabriel's two-way contract before the end of the season to sign him to a two-year standard deal (with marginal guarantees). The Lakers need younger legs and depth around players like James and Davis. Los Angeles also needs shooting and playmaking, but everyone on the roster should be capable of contributing defensively.

The Lakers may want to make trades to improve this offseason, but most of the team's players will be free agents. Outside of the three stars, Talen-Horton Tucker ($10.3 million) and Kendrick Nunn ($5.3 million, assuming he opts in) are the only substantial contracts on the books. Besides Johnson (team option) and Reaves (non-guaranteed), everyone else will be free agents.

Finally, the team doesn't have a draft pick in June to benefit from the poor record.

The 2021-22 season was an undeniable mess. The franchise doesn't have substantial flexibility to improve unless the front office nails a Westbrook trade or finds a coach who can unlock this disappointing roster's potential.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.