What a difference a year makes.
There were plenty of questions surrounding the Los Angeles Lakers heading into the 2021-22 season, many of which revolved around their collective age and durability. Yet it was still championship-or-bust considering future Hall of Famers LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook spearheaded the roster.
Now just making the playoffs would be an improvement.
Los Angeles was the league's biggest disappointment last season and finished with a 33-49 record, which wasn't even good enough for the play-in tournament in a conference that saw the 34-48 San Antonio Spurs qualify.
Head coach Frank Vogel was fired at season's end, Westbrook struggled to effectively fit in alongside James and the team was under the spotlight throughout the offseason.
The roster is largely intact for now, though, with the Big Three of James, Davis and Westbrook leading the way once again. Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports reported in July that the trio "huddled up on a phone conversation the first weekend of NBA Summer League in Las Vegas with each expressing their commitment to one another and vowing to make it work."
Here is the schedule they will have to navigate.
2022-23 Lakers Schedule Details
Season Opener: At Golden State Warriors, Oct. 18, 10 p.m. ET
Championship Odds: +1,800 (bet $100 to win $1,800), per FanDuel
Full Schedule: The full schedule is available on NBA.com.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are once again the gold standard in the NBA.
Stephen Curry and Co. won the title for the fourth time in eight seasons when they defeated the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals, and they figure to be on the shortlist of contenders in 2022-23 as well.
Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are still the headliners, and secondary players Andrew Wiggins, Jordan Poole and Kevon Looney are back with plenty of postseason experience.
The team may be even better if James Wiseman returns to health after he missed the entire 2021-22 campaign and Thompson further rediscovers his form after he missed two straight seasons in 2019-20 and 2020-21 with his own serious injuries.
James is no stranger to battling the Warriors after facing them in four straight NBA Finals when he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and they are once again the team to beat if the King is going to win a fifth championship.
Even though the Lakers didn't make the playoffs last season, James surely has his eye on another ring since he turns 38 years old in December and likely doesn't have many campaigns remaining in his prime.
If Los Angeles is going to be a legitimate contender, it will need to find a way to remain competitive in its matchups with the Warriors. Otherwise, it could be another disappointing season in Hollywood.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Lakers and L.A. Clippers have more similarities than just their home city heading into the new season.
They each have plenty of star power, but injuries partially derailed their efforts a year ago. Kawhi Leonard didn't play a single game in 2021-22, and Paul George appeared in just 31 for the Clippers.
Davis played just 40 for the Purple and Gold, which didn't help as Westbrook struggled to play up to his capabilities in his first season with the storied franchise.
If every player on the two rosters remains largely healthy, the Lakers and Clippers could be title contenders. Perhaps fans will finally be treated to the Los Angeles playoff showdown that once seemed inevitable when Leonard and George joined one side and James and Davis joined the other.
While there may be championship expectations in place for both teams, they could well be battling for position near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. It was just last season that the Lakers missed the playoffs entirely and the Clippers lost in the play-in tournament.
The head-to-head matchups between the Los Angeles squads could determine which team avoids the play-in tournament as a No. 5 or 6 seed and which one is playing in the pressure-packed, single-elimination scenario as a No. 9 or 10 seed.
With the potential city rivalry, the star power on both rosters and positioning in the Western Conference standings on the line, these matchups will be must-see.
The good news for the Lakers is things can't go much worse than they did last season.
There is a new head coach in place in Darvin Ham, and he spent part of his offseason discussing a new plan for Westbrook to impact the game in a variety of ways alongside James and Davis. The nine-time All-Star has been a ball-dominant playmaker for much of his career, but that didn't work out well with James also on the floor.
LeBron needs effective three-point shooters around him because of all the defensive attention he draws, and Westbrook is anything but that as a 30.5 percent shooter from deep in his career.
If Ham can develop a plan for Westbrook to better utilize the skill set that will one day land him in the Hall of Fame, Davis stays relatively healthy and James remains among the league's best players, there is enough talent to challenge for a title.
That is plenty of "ifs," though, and Davis hasn't played more than 40 games since the 2019-20 campaign. James will also be a year older, and, as excellent as he is, it doesn't seem entirely fair to expect him to replicate his numbers of 30.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game he posted in 2021-22.
Given the overall talent level and the boost the new coach can provide, the remaining uncertainty about Westbrook's fit, Davis' durability and the team's overall age, expect a solid but unspectacular season from the Lakers.
They won't win the title, but they will make the playoffs in a bounce-back effort from a disappointing 2021-22 campaign.
Record Prediction: 44-38
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