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Lakers Must Prioritize Chemistry amid Latest LeBron James, Russell Westbrook Rumors

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxCorrespondent IAugust 15, 2022

Russell Westbrook and LeBron James (Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images)

As we draw closer to the 2022-23 NBA season, it feels more and more likely that the Los Angeles Lakers will proceed with Russell Westbrook on the roster.

Westbrook's name has been a fixture of offseason trade rumors—especially those involving Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving. According to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times, however, general manager Rob Pelinka has been hesitant to attach multiple draft picks to Westbrook in trade talks.

This doesn't mean that Westbrook won't eventually be traded, of course, but new head coach Darvin Ham must prepare to have Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis as his three centerpieces this season.

As NBA insider Marc Stein recently noted (h/t Lakers Daily), getting Westbrook to buy into the plan could be challenging:

"Ham is going to have to coach Westbrook, which is bound to be challenging in the extreme given that Westbrook is well aware that the Lakers have been trying hard to move him. And that James badly wants Irving to take his place."

It's not an ideal situation for Ham, though the first-time head coach has an opportunity to salvage Westbrook's stint in Los Angeles. A big part of the problem last season was that Westbrook and former then-coach Frank Vogel clashed.

"I think it's unfortunate, to be honest, because I've never had an issue with any of my coaches before," Westbrook said in April, per ESPN's Dave McMenamin. "I'm not sure what his issue was with me or I'm not sure why, but I can't really give you an answer to why we really never connected."

As a new coach, Ham has a prime opportunity to take a fresh approach to the Lakers' roster. Instead of trying to force Westbrook, James and Davis into an established system, he can create a new one around L.A.'s Big Three.

The trick will be establishing the sort of chemistry between the three—and Los Angeles' supporting cast—that wasn't present last season. This will be important both for the 2022-23 season and for the Lakers' efforts to extend James beyond this season.

James, who is in the final year of his contract, is eligible to sign an extension at any time. According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports, James recently met with Lakers management both to begin contract talks and to voice concerns.

One of his biggest concerns, per Haynes, was last year's lack of chemistry:

"James, sources said, drilled home the importance of consistent competitiveness and cohesion, noting that last season’s team didn’t give themselves a chance on many nights. The focus for the future Hall of Famer is competing every night in order to give themselves a chance to compete for a championship."

Ham can potentially ease James' worries by mapping out a plan for the roster as it currently sits. Per Haynes, this includes running the offense through Davis and hoping for more efficient three-point shooting from Westbrook.

This would represent a change of role for Westbrook, who has spent much of his career as the up-tempo centerpiece of his offenses. Getting Westbrook to buy in will be Ham's first challenge. Selling the plan to James will be his next.

It's imperative that the chemistry-building begin immediately. The Lakers cannot wait and hope that it develops over the course of the season, as the franchise seemed to do last season.

According to Shams Charania of Stadium and The Athletic, the Lakers are set to open the season against the defending-champion Golden State Warriors:

Shams Charania @ShamsCharania

Scheduled for the NBA’s 2022-23 opening night and ring ceremony on TNT: Lakers at Warriors, Oct. 18, sources tell <a href="https://twitter.com/TheAthletic?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@TheAthletic</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/Stadium?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@Stadium</a>.

Nobody in the Lakers locker room—and especially not the legacy-conscious James—will want to be embarrassed in such a high-profile start to the season. And barring a sudden development on the trade front, L.A. will likely enter that game with its current roster.

"All parties appear to be aligned on a common vision of seeing how the roster plays out before any drastic moves are sought," Haynes wrote.

The core group of James, Davis and Westbrook was unsuccessful last season both because of injuries and because it never got the opportunity to build a rapport. The three only played 21 games together.

Most injuries cannot be avoided, but the Lakers can prepare their players to operate as a cohesive unit. That must be the primary focus moving forward. If a trade falls into place, so be it, but waiting will get the Lakers nowhere.

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