Everything looked rosy on Tuesday in Los Angeles at the Lakers team facility. Russell Westbrook made nice with Patrick Beverley. Coach Darvin Ham expressed excitement for what's to come this season. In his words, "I have the best seat in the house."
But if the Los Angeles Lakers go through with keeping Russell Westbrook, can they really rebound strongly from last year's 33-win debacle?
Was the offseason of angst unnecessary? Will those ice-cold shoulders at summer league between LeBron James and Westbrook melt away in training camp under the warmth of the new head coach?
Ham—who by all accounts has been worthy of a head coaching position for nearly half a decade—is naturally going to talk up his players three weeks from training camp. If the Lakers decide to go in a different direction with Westbrook, Ham will pivot.
As of now, competing executives aren't sure the Lakers will send away one future first-round pick, let alone two, to get out of Westbrook's contract unless the return package substantially improves the team. So what's the plan?
"It starts with the defensive end. It's not much use if we don't guard anybody," Ham said. "We've got three first-ballot Hall of Famers and other guys around them who can score. Offense, we just need to be organized and be disciplined in how we space and how we run and where we give these guys the ball."
Frank Vogel had a similar message as coach last year but struggled to find a healthy combination of players who could score and get stops. He never found that perfect rotation, hindered by injuries to Anthony Davis and James.
To help Ham execute his vision, the front office gave him younger, more athletic role players. The team is deeper, but shooting remains a concern. Getting more than 56 and 40 games, respectively, out of James and Davis would go a mighty long way.
In short, there are more questions than answers for Ham and L.A., despite the positive sound bites we heard Tuesday. So Bleacher Report polled seven NBA sources for a reality check, most of whom were generally pessimistic.
'They Need a Time Machine'
Assuming the Lakers stay healthy, can Ham coach this squad to the playoffs?
Of the seven polled NBA sources (including executives and agents), only one is confident in the Lakers' postseason chances. Two aren't confident but ultimately think they will get in seeded between fifth and eighth. Three see the best case as a 9-10 finish, with L.A. needing two wins in the play-in just to make the playoffs. The last doesn't expect the franchise to even make the play-in.
"The West has eight playoff-caliber teams, which leaves two play-in spots for the Lakers, [Sacramento] Kings and Portland [Trail Blazers]," an agent said, assuming the Houston Rockets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Utah Jazz and San Antonio Spurs are lottery-bound.
What's the most significant need for the Lakers to become a more substantial playoff hopeful? The answers were uniform.
"They need to add shooting; defense as well," another said, with nearly everyone echoing that sentiment.
Is there a single step the team can take to become a contender? One answer stood out.
"They need a time machine," one answered sarcastically, suggesting that rewinding to avoid doing the Westbrook trade completely was the only answer.
Ham seems to believe Westbrook will be a net positive for the Lakers, but he also believes Westbrook was deficient on defense last season. The nine-time All-Star needs to make massive strides this season.
"If they're not trading Westbrook, it's time to stop tiptoeing around his feelings," one source explained. "If he has to come off the bench or not play at all, then do what's best for the team. If his play isn't resulting in positive contributions, then look at other options."
The notion of a Westbrook trade was a popular topic, be it for role players from the Utah Jazz like Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley or a package from the Indiana Pacers built around Myles Turner.
"The [Lakers] need depth and to turn Russ into multiple pieces that can play without the ball and space the floor," one source said, emphasizing that almost any NBA system requires at least a baseline of sufficient shooting unless the team is an absolute beast defensively. The Lakers aren't the latter, at least on paper.
Is it worth giving up one or two first-round picks to get role players for Westbrook?
"That's up to [team governor] Jeanie Buss and the front office," one agent replied.
Concerns Re: Davis, Beverley
The same source raised concerns about Davis. "He's been more inconsistent than consistent, outside of his play in the bubble."
Davis shot just 18.6 percent from three-point range last year and 26.0 percent in 2020-21. Westbrook hit 29.8 percent in his lone season with the Lakers.
"Individually, they're three elite talents, but how exactly can Ham space the floor around LeBron with two non-shooters in huge roles?" another executive asked.
While the Beverley acquisition was generally lauded, one pointed out that he's another "injury-prone player."
"Beverley only plays 50 games a season," one agent said. The guard has averaged 48.7 over the past three years.
The Bottom Line
Ham isn't walking into an ideal situation, but few rookie coaches inherit a championship-grade roster. Perhaps Ham can find combinations that shoot and defend well enough to give the team a chance.
One source was bullish: "They have LeBron and AD. If they're healthy, the Lakers are still dangerous."
If the shooting matches the numbers on paper, the Lakers will need to compensate by playing elite-level defense this season. None of those polled expect L.A. to be anywhere close to a top defensive squad.