After an offseason of hoopla surrounding the acquisitions of Russell Westbrook and several past-their-prime veterans, the Los Angeles Lakers are off to one of the most dramatic 0-2 starts in recent memory.
They haven't just dropped their first two games—Westbrook looks woefully out of place, big men are tussling on the bench, and Friday's 115-105 thumping at the hands of the Phoenix Suns (who led by 32 before extended garbage time kicked in) feels more like an exclamation point than another tally in the loss column.
Two games are just two games, though. It's way too early for sweeping takeaways, and there's reason to believe the talent eventually coalesces and all will be fine in La La Land.
That doesn't mean some of the concerns that have emerged aren't real. Even patient observers have to be a little uneasy. There might just be degrees of uneasiness on the following issues. What's a real cause for panic? And what will pass? Let's explore.
The On-Court Kerfuffle
We probably have to look at the drama surrounding Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard first. After Friday's blowout, it's the talk of the NBA Twitterverse.
Losing isn't fun, especially when you're saddled with the expectations of this team (this is the Lakers and a LeBron James squad, after all). And as the game was spiraling out of control in the second quarter, Davis pretty much chased Howard off the floor at the start of a timeout. After AD leaned over and into Howard's face, the backup center stood up. Eventually, the two got a little grabby and had to be separated.
As much as I'd like to think that this was an argument over Davis making the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team over Howard spilling into a game, the reality is probably quite a bit less dramatic.
Teammates get into it all the time. The point this reached is typically reserved for practices, but anyone who has spent any amount of time around a team competing at a high level knows that tempers sometimes flare.
These two have won a title together, and L.A.'s ability to go big and physically punish opponents was an important part of that 2020 run.
Whatever missed assignment, miscommunication or sore feelings led to the tie-up, they'll be old news after a few wins.
Panic Meter: It'll pass
The Russell Westbrook Conundrum
Westbrook was minus-23 in a seven-point loss to the Golden State Warriors on opening night. He was 4-of-13 from the field, 0-of-4 from three and had four turnovers, four fouls and four assists.
On a team with LeBron and AD, Westbrook was forcing drives and jumpers that simply weren't there for most of the night. And though garbage time helped his box score Friday, most of the same issues persisted against the Suns.
This is now the third straight season in which Westbrook appears to be trying to prove himself in a new surrounding.
With the Houston Rockets in 2019-20, things didn't turn around till the team completely upended its style of play, traded Clint Capela and stopped playing traditional centers altogether.
His absurd late-season surge with the Washington Wizards in 2020-21 was kickstarted by a five-game absence for Bradley Beal in March and April.
In both cases, months into the campaigns, Westbrook's teams eventually ceded some control and buckled in for Russ-ball. As hard as that was with James Harden and Beal, such a concession would be even more drastic on this team.
LeBron has been one of the game's most reliable offensive engineers for nearly two decades, and over the last two seasons, his chemistry with AD has made the Lakers a contender.
Through 2019-20 and 2020-21, L.A. was plus-10.4 points per 100 possessions with LeBron and AD on the floor. And in those lineups, both stars had usage percentages north of 25. Dennis Schroder, meanwhile, was at 18.7 percent when he shared the floor with those two. Westbrook's usage has been over 30 in every season since 2009-10
You see where this is going?
In Houston and Washington, appeasing Russ and his unique style meant sacrifice for one star. In L.A., there are two superstar mouths to feed. If the Lakers try to pigeonhole Westbrook into being the off-ball threat, things are going to get terribly crowded in a hurry.
He can't shoot (at least not by NBA standards). He's never had an above-average three-point percentage, and he's been below average from the free-throw line since 2016-17. Defenses know darn well that they don't need to extend to the three-point line when Russ doesn't have the ball.
He doesn't do much as a cutter, either. Westbrook has spent so much of his career dominating the ball that he almost looks lost when he doesn't have it. He just sort of stands, and offense suddenly feels like a four-on-five slog.
Again, it's too early to jump ship. The situations were different in Houston and Washington, but they did get better. LeBron has been a high-end problem solver his entire career. They may figure this out too. But when things look just like the biggest detractors of this trade worried they might, it's fair to panic a bit.
Panic Meter: It's a real concern
Lack of Depth
LeBron's teams struggling when he's off the floor has been a feature of the overwhelming majority of his career. Only two of his 19 squads had positive net ratings when he wasn't in the game.
That probably shouldn't be too surprising. LeBron is one of the greatest players of all time and operates like a one-man offense when he plays. In a salary-capped league, that's tough for second units to replicate.
For the reserves on this Lakers squad, it looks like that'll continue to be a problem. Garbage time boosted the raw plus-minuses of some reserves Friday, but the general prospects for non-LeBron lineups look bleak at the moment.
The good news, of course, is that L.A.'s fourth- and fifth-highest paid players, Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, will both be back at some point. Same goes for Wayne Ellington and Trevor Ariza. Injecting four rotation players, at least two of whom are expected to make real contributions, could instantly alleviate some concerns.
They probably won't get rid of them altogether, though. The Lakers are old. There's no getting around that. In fact, this is one of the oldest rosters of the last 20 years. Injuries often accompany aging, and though AD is one of the few rotation players under 30, he has a pretty significant injury history. A groin issue against these same Suns in the first round of the 2021 postseason derailed their last playoff run.
Depth could be a struggle for the entire 2021-22 season, but we'll default to optimism on this one.
Panic Meter: It'll (probably) pass