Excuses for the Los Angeles Lakers' crummy start to the 2021-22 NBA season are ringing more hollow with each passing game. Their latest letdown, a 119-115 loss to the L.A. Clippers on Friday night, is no exception.
"Ifs" and "buts" remain available in ample supply for the romantics among us. What if Trevor Ariza wasn't sidelined all season, so far, with a right ankle injury? But what about the bright spots, like Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk? What if LeBron James never missed time with a strained abdomen? Or if he never got caught in health-and-safety-protocol limbo this past week?
All valid questions. They're also immaterial. Every team is dealing with stuff. Adversity is part and parcel of an 82-game season. Teams can only work within the circumstances they've created and been dealt. To this point, the Lakers are not especially equipped to do either.
They're supposed to be a title contender. They're instead .500, with a bottom-seven net rating, despite playing one of the league's three easiest schedules. Indulging concern is not performative. It's obligatory.
With that in mind, let's take stock of which issues, among the many plaguing them, the Lakers should be worried about most.
6. LeBron's 37th Birthday
Father Time comes for everyone. Not even LeBron is immune. He's just yet to lose the battle.
Emphasis on yet.
LeBron's strained abdomen, however anomalous, served as a reminder he won't be around in a megastar capacity forever. That injury cost him roughly half the season. It may sound extreme, and a stark decline should not be the expectation, but his 37th birthday on Dec. 30 looms as an unsettling milestone knowing how much the Lakers still depend on him—and given that he's already reaching the rim at a career-lowish clip.
5. Free-Throw Shooting
In the grand scheme, their foul-line choppiness isn't killing them. They're getting outscored by roughly 1.2 made free throws per 100 possessions. But when you're not among the Association's premier outside-shooting teams—or, for that matter, offenses in general—every little difference, good or bad, means a whole lot.
To wit: Among the five Lakers players who have attempted the most free throws, only one is hitting at least 76 percent of his attempts (Anthony). At best, this is inconvenient.
At worst, it will cost the Lakers games—kind of like it did Friday when they missed eight of their 21 foul shots in a contest they lost by four points.
4. The Westbrook Fit
Let's make one thing clear: Russell Westbrook is not the problem. Hell, lately, he's not even a problem.
Through his last 13 games, Westbrook is averaging 21.5 points and 8.7 assists while connecting on 52.3 percent of his twos and 36.7 percent of his threes. The Lakers have played opponents almost to a draw with him on the court during this stretch. That's progress.
It's also not ideal.
Marginally losing the minutes your starting point guard logs is hardly a moral victory. The Lakers acquired him to elevate their ceiling with and without LeBron. He has done neither; the latter is thus far an outright failure.
Select lineups with all of the Lakers' stars are, in fact, getting the job done. They are plus-7.7 points per 100 possessions when LeBron, Russ and Anthony Davis play without another big. But the defense in these stints has remained shaky, owed largely to shoddy rim protection.
More than that, though, even the best version of Westbrook demands the Lakers play a certain way, with little to no wiggle room otherwise. That is an inherent obstacle for a team not built to maximize his offense, turnovers and all, without potentially short-circuiting their defense.
3. Head Coaching/The Starting Five
Frank Vogel's seat is getting warmer by the loss. There are moments in which it appears on the verge of burning into a smoldering heap.
Subsections of Lakers Twitter will claim he's the problem. He's not. He's also not blameless.
So many of his lineup decisions just haven't made sense. It took too long for him to ditch the Avery Bradley-DeAndre Jordan starting lineup, and when he finally did, he shrank the floor even further by inserting Talen Horton-Tucker and Dwight Howard. The Lakers have not been a poster child for second-half adjustments, either. They wouldn't be 24th in third-quarter point differential per 100 possessions if they were.
To what end Vogel is responsible for the Lakers' season remains debatable. He can only manage the roster at his disposal. It's not his fault that LeBron has missed half the year, that the Lakers consolidated better-fitting players into Westbrook, and that this team is no longer built to defend at a high level.
At the same time, it absolutely matters that Los Angeles is underachieving even when graded on a curve. And it certainly matters that AD has been quick to compliment the coaching of other teams:
2. The Defense/Roster Makeup
Opponents aren't getting particularly lucky in any one area. They're shooting 65.8 percent at the rim and 35.9 percent from three—marks that aren't terribly above the league average.
That the Lakers place 26th in defensive rebounding rate is unforgivable. Rival offenses are feasting on second-chance opportunities. That can't happen. Davis is tasked with flying around everywhere, but they are still starting two bigs.
Though they have done a relatively good job defending in transition, the Lakers still let opponents get on the break too often. And they're not setting themselves up nearly fast enough. They rank 25th in points allowed per possession after making a shot, according to Inpredictable.
Figuring out solutions verges on impossible when looking at the roster. The Lakers lost three of their five most important defenders from last season over the summer—Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Kyle Kuzma—and aren't getting the same level of stopping power from LeBron.
Generally speaking, the new-look roster is loaded with one-way personnel. They cannot cater to the offense without weakening themselves on defense and vice versa.
This is a wart that impacts every other concern. They can futz and fiddle with the starting five, but is there any possible iteration that profiles as more than a temporary answer? They can juice up the offense with four-out combinations, but will those units hold up on defense? And for how long? Do they even have anyone who can provide consistent point-of-attack defense?
1. Limited Capacity to Shake Things Up
If the Lakers' fortunes don't turn—and they may not—there will be relentless calls for change.
Good luck with that, Rob Pelinka.
The Lakers are not built to pivot on the trade market. Their three highest-paid players are either off-limits (LeBron, AD) or non-assets (Russ). Beyond their star trio, most of the roster cannot be traded until Dec. 15. Bradley cannot be shipped out until Dec. 17, and Horton-Tucker becomes trade-eligible Jan. 15.
On the bright side, that's pretty soon. The entire roster will be trade-eligible with time to spare before the Feb. 10 deadline. But what then?
THT and Kendrick Nunn are the fourth- and fifth-highest paid players on the docket, respectively. Everyone else is on a minimum deal. That's not conducive to making major moves.
Sure, the Lakers can combine the salaries of THT ($9 million) and Nunn ($5 million) to take back a player making around $18.2 million. Awesome. Eric Gordon, come on down! Except, this presupposes either THT or Nunn has a strong market. THT is only 21 and tantalizes on some nights, but he's hit-or-miss game to game. Nunn has yet to play this season while recovering from a right knee injury.
Sweetening packages founded upon salary filler is usually on the table. But not in this case. Not really. The Lakers can trade a first-round pick in 2027 or 2028, offer first-round swaps in 2023 and 2026 and dangle second-rounders.
Those distant firsts and swaps might be appealing, but opposing front offices typically don't have the job security to place premiums on draft picks three-plus years out. Plus, the Lakers have to weigh the trade-off of punting on super-long-term assets when LeBron is about to turn 37 and there's no plausible path to their landing a star as part of any deal.
Failing a miracle on the trade market, firing Vogel and working the buyout market are the most meaningful forms of change the Lakers can hope to explore. That's not exactly inspiring. And regardless of how they tweak their roster (or coaching staff), they're unlikely to fill every gap in their existence, a laundry list of voids that includes a point-of-attack stopper, a small-ball-5 option beyond LeBron and a wing (or two) who can both shoot and defend.