Los Angeles Lakers Won't Be Contenders Until LeBron James Gets Help

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistDecember 22, 2021

Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James, left, and Anthony Davis watch from the bench during second half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Phoenix Suns on Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Suns won 108-90. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

It should be noted at the outset that the Los Angeles Lakers haven't been whole all season. Kendrick Nunn, the team's fifth-highest-paid player, has yet to appear in a game. A handful of Lakers are now in the NBA's health and safety protocols. And Anthony Davis is now expected to be out for a month or more with a sprained MCL.

LeBron James was already being asked to do a lot, but this avalanche of unavailability may finally show his mortality.

On Tuesday, James scored 34 points on 13-of-19 shooting, played through a turned ankle in the third quarter and his team still got blown out by the Phoenix Suns, 108-90. Yes, that's almost 40 percent of L.A.'s points. And the rest of the Lakers shot 30.9 percent from the field.

As Talen Horton-Tucker and Isaiah Thomas hoisted up brick after brick (those two combined to shoot 2-of-24 from the field and 0-of-14 from three against Phoenix), it became clear that even LeBron can't carry this burden.

For years, he and spare parts were usually enough to at least be competitive. Those days may be gone. And even if L.A. eventually gets its entire roster together, the evidence suggests this might not be a contender.

AD was supposed to be the heir apparent to LeBron, but his box plus-minus has plummeted since these two won a title together in 2020. (BPM "is a basketball box score-based metric that estimates a basketball player's contribution to the team when that player is on the court," according to Basketball Reference.)

This season, over 60 percent of his shots have come from beyond three feet, and he's shooting just 35.6 percent on those looks. Since joining the Lakers, he's become more of a jump-shooter without improving as a jump-shooter.

He's still on the right side of 30, but if this decline continues, more reliance on LeBron will be unavoidable.

Of course, that was part of why the Lakers traded multiple rotation players for Russell Westbrook. His playmaking and nightly tenacity were supposed to relieve LeBron of some of that pressure. While he's had his good moments, performances like Tuesday's have been common.

With seven turnovers against the Suns, Westbrook had his 13th game with at least five giveaways. James Harden is the only player in the league with more. He's also minus-50 on the year and is on the wrong side of the plus-minus ledger in exactly half his appearances.

Chaos generated by Westbrook's drives has often led to defensive breakdowns and open looks for his teammates. This season, chaos has mostly just led to, well, chaos. Right now, he's posting the fourth-worst assist-to-turnover ratio of his career.

All the discouraging numbers aside, L.A. is plus-5.1 (78th percentile) points per 100 possessions when its three #NBA75 players are on the floor. More time together, and more time with the role players they signed this offseason, could drive that number up.

But advanced age and good health haven't always gone hand in hand in NBA history. That was a concern when L.A. assembled the league's oldest roster. So, we can say "wait until they get healthy" as much as we want. Thing is, this group may never get healthy, at least not all at the same time.

That means loads of responsibility for LeBron, whose usage percentage is 27.8 even when Westbrook and Davis are on the floor (it's 31.1 when either or both are off).

In less than 10 days, LeBron will be 37 years old. And there are only four players in league history who topped his current usage percentage in an age-37 (or older) season.

Of the players ahead of him (Michael Jordan in 2001-02, Kobe Bryant in 2015-16, Karl Malone in 2000-01 and Dominique Wilkins in 1996-97), three were on teams that finished below .500. The Spurs and Lakers teams had 20 and 17 wins, respectively.

In short, there isn't a great track record for teams asking players as old as LeBron to use nearly a third of their possessions. And based on what we've seen so far, the 2021-22 Lakers joining the other sub-.500 teams listed above wouldn't be shocking.

LeBron is posting his lowest BPM since his rookie season, and Davis and Dwight Howard are the only other Lakers with above-average marks there.

In a conference with teams as deep as the Suns, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz, that's just not going to cut it (not to mention the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls out East).

Most of the supporting cast is going to be erratic. That's sort of the nature of supporting casts. But Davis and Westbrook have to be better.

In October, both were named among the top 76 players in NBA history as part of the league's 75th anniversary celebration. Both should still be in their primes (though Westbrook may be phasing out of his).

LeBron is almost 37, and he can't drag the Lakers to contention by himself. He needs the other two stars to be stars.