Why Big Changes Are Unlikely for Lakers amid Russell Westbrook, Coaching Rumors

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMay 18, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers guard Russell Westbrook (0) controls the ball during an NBA basketball game against the New Orleans Pelicans in Los Angeles, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Ashley Landis/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers' experiment of partnering Russell Westbrook with LeBron James and Anthony Davis this past season was, by most accounts, a failure. It provided plenty of discussion points for the media, but the results on the court were disastrous.

Los Angeles finished with a paltry 33 wins, missed the postseason entirely and fired coach Frank Vogel following the season.

While the Lakers watch the conference finals from home, they're busy working on changes for the 2022-23 season. A significant overhaul, however, is extremely unlikely.

There are multiple reasons for this, starting with the fact that L.A. won't have a first-round pick in the 2022 NBA draft. The team was awarded the No. 8 pick in Tuesday's draft lottery, but that selection is going to the New Orleans Pelicans as part of the Davis trade—a fact New Orleans was quick to celebrate on social media.

New Orleans Pelicans @PelicansNBA

Pelicans take Lakers’ first-round pick, will select No. 8 overall: https://t.co/r8QrQ3ovLI #NBADraftLottery https://t.co/5fMUOrMxe9

L.A.'s top-heavy roster is also a problem in terms of salary. According to Spotrac, the Lakers roster will cost $175.4 million next season, which means big free-agent signings are off the table. They're unlikely to glean cap relief from Westbrook, who will presumably exercise his $47 million player option.

Unless the Lakers are willing to part with future draft assets, Westbrook is the organization's biggest trade chip. Some might say that moving him would be good for the team, too, as Westbrook never found chemistry with the rest of the roster and had a disconnect with Vogel over his role in the offense.

"I think it's unfortunate, to be honest, because I've never had an issue with any of my coaches before," Westbrook said, 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."

However, finding a team to take on Westbrook and give up anything of value would be tricky. And the latest rumors seem to indicate that this isn't the route Los Angeles wants to take.

According to The Athletic's Sam Amick, L.A. has made Westbrook a focal point of its coaching search:

"Despite the widely held belief that the Lakers would find a way to trade Westbrook before the start of next season, sources say their coaching candidates have been asked to discuss how they would use him in their system during interviews. The takeaway for candidates, it seems, is that maximizing Westbrook's presence after his disastrous 2021-22 season is considered an important part of this job."

There has been some buzz about coaching adviser Phil Jackson preferring to trade James, though it's hard to pin down a source.

"I've heard that Phil would like LeBron traded," Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times told The Doug Gottlieb Show (h/t Jacob Rude of Silver Screen and Roll). "I've just heard that, but I've got nothing to back that up. No on-the-record stuff to back that up. I do know that Phil would like to keep Westbrook and try to make that work with him."

Even if Jackson would like to see James elsewhere, the 37-year-old appears destined to stay in L.A. for at least another season.

"If LeBron James ultimately decides against signing an extension with the Lakers in August, sources say [team president Jeanie] Buss wouldn't see his desire to play out the final season of his contract as a reason to consider trading him," Amick wrote earlier this month.

If the Lakers are going to see significant changes next season, they're going to have to come from a strategic standpoint and from the players themselves. James, Westbrook and Co. have to find ways to operate more effectively, and the next head coach may have to utilize a novel approach.

Trying to fit the roster into Vogel's system obviously didn't pan out. Likely as a result, the Lakers aren't locked into hiring another veteran coach, as Jovan Buha of The Athletic recently wrote:

"Lakers vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka made it clear that the team was going to take their time with the search and that one of the most important coaching qualities would be gravitas. That suggests a coach with experience, but several of the first-year candidates they've been linked to are former players that are known to command respect."

Buha noted that there isn't a clear front-runner for the job, though he mentioned Milwaukee Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts as the two early favorites.

Eric Nehm of The Athletic mentioned Bucks assistant Charles Lee as another target for the Lakers.

Whether Los Angeles goes with an experienced head coach or a first-timer, it needs to find someone who will command the respect of and work with the team's big personalities. If the sort of player-coach disconnect we saw this past season exists, the Lakers will have little hope of improving.

It's going to require a total team effort from the players, the front office and the next coach for Los Angeles to be successful in the 2022-23 season. Finding the right fit for Westbrook should be one of the first steps.

"When the decision was made to fire Vogel, there was a belief from on high that Westbrook wasn't put in a position to succeed," Amick wrote.

Enough cohesion could bring the sort of on-court change that the Lakers need—and it's the only real change fans are likely to see.

Outside of a few tweaks to the supporting cast, it's looking like next year's roster will be much the same as the one we watched this past season.