This much is guaranteed: The Lakers will look different this season. Really different.
And yet, as the 2021-22 campaign launches Tuesday with the franchise introducing a roster with only three players back from last season, there are a number of toppings rolling off the tongue that carry a familiar ring. Every season has become a vigil on LeBron James’ dominant prime – how much longer can it last? All Lakers fans have developed a sensitivity to seeing Anthony Davis fall to the court; have rolled their eyes at 3-point shooting slumps; spend a chunk of their free time wondering if the supporting cast to the stars has the juice to pull out wins.
So while Russell Westbrook’s fiery motor and pace will undoubtedly put a new spin on Lakers basketball this season, the fourth year of the James era poses many of the same questions and is haunted by the same anxieties. And the expectations – once again firmly at championship-or-bust level – mean the stakes can’t be higher.
The on-court product figures to be a dazzling fast-break machine on paper, but last season’s injury-plagued run illustrated the value of piecing chemistry together in the abstract. General Manager Rob Pelinka bet on experience and star power, with nine players who are 32 or older, but with considerably more playoff games under their belts. This is a franchise that places big bets on star power to outshine the competition, but during training camp, eyes will be peeled to see how those stars align.
Here are the five biggest stories to follow as the Lakers roll into camp, with their first preseason game set for Sunday afternoon against the rival contender Brooklyn Nets:
How do Russ and LeBron fit?
Pelinka has touted that the Lakers went into the offseason hoping for another playmaker to pair with James, who will turn 37 in December. In that sense, it’s hard to argue with the NBA’s career leader in triple-doubles, who is annually among the top assist men in the league. But as we know, Westbrook is so much more than that – forceful, athletic and stubborn, even to a fault.
That’s where the questions start: One expects two former MVPs to figure it out and find a style that gels. But this is highly divergent from the traditional formula of surrounding James with 3-point shooting, a template that has led to championships in the past. Westbrook, 32, does many things as well as anyone on the court, but shooting is his weakness, and it has turned a player who was once a franchise centerpiece into an annual trade chip. It didn’t work in Oklahoma City (at least not to the potential most thought), it didn’t work in Houston, and it didn’t work in Washington.
But Westbrook has never played with a teammate like James, who has experienced success at the highest level. This was a pairing he and James wanted, one they discussed before he was traded to L.A., his hometown.
“Bron is one of the best players to play this game and his ability to be able to kind of do everything on the floor allows me to be able to just figure it out,” Westbrook said in August. “I’m coming to a championship-caliber team and my job is to make sure that I’m able to make his game easier for him and I’ll find ways to do that throughout the game.”
Westbrook has all the motivation in the world to fit in, and historically, he has the talent. It might come down to whether he’s willing to follow through on his word to find ways to fit around James, and if the two can coexist on the floor in key games.
How much center does Davis want to play?
Talk about your mixed signals. Several people in the organization have told Southern California News Group they expect Davis to play more center this season. And yet in signing Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, Pelinka said last week that the Lakers hoped to return to the two-big model that defined the 2019-20 team. Having both Jordan and Howard, rim-running defenders who don’t shoot much from outside the rim, indicates that the franchise is leaning in the direction of letting Davis off the hook for most of the regular season center minutes.
Then again – The Athletic reported Monday that Davis could start at center, meaning one of the Lakers’ biggest talking points since trading for the rangy big man could continue. It’s up to Coach Frank Vogel to manage his lineups as he sees fit, and the Lakers could go small with both Trevor Ariza and Carmelo Anthony (as old as they are) to soak up minutes at power forward.
The argument for Davis to play center is pretty straightforward: Last season, the Lakers outscored opponents by 16.9 points per 100 possessions when he was in the middle, according to stat site Cleaning the Glass. Playing small spreads defenses out, giving cleaner lanes for James and Westbrook. Vogel said recently on a Spectrum SportsNet appearance that Davis looks “imposing” coming off a full offseason, fueling speculation that he’s physically ready for more minutes there. But his general preference for playing power forward isn’t likely to change, and the Lakers now have a roster to allow him to play there.
Is there enough shooting?
The Lakers have finished 21st in the league in 3-point shooting in the last two seasons: Two years ago, they still finished atop the Western Conference standings. Last season, the shooting struggles were a constant headache that hamstrung an offense that finished in the bottom third of the league. Injuries were obviously the primary cause, but the shooting started drying up well before Davis and James were shelved.
To the front office’s credit, the Lakers brought in players who can light it up from deep: Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk among them. But good shooters have had a habit of seeing their percentages drop as Lakers, just as Wes Matthews and Dennis Schröder did last year.
One of the reasons the Lakers opted for experience was to get players who would be comfortable firing shots off passes from James and Westbrook, who can find the open man as well as anyone in the league. But it would be beneficial this season if the supporting cast can find a rhythm from outside, creating space for the stars to work their way into the paint where they operate best.
Can Vogel keep the defensive standards high?
Despite all odds last year, the Lakers finished as the top-ranked defense in the league. That is a resounding endorsement of Vogel’s system and part of the reason he got a contract extension in the offseason. But this season will be the biggest challenge yet, as the Lakers swapped out key cogs in the smothering defenses of the last two years – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Alex Caruso – for less sound defensive parts.
There are a multitude of personnel challenges: There are aging defenders like Ariza and Jordan who aren’t as good as they used to be. There are players such as Rajon Rondo and Anthony who have had trouble getting stops for the last few seasons. There are players like Monk and Talent Horton-Tucker who haven’t shown that they can capably play defense yet.
The roster construction will place considerable responsibility on Davis, who still hopes to one day win Defensive Player of the Year, James and Westbrook as two-way performers. For Westbrook in particular, this will take more discipline than he’s shown on that side of the ball in a long time. Having Howard helps restore the 2019-20 culture of how those championship Lakers approached defense, with enthusiasm and pride, but there are inarguably fewer proven tools to work with to re-construct that fearsome unit.
Is age a benefit, or a hindrance?
The Lakers have overhauled their performance staff this season and hired even more personnel, which is appropriate for a team that will stretch the definition of “timeless.” Many of the key players are getting older: The Lakers will have five players with at least 15 years of experience, all of whom are at least 35 years old. As much as that indicates the roster will have disciplined, serious-minded competitors, that also means a lot of work in the training room to keep this team on the court.It’s probably going to be impossible to forget this roster is creaky. James suffered his longest injury absence of his career last year, and never truly got healthy again. Davis has a well-documented pesky injury history. Westbrook has struggled to stay on the court in recent years after playing at least 80 games in seven of his first 10 seasons. And that’s the tip of the iceberg.
Trevor Ariza saw the sunnier side of that in his Lakers’ introduction last month: “I believe the upside to that is we’ve all seen so much in this league that nothing surprises us. We understand how long the season is, how to pace yourself, how to take care of your body.”
If the Lakers get to that last stage of the season, experience is a terrific advantage to have. But the collective age of the roster makes it a challenge to get all the way to the finish line fully intact.