Is LeBron and a dream still enough?
The hard math of the 2022 Lakers
BY DAVID THORPE
Clinging to a one point lead with just over a minute to play, Russell Westbrook did what everyone expected him to do. He used an Anthony Davis screen to race downhill and attack Steven Adams, who was protecting the rim from exactly this kind of drive.
Westbrook seemed to go from 20 feet out to two inches in the blink of an eye. Adams got big but didn’t foul. Westbrook’s right-hander missed, but Carmelo Anthony muscled his way to follow and had the easiest putback of his career. If Anthony hadn’t gotten the putback, Anthony Davis probably would have. Then the Lakers hit four straight free throws and won the game.
A few months ago, it looked like Vegas was correct, and the Lakers would be in the hunt for their second NBA title in three seasons. Forty games into the season they were decent at 21-19.
That’s as good as it got. At the 73 games played mark of the season following Monday's win in Cleveland, here is LA’s season divided into quarters:
First quarter 9-9
Second quarter 8-10
Third quarter 9-9
Fourth quarter 5-14
Without the new play-in, the ninth-seeded Lakers would be iffy to make the postseason at all. (Two weeks ago, TrueHoop did not include them on our Championship Bus that had room for 12 teams.)
But maybe we have been hasty. LeBron James has been an impeccable magician, putting up performances that defy odds and belief. It has been wrong, essentially forever, to bet against LeBron solving problems on the basketball court. Some Vegas betting sites rank the Lakers in the top 10 in line for who will win the NBA title. For instance, a recent story from a deeply sourced Athletic reporter:
My friend Chris Broussard agrees that the Lakers still loom with title potential:
The Lakers are not dismissed lightly. LeBron has dominated the last two decades of the league. Is that over? Isn’t Anthony Davis one of the best big men in the history of the game and a recent MVP candidate?
Can they turn it on? Is there a scenario where this team could succeed in four of seven games against a first-round opponent as good as the Suns?
Or are the Lakers about as good as their miserable record?
I decided to take a deeper look, to try to see if the Lakers are just doomed by their very nature, or instead might have the kinds of problems that could, if everything breaks right, go away for a playoff run. Answering that means first understanding what is really wrong with these Lakers. Before we know if it’s fatal, we must identify the disease.
Plan A is toast
The preseason version of this team, a Vegas favorite, looked to exploit opponents with the LeBron-Anthony Davis duo. Russell Westbrook, who finished last season surging in DC, was going to be the engine that carried the team when one of that duo was out. Third-year pro Talen Horton-Tucker was expected to have a career season, or play well enough to command a better veteran on a tanking team in a trade. And new acquisitions like Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn would bring energy, shooting, and much needed auxiliary scoring to that future Hall of Fame trio.
In a word, what’s actually happened is, well, best described as a collapse.
Davis has played in half (37) of their games to date, just like last season. Monk has proved to be a very good shooter, and that’s it. Nunn has yet to recover from a bruised knee dating back to last summer, so he has not played in a single game. Horton-Tucker took a big step backward, reminding us it's a myth that LeBron always makes every teammate better. And Westbrook, in advanced stats, is contributing about as much to the Lakers as Bones Hyland is to the Nuggets.
For this to work, the Lakers needed a lot from their new roster, and they aren’t getting it. The plan has failed.
Davis played well, maybe even very well, over his 37 appearances. But he was not the dynamic superstar he was when they won the title in 2020. The difference between “very well” and “elite” is vast. The expectation when he arrived in LA was that as LeBron aged out of being the league's best player, AD would take his place, and LeBron’s brilliant passing would service that change perfectly. We saw the origins of that story when they won the championship, as LeBron led the entire NBA with 10.2 assists per game.
With Davis out half of the last two seasons, and the addition of the high-usage Westbrook, that plan is toast. Instead, LeBron is scoring more. LeBron averaged 13.9 assists per 100 possessions in the 19-20 season, it dropped to 11.9 last season, and this year he’s at 8.1, his lowest total since the 2006-07 season. It isn’t a coincidence that LeBron is leading the league in scoring at 30 points per game, or that his 38.8 points per 100 possessions is the most he’s scored in a decade. Without Davis, and with Westbrook's horrible shooting, James has to score all night.
It’s also not a coincidence that with Davis out and no other big man available to do much on offense, LeBron has moved to being more of a paint scorer than ever. He’s become a brilliant screen and roller, and his feel for finding an open crease in the crowded paint is almost eye-opening, if we were not mostly expecting him to continue to be shockingly good. But they come at a cost to his passing. He can’t manage the game quite as effectively from the post or pinch post as he once could on the perimeter.
That increases Westbrook’s influence. In the season he led the league in assists per 100, he averaged 5.3 turnovers per 100 possession vs. 13.9 assists. Now Westbrook is averaging way fewer assists (8.6 per 100) and a similar high number of turnovers (4.6). The Lakers offense, according to DunksandThrees.com, ranked eighth on offense overall in 2020. This year they are 23rd.
In the last five games, Westbrook has tightened up his repertoire considerably. He’s still an epic ball stopper even when LeBron’s on the court. But Instead of dribbling into unlikely 3s he is focused on an effective collection of shots:
If there’s no help ready, he just flies past his man at the rim, especially in early offense. He has a harder time stopping, and controlling his speed, but he still has jets.
He is quick getting his man into the post, where he has a little one-legged Dirk jumper working from the right side, and a bank shot from the left.
He has scored several recent buckets from just hanging around the rim.
As a result, his offensive efficiency over the last five games is way up, which is a twist on a season when every missed shot and turnover has been the dead weight pulling the offense from the efficiency it needs. Westbrook is on the short list of players who have, at one time or another, led the league in both missed shots and turnovers.
Plan B: Can LeBron walk on water?
He’s the best 37-year-old in basketball history, he is likely the greatest all-time NBA player too. Through much of his career he has played well enough, at both ends of the floor, to make this roster decent.
On offense, LeBron sees all. Omniscient is the word that comes to mind. His brain is similarly magnificent on defense. We know he’s decades away from experiencing a loss of brain power. (Benjamin Franklin, the LeBron James of his time as an inventor, didn’t even begin that phase of his life until his 40s.) LeBron, in a league of brilliantly fast processors, is still atop that list. He knows where everyone should be, especially himself.
And this year he has been mind-bendingly brilliant with the ball. There have been many good articles and videos about it, but for the record he has been in the top three percent of the NBA in offensive Estimated Plus-Minus since 2005, including right now. He’s scoring a career-best 32.3 points per 40 minutes, while playing more than he has in a half decade at 37 minutes a game.
But on a Lakers roster that demands constant miracles, he’s not up to it. If we accept that Plan A failed, Plan B is also failing because of LeBron himself. As ironic as that sounds, considering he is putting up record scoring numbers, the cold fact is that of his last 15 NBA seasons, this ranks as his 13th best, by Estimated Plus-Minus, Earned Wins, or Win Shares or just about any other measure you want to use. The spaceship of his career is slowly returning to earth.
This version of LeBron is nowhere close to his best. Maybe you forgot, but what we see from him now in highlights–the brilliance and ferocity–used to happen every quarter, in every game. His skills have improved in some areas, his mind and vision have never been better, but that electric and explosive body only shows up sometimes, especially on defense. When it does, it’s mesmerizing. At that age, though, it just can’t happen enough.
In addition to carrying a huge offensive load, this defensively inferior roster challenges him to account for the sins of teammates who are nowhere near as savvy as his Laker teammates who won a title in the bubble.
LeBron has disintegrated from one of the world’s best defenders to just an above average one. Why? Because at this age, he can’t generate the energy to excel everywhere all over the court, at both ends, every night. It’s neither his mind nor his lungs, it’s his legs. He is capable of the spectacular, to be sure. But he long had the impulse to make brilliant free safety-like reads all over the court, racing to solve every problem. That takes more running and racing than he can offer, which means he isn’t capable of anchoring an elite defense any more.
The sunniest Lakers fan (of which I was for all of Magic Johnson’s career–I wore a Lakers Swatch in college), can hope he’ll summon that for four games out of seven in the playoffs. It’s not impossible. But, I’m in a tank top writing this while it’s 80 degrees outside in Clearwater. There’s a mathematical possibility it could snow here tomorrow, but … it’s just not remotely likely.
Don’t forget that to a player LeBron’s age extreme effort comes with elevated injury risk, something LeBron has to worry about more than ever. If he misses one more game this year, he will have missed 19 games–equal to the games he missed the first five seasons of his career combined. For the Lakers to go on a long playoff run, they need the LeBron he’s been all year, taking as little risk as possible. For the Lakers to survive and advance, they also need him to be dramatically improved on defense. See the problem?
Of course, this LeBron on a better roster (Hello Cleveland!!) would be in contention. He’s having the best season ever for someone who turned 37. The problem shouldn’t be that he isn’t as good as he was, the problem is that wasn’t baked into the roster construction.
The current Laker defense
Smashmouth basketball carried the Lakers to the 2020 title. They bullied teams on defense and in the paint on both ends. Frank Vogel didn’t win any offensive ingenuity that season, but who cares? The man knows how to build a defense worthy of a champion. With LeBron’s unique athleticism, Vogel installed a power based and positional defense, leading the league in blocked shots and finishing fifth in steals on their way to the championship.
A decade or so earlier, Erik Spoelstra utilized his team's speed to cause chaos to opposing offenses. Trapping ball handlers and racing to rotate effectively, the Heat were second in the league in points off turnovers and picked people’s pockets all the time.
Their speed around the court put opposing ball handlers into a panic, so focused on where the trap might come from that they forgot to take care of their dribble. Three Heat players finished among the league leaders in steals: Mario Chalmers averaged 2.7 a game, LeBron and Shane Battier were both over 2.
This year, the Lakers try to create chaos with steals in passing lanes or on the dribbler, and blocked shots inside, and are pretty good at it, but there’s no panic in opponents. LeBron leads the Lakers with 1.3 steals per game. Teams do fine trying to score against the Lakers. Opponents make 53.5 percent (effective field goal percentage, 21st in the NBA) of their shots from the field and over 17 points a game from the free-throw line. Not at all terrible, just not nearly enough to pull them through any series.
Alex Caruso is in Chicago. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma are in the nation's capital, and Anthony Davis has played so seldomly that he can’t be expected to be in top shape come the playoffs. Even if LeBron could ratchet up his energy on defense all game long and still provide elite offense, the Lakers will still be doomed in the playoffs because of all the poor defenders on the floor.
Who is going to guard Devin Booker? What’s the plan to stop Chris Paul pick-and-rolls?
That’s where this will all end. If the Lakers get by the Pelicans for the eighth seed (possibly featuring Zion Williamson). The Suns are not just the far superior team, or a team on a clear mission, considering their success all season. They are also going to have extra motivation, thanks to Davis saying in an interview that the Lakers would have beaten the Suns last season if not for injuries. Chris Paul is already a manic competitor on the best team of his career. Add those comments to his list of reasons why his team will be hitting on all cylinders beginning day one of the playoffs. The Suns will not be casual.
Frank Vogel can teach defense
LeBron and AD are amazing together. A year from now, if everyone is back and healthy, these Lakers could be formidable. Vogel would have a full offseason to design and implement a defensive system and strategy for these players. Perhaps they can nudge Westbrook to a lesser role. Nunn might finally be on the court, a good player who absolutely would make a difference as a quick athlete and a scorer/tough guy. Horton-Tucker is only 21, and would have a full season of reference points to help create his off-season training curriculum, thus giving him a real chance to be better next year. Carmelo Anthony has proved to be helpful, provided his role is limited to serving as an offensive booster occasionally. If he were to average 12 minutes a game rather than this season’s 27, the Lakers would be better for it.
In other words, they’d have a good core, even a very good one.
Alas, none of that seems bankable. LeBron has already spoken of the Cavs in glowing terms. Davis’ health will permanently be in question. Who knows if Vogel will get another chance. Those events alone are enough to rock this already unstable boat. Management failed to supply enough talent for Vogel, and LeBron, to create systems that could withstand these injuries. (The Nuggets, Clippers, and to a lesser extent, the Heat, Bucks, Suns, and since the trade deadline, the Pelicans have shown it can be done.)
Wholesale changes seem certain. Maybe the team can draft or acquire young players with the abilities to help a team immediately. We keep thinking Westbrook's contract is impossible to trade, but we have always been wrong, perhaps they can move him and get back someone who fits the new strategies better. Assuming they have a new coach next year, can he or she mesh with LeBron?
Before the season, I thought this team would win 55 games but stumble in the playoffs. Circumstances delivered a very different season. Either way, the outlook is grim, in the short and medium term. If LeBron hopes to win a fifth ring, he’s going to have to go elsewhere.
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