Sports

The Lakers Solve Their Biggest Problem With an Even Bigger Problem

One of the benefits of building a team around LeBron James is the way he sees through the seemingly infinite possibilities of a possession and, in an instant, prioritizes them in a way that usually wins. And one of the great curiosities of this Lakers era—championship season and all—is the way the front office has leveraged that superpower by challenging it, prioritizing other needs in ways that often make LeBron’s on-the-court reality more difficult. Just look at his point guards. The value in bringing in Rajon Rondo wasn’t to elevate LeBron, but to bring order when the superstar forward sat. That they shared the floor as much as they did in the 2020 playoffs was almost a fluke. The expressed goal of trading for Dennis Schröder (and, to an extent, signing Montrezl Harrell) was also to ease the burden on LeBron, though again by making the team more viable in his absence. It didn’t work; the Lakers lost their minutes without James on the floor in the regular season and lost them by an even wider margin in the playoffs.

This time, they went big, agreeing to a blockbuster trade on Thursday to land former MVP Russell Westbrook. Completing the deal with the Wizards (and matching Westbrook’s hefty salary) cost the Lakers Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and the no. 22 pick in Thursday night’s draft (which the Wizards then traded for Aaron Holiday). It’s a giant swing from a franchise that honestly had the luxury to play it safer. You don’t exactly need a ball-dominant lead guard when you already have James and Anthony Davis, but the Lakers opted to continue down the same path they had before, only further and faster as befits their new hard-driving point.

It’s a compliment to LeBron, in a way, to look at a roster that broke down in the first round last season and see the minutes without James (and the games without him) as the Lakers’ greatest need. It also might take for granted how difficult his job still is. James, creeping up on 37, is at a stage in his career when it makes more sense than ever to tailor lineups to his strengths. Give him veterans, but more importantly, give him space. The fact that LeBron can triage his team’s scoring options as well as any player in the history of the sport doesn’t preclude him from also needing to attack and physically move defenders to make the best look possible.

Westbrook, for all his production, complicates those efforts. Defenders don’t guard Westbrook on the perimeter when he doesn’t have the ball, nor should they; while playing on teams with James Harden and Bradley Beal over the last two seasons, Westbrook shot a miserable 29.5 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, according to data from Second Spectrum. Westbrook is too comprehensive a force to be reduced to his 3-point percentage, though in a way, that’s part of the issue. The Lakers have acquired a guard whose skill set cannot help but dictate the terms of the offense. And in doing so, they made a huge commitment—in usage, in minutes, and in the fiber of who they are as a team.

This is bigger than fit. Everywhere Westbrook goes, teams change around him. Assaulting defenses as he does forces stars to stand by and bigs to wait their turn. Opponents have to adjust to the pressure he puts on the rim, but once they do, Westbrook doesn’t have many ways to modulate his game. He’s either operating at a dead sprint or standing still. He has control of the offense or he’s off to the side. He creates opportunities—just last season, Westbrook led the league in total assists, assist percentage, and assists per game—but becomes more limited and less interesting when he tries to play off of other stars. What does that mean for LeBron? Or for Davis? There’s a reason Westbrook will soon play for his fourth team in four seasons. The last two—the Rockets and Wizards—talked themselves into trading for him and got more than they bargained for. He came, he put up triple-doubles, he pulled their entire team into his orbit, and after an unceremonious end to the season, he lobbied for a way out.

Both of those franchises were desperate in their own way, as it seems the Lakers must be, too. On Thursday afternoon, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported on the Lakers’ negotiations toward a counterpoint deal that would have sent Kuzma and Harrell to Sacramento for sharpshooter Buddy Hield, a more measured gesture toward supplementary shot creation. If the construction of the deal were really that straightforward, it would have allowed the Lakers to keep Caldwell-Pope, their first-round pick, and maybe even encouraged them to re-sign Schröder, too. The Westbrook deal was more notable, which has a currency all its own in that particular market, but risks tipping the balance of a team that even with marginal additions could have walked into next season as one of the West’s most convincing contenders.

Instead, six of the team’s seven leaders in made 3s last season are either unrestricted free agents or already gone. A few (like Alex Caruso and Wesley Matthews) could re-sign, and perhaps other shooters might join for the veteran’s minimum or the taxpayer’s midlevel exception specifically for the chance to vie for a title with James, Davis, and Westbrook. Still, that leaves so much to chance, especially as LeBron’s career winds—at its own luxurious pace—toward its close. There are no signs that the end is especially near. There are, however, markers of an older superstar who needs help beyond a point guard who can steer the ship a while, or in Westbrook’s case, commandeer it whether asked or not.

This was a team that needed a new plan should James or Davis suffer another injury but then solved those logistical concerns in just about the most dramatic way possible. Maybe it doesn’t matter; those two stars took a strange, flawed roster all the way to the 2020 championship, with no teammate anywhere near as talented or prolific as Westbrook. Yet at this point, LeBron and AD are also the only members of that title team under contract, which means most of what they’ve built will have to be built anew. Everything changed the minute they traded for Russell Westbrook. That was the point, and that was the cost.



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