The Lakers are reeling.
After fighting its way to a semi-respectable 5-3 record to start the 2021-22 NBA season, LA has lost two games in a row, against very beatable teams, without All-Star LeBron James. All-Star Anthony Davis has been limited by an injury and an illness in both of those losses. The Lakers are now 5-5 and in danger of sliding fast.
The biggest issue in these defeats has, handily, been the remaining presumed All-Star on the roster (although he sure isn't playing like one), point guard Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook's confounding late-game decision-making almost singlehandedly doomed the Lakers in their 107-104 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier this week. The entire team collapsed against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday in a 105-90 defeat (the Lakers were down 100-68 before the deep-bench scrubs were brought in with eight minutes left), but certainly Westbrook was just as disappointing as everyone else. He went 1-of-13 from the field and posted a -20 plus-minus rating.
Westbrook leads the entire NBA in botched crunch-time three-point attempts. He's struggling to convert at the rim or from the floor in the same dominant way he used to. Even he knows that he's a weird fit for this team!
Rather than concede after ten underwhelming contests to start the year that offloading all of the team's depth to add a past-his-prime superstar who was always a dubious on-court fit, the move I'm worried the Lakers will make instead is a frequent knee-jerk reaction to disappointing NBA season starts.
This reporter is worried that the Lakers will fire third-year head coach Frank Vogel, who led the team to an NBA title in his first season with the club, and saw what's probably been the deepest LeBron-era Lakers squad get derailed by injuries last year. Vogel has consistently coached terrific NBA defenses outside of his Orlando Magic tenure, but he's playing with both hands tied behind his back here. The personnel is an awful fit for a Vogel team, and that starts with the ball-dominant Russell Westbrook struggling so hard not just on defense, but offense as well.
The team should admit its mistake and look to move Russell Westbrook, sooner rather than later. Players signed as free agents during the offseason become trade-eligible next month, so waiting that long makes more sense than flipping Westbrook right now. That said, with LeBron James possibly off the court for several weeks, and Anthony Davis struggling with frequent Anthony Davis maladies, LA could be in total free fall if it waits too long.
The Lakers could conceivably strive to make other post-deadline deals and reshape the club around its supposed new core of James, Davis and Westbrook. Los Angeles doesn't have a lot of players not making minimum-salaried contracts. Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, neither of whom has played a game for LA yet, are their two players signed to larger deals who, due to their youth, could be seen by rival teams to conceivably possess some upside, at least on offense.
Ever since Los Angeles opted to only extend Vogel with a paltry one-year deal during the offseason, speculation has run rampant that the team could be (confusingly) looking to move in another direction.
The issue is not the coaching, although some rotation choices (continually starting DeAndre Jordan at center outside of two Rockets games, playing Westbrook and Rajon Rondo together) certainly don't inspire total confidence. The issue is roster construction, on which one must blame team president Rob Pelinka and probable shadow-GM LeBron James. They signed a bunch of old guys, plus three offense-only young guys (THT, Nunn and Malik Monk), and hoped that Russell Westbrook would somehow mesh with LeBron James.
My sad prediction is that the Lakers will fire Vogel, continue to stink regardless of who they put in to replace him (perhaps David Fizdale, a current assistant with head coaching experience who was a favorite of LeBron's in his Miami Heatles days), and then, when the issue remains the roster, not the coach start panic-trading.
Russell Westbrook should be traded. And I've got some ideas as to where.
Canning Frank Vogel would be a massive mistake. He's a really solid coach and, when given the proper team, can really make a positive impact. Vogel has the pedigree to deserve more time. This team does need a major overhaul. Here's hoping Jeanie Buss and co. realize exactly where.