NBA Daily: Fixing the Los Angeles Lakers

James Blancarte continues Basketball Insiders’ “Fixing” series by taking an in-depth look at the Los Angeles Lakers.

Alan Draper profile picture
Updated 1 year ago on

9 min read

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The Los Angeles Lakers tend to dominate NBA headlines. This has been especially true during season 1 of the LeBron James era. A week ago, the Lakers decided to rest James for the remainder of this season. Losing James was a strong reminder of what Lakers fans and NBA observers had noted for some time: the Lakers would not be returning to the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season.

Long since being effectively eliminated from playoff contention and now without James, the team isn’t a complete disaster, however. While the team’s most talented and recognizable players are out for the season, fans nonetheless have enjoyed the resurgent effort the team has been displaying and, for example, have enjoyed watching every big Alex Caruso moment. Caruso most recently led the Lakers to a comeback victory over hallway rival Los Angeles Clippers with a 32-point, 10-rebound and five-assist effort.

With all of this in mind, now is the time to look at the Lakers from top to bottom to find out what is working, what needs to be changed and where things may go from here.

What is working?

The Lakers have been under less game-to-game scrutiny since being eliminated from the playoff race and lesser-known players have stepped up. Jonathan Williams and Moritz Wagner have had nice moments and Caruso’s play is not a surprise to many Lakers fans who now wonder whether the team should have been utilizing Caruso as an option at point guard earlier in the season.

Nevertheless, it’s necessary to go back further to analyze what is working for the Lakers. Earlier this season, all was going well for the Lakers. The team was in the upper tier of the rankings in the Western Conference and if things had held up, the team may have been able to secure home court through at least the first half of the season. Of course, things didn’t hold up. James went down with a groin injury, Lonzo Ball couldn’t stay healthy, trade deadline trade rumors placed a cloud over the Lakers and the team slowly fell apart. Earlier in the season, Ball and budding star Brandon Ingram both made strides. When injuries ultimately did derail the season, an equally important issue rose to the surface and is addressed below: imbalanced roster construction.

So long as James is healthy and playing at his usual elite level, the Lakers have a shot to win on any given night. The team features several talented youngsters who could take significant steps forward in their development and the Lakers will always be a major destination for top-level players. However, many changes need to be made around this basic formula in order to maximize the remaining years on James’ contract and turn the team’s fortunes around in a long-term manner.

What needs to change?

  1. Roster Construction Around the Core

The Lakers feature solid, young talent around James. Ball, Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma are all capable NBA players with various levels of upside. While these players will become progressively more expensive, for now, these players are the team’s most valuable assets after James.

How to best support this core is key. Last year the team signed a number of veteran players on one-year contracts that were meant to offer supplementary ball-handling around James. This smorgasbord of veterans proved incapable of helping the Lakers stay afloat when injuries struck. In addition, the players the Lakers signed did not offer the outside shooting and spacing that James-led teams have thrived with for the past decade.

While each of these players has had good moments throughout the season, they proved to be a poor fit around James and their return is uncertain. So far, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee have lobbied to return but renewing their contracts is a matter that is of secondary concern to a larger issue below: signing a star free agent.

  1. Health

As discussed elsewhere, no single factor alone submarined this season. But look no further than James’s late December groin strain as the most pivotal moment this season. Without James, the Lakers got off track and never recovered. Making matters worse were injuries to Ball, Hart and Ingram. Ingram going down late in the season is one of the individual occurrences that helped make clear the season wasn’t going to end well.

So long as he rests and rehabilitates, Lakers fans can look forward to a healthy James that won’t be coming off of a prolonged postseason campaign for the first time in the last decade. Considering James’s advanced mileage as a pro, this can be an invaluable key to his continuing longevity. Ingram’s recovery will be key as well. Assuming Ingram can fully recover while not suffering another blood clot (deemed likely after his successful surgery), then he can continue to grow as a key player alongside James or perhaps serve as a centerpiece in an eventual trade for a superstar.

  1. Coaching

This change is also the most unfair criticism, perhaps. In the discussion and criticisms that have followed in the wake of this season, the performance and job status of head coach Luke Walton has come up repeatedly. Despite the many other, real factors that weighed against Lakers’ success this season, it’s clear that Walton is going to be left to shoulder much of the blame. Firing and hiring a new coach can often be the easiest way for a franchise to achieve a reset of sorts and, for now, that looks to be the approach the Lakers will take. Being an NBA head coach, of course, requires an advanced knowledge of the game, Xs and Os, and other key strategies. In addition, a modern head coach must be capable of managing many of the out-sized personalities that currently occupy the league. Coaching James is a complicated matter and requires a delicate balance, which Walton arguably struggled with this season. Add in a youthful core and an uneven mix of veteran free agent acquisitions and the result is no easy task for any head coach. Perhaps another coach with a clean slate will have a positive effect on the team moving forward, should the Lakers choose to move on from Walton.

Focus Area: Free Agency

Wanting to hit a home run in free agency is an annual tradition in Los Angeles. This constant focus came to dominate headlines as Kobe Bryant’s career came to a close and the Lakers then tried to rebuild following Bryant’s retirement. Now the Lakers can lean into a sales pitch centered around playing alongside James and their talented core. The Lakers missed out on Paul George last year, but James signaled his desire for another star and stated that he’d be willing to assist in the pitch.

“I will be as active as I need to be for this franchise to get better. That’s why I came here. I came here to win. And obviously, we need to get better, as far as our personnel. We have an opportunity to get better. And there’s a lot of talent out there, and a lot of guys that can help our franchise. So I’ll be as active as I need to be for us to get better and go from there,” James told Bleacher Report.

This summer will feature a top-tier free agent class, including Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Kawhi Leonard. After these players, the Lakers will likely also look to Jimmy Butler and Kemba Walker, among others. While listing nearly any free agent as an opportunity is not realistic for many franchises, the Lakers are no ordinary franchise. Signing James confirmed that and in addition, with another star player, the Lakers are well poised to be at least among the Western Conference contenders, depending on how this upcoming offseason unfolds.

Focus Area: Trade Market

The Lakers continue to have the necessary assets to trade for another team’s star player (Anthony Davis is the most obvious candidate). However, complicating factors persist for the Lakers. Their draft pick comes during a weak draft. Furthermore, the Lakers’ recent wins have helped to reduce the odds of jumping into the top four, likely dooming the pick to be outside the top 10. While Ingram’s prognosis is positive and he should not experience another blood clot, potential trade partners may be wary of assuming that risk. Such thinking would lower Ingram’s value as a trade asset. Ongoing business and family related drama combined with an inability to consistently stay healthy also potentially hampers Ball’s value as well. Throw in the lopsided Zubac trade and the poorly handled trade attempts for Davis, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the Lakers will be able to pull off a blockbuster trade.

In New Orleans, former general manager Dell Demps was fired shortly after the Lakers-related trade drama. With the introduction of personalities in the Pelican’s front office, the Lakers can only hope that the Pelicans may come back around to revisit what the Lakers might offer in a deal for Davis. Remember, Davis is under contract for another year and any non-Lakers team that would trade for Davis would do so with no guarantee or indication that Davis would stay beyond the last year of his contract. Should the Lakers strike out on any new attempts to acquire Davis or any other potential star via trade, the team, as mentioned above, should pivot and make clear that they will be building around their young players to help quiet the trade rumors that swirled last season.

The Lakers face a very important offseason. Signing James last year set a new course for this franchise and has positioned it to make a significant leap forward. If the Lakers learn from the mistakes of this season and find some luck in free agency and the draft, they will be well-positioned to earn favorable headlines next season, which would be a nice shift from a disappointing first year with LeBron on the roster.

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Alan is an experienced writer of online betting and casino guides. He is one of the main editors of Basketballinsiders.

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