After the Los Angeles Lakers were embarrassed by the Milwaukee
Bucks at home on Tuesday night (before Los Angeles lost to a bad
Portland Trail Blazers team missing half their roster), a reporter
asked LeBron James how his squad stacks up against Milwaukee and
the league's other elite teams.
LeBron gave a surprisingly candid response: "We ain't on their level."
When asked if he believed the Lakers could eventually reach the
Bucks' level this season, James replied, "Where they are
right now? I don't know. Do I think we can reach the level where
Milwaukee is right now? No. Is that what you want to hear from me?
No. We can't get to where they are right now. They're the defending
champions for a reason and I guarantee you if you would've asked
teams coming out of the bubble if they could get to the level that
we were playing at when we won a championship, they would've said
the same thing."
Let's flashback to the championship group for a second, shall
It may seem like it's been 16 years or so since LeBron led LA to
a title in the bubble, but, incredibly, it's been less than 16
months. The Lakers beat the Miami Heat in Game 6 of the Finals on
Oct. 11, 2020. The team's two cornerstones, Anthony Davis and
LeBron, remain, but the rest of the rotation has been turned over
So, how did this team go from raising the Larry O'Brien trophy,
to being four games under .500 and fighting for a spot in the
play-in tournament just a year-and-a-half later?
Let's break it down.
In the offseason following their championship, LA's major move
was trading Danny Green (a significant two-way contributor on their
title team) and LA's 2021 first-round pick (Jaden McDaniels) to the
Oklahoma City Thunder for Dennis Schroder. That summer, LA
re-signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (three years, $39 million) and
used its cap space to ink free agent Montrezl Harrell to a
two-year, $18.9 million contract. They also brought in Wesley
Matthews and Markieff Morris for the veteran minimum and inked Marc
Gasol to a two-year, $5.3 million deal.
In mid-March, in the days leading up to last season's trade
deadline, the Lakers were cruising. More than halfway through the
2020-21 campaign, the Lakers' were 15 games above .500 and owned
the league's second-best record at 28-13.
At that point, the Lakers made a decision that would come back
to haunt them. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but the Lakers
arrived at a fork in the road and chose the wrong path. They've
been headed downhill ever since. (Over the past 11 months, the
Lakers are 43-51 in the 94 games they've played).
On the eve of the 2021 trade deadline, the Lakers and Toronto
Raptors were engaged in serious discussions on a potential deal
that would have sent Kyle Lowry to LaLa Land, giving LeBron and Co.
the established veteran point guard (and proven winner) the team
desperately needed. The Lakers and Raps reportedly were close to
finalizing a swap sending Schroder, Caldwell-Pope and some draft
capital to Toronto in exchange for Lowry. Yet, in the hours right
before the deadline arrived, "the sticking point was the inclusion
of Talen Horton-Tucker," according to Jovan Buha and Bill
Oram of The Athletic.
"Rob Pelinka, the Lakers' vice president of basketball
operations, insisted that price was too high for the 35-year-old
Lowry, and that he was not willing to trade Horton-Tucker, the
20-year-old combo guard who has emerged as a valuable rotation
player for the Lakers in his second season," Buha and Oram
Looking back, it's impossible not to wonder how the future of
several franchises might have changed if the Lakers had been
willing to pony up for Lowry, who is now averaging 13.0 points and
8.1 assists per game for the Heat. This is the same Heat team that
is poised to enter the All-Star break with the best record in the
As we know, the Lakers stood pat at last year's deadline and
would struggle mightily in the six subsequent weeks. Over a 25-game
stretch from mid-March through the first week in May, LA posted an
The Lakers would eventually be eliminated in six games by the
Suns in the first round of the 2021 playoffs. Anthony Davis
returned to the Lakers' starting lineup in Game 6 after missing the
second half of Game 4 and all of Game 5 due to a groin injury, but
logged just five minutes before limping off the court. It was the
first and only time in LeBron's career that he lost a first-round
series (he had been 14-0).
"What matters to me is getting this team back healthy," James
told reporters after the loss to Phoenix.
Well, as it turns out, Pelinka and James were unwilling to run
it back with the same squad and hope the group would avoid
Instead, the Lakers rolled the dice, agreeing to one of the most
dramatic and controversial trades in recent NBA history.
On the evening of July 29, both Woj and Shams reported that the Lakers had
consented to take on Russell Westbrook (and his onerous
A week later, the trade was officially announced. LA had traded
away Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma and the
draft rights to Isaiah Jackson (whom the Lakers had selected with
the 22nd overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft) in exchange for Russ
and several future second-rounders.
The justification from the Lakers was that they viewed Westbrook
as an offensive powerhouse that could lighten the load LeBron had
been forced to carry.
The Lakers rounded out their roster this past offseason by
adding Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore,
Carmelo Anthony, Malik Monk and Rajon Rondo. They gave Kendrick
Nunn the taxpayer mid-level exception ($5.9 million for two years).
They also re-signed Horton-Tucker to a three-year deal worth $32
Shockingly, despite advanced analytics that confirmed he was a
near-perfect fit playing alongside LeBron, the Lakers decided not
to bring back Alex Caruso, who had excelled as a role player in LA.
Caruso's aggressiveness and versatility on the defensive end, as
well as unselfishness on offense, made him an ideal wingman to AD
and King James.
However, having Westbrook on the books for $44.2 million in
2021-22 and another $47.1 million in 2022-23 undoubtedly played a
part in Pelinka's decision to let Carouso leave.
Still, as he explained on JJ Redick's "Old Man and the Three"
podcast back in November, Carouso had hoped to re-sign with the
Lakers and was even willing to give them a hometown discount.
Before ultimately accepting the offer he received from Chicago (a
four-year, $37 million contract, though the final season only
carries a $3 million guarantee), Caruso said he and his agent
"went back to L.A., asked if they could do the same, they said no.
We asked for something else that was a little bit less; they said
As it turns out, the concerns many critics envisioned over the
summer related to potential issues arising from the addition of
Westbrook have reared their ugly head. Unfortunately for Los
Angeles, Westbrook's declining athleticism has hamstrung the former
At various points this season, Westbrook's alarming regression
has been uncomfortable to watch. In the closing minutes of LA's
victory over the New York Knicks last weekend, Russ found himself
alone in the corner and as he was about to launch a three-pointer,
the home crowd screamed
at him not to shoot. Coach Frank Vogel yanked him out of the
lineup in overtime vs. New York. In the Lakers' embarrassing loss
to the Bucks on Tuesday, Westbrook was benched for the final 14
minutes of the game, including the entire fourth quarter. Russ sat
out Wednesday's loss to Portland with a "lower back"
His counting stats on the season are solid (18/7/7), but the
peripheral numbers are putrid, and his plus/minus is the worst on
the team. This season, the Lakers have been outscored by 123 points
with Westbrook on the floor, whereas they have outscored their
opponents by 35 points with Russ on the bench.
The situation has careened toward rock-bottom this month. Over
the Lakers' last four games, Westbrook is shooting just 27% from
the floor, 15% from downtown and 55.0% from the free-throw line.
He's also leading the league in turnovers.
Yet, now that the 2022 trade deadline has passed, we know that
Lakers fans have no choice but to hope Russ can somehow locate his
confidence and contribute to winning.
It has been rumored this week that the Houston Rockets were
willing to trade John Wall to the Lakers for Westbrook, but Pelinka
was reportedly unwilling to include LA's 2027 first-round pick,
which Houston was demanding. Will the decision come back to bite
LA, as refusing to include THT at last year's deadline did? Even if
Wall failed to live up to expectations, would it have amounted to
addition by subtraction?
Although Monk has been fantastic, and Melo has given LA as much
as they could have hoped for, Howard, Ellington and Bazemore have
failed to deliver. Ariza is averaging 4.2 points while shooting 36%
from the floor. Rondo is no longer on the roster. Nunn, hampered by
a bone bruise in his right knee, has yet to log a single second in
an NBA game this season. Horton-Tucker is converting career-lows
from the floor (41%) and behind the arc (27%). Despite playing
nearly six more minutes per game, THT is averaging fewer assists
this season (2.7) than he did in 2020-21, while still committing
1.5 turnovers a night.
Sum it all up, and you see why the Lakers have lost more than
half of their games and find themselves in ninth place in the West,
despite LeBron authoring the greatest season in NBA history by a
This is a particularly bitter pill for Lakers fans to swallow
considering the team purportedly had several different options to
choose from this summer when shopping around their Kuz/’Trez/draft
picks package, including a deal for Sacramento sharpshooter Buddy
Hield. In that scenario, the Lakers could have held onto KCP and
added Hield, and the combined salary of both players still would
have been $8 million less than Westbrook's cap hit of $44.2