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Answering the big questions surrounding the Lakers' 2021-22 roster

Answering the big questions surrounding the Lakers' 2021-22 roster

Before the 2021 NBA Draft and the start of free agency, we assessed the key personnel decisions that the Los Angeles Lakers would have to make this offseason. Here is a section from that article:

“While the Lakers can never be counted out as candidates to trade for a superstar, the likelihood is that L.A. will not be able to swing a deal for someone like Damian Lillard this offseason. The Lakers do not have a core of young players to throw in a trade or a stash of draft picks to barter with.

"With little cap flexibility, the simplest path toward filling out the roster this offseason is through re-signing the free agents from last season’s squad. While that will not make for the most exciting offseason in Lakers’ history, it would ensure the Lakers have a baseline of talent to put around LeBron James and Anthony Davis."

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka took a bolder approach this offseason, opting to trade several players in exchange for guard Russell Westbrook, moving on from several players from last season’s roster, re-signing Talen Horton-Tucker and filling out the depth chart with a mix of experienced veterans and younger players with upside. With the recent Marc Gasol trade, the only returning players from last year’s roster are LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Horton-Tucker. 

The current roster now includes James, Davis, Westbrook, Horton-Tucker, Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, Malik Monk, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza, Wayne Ellington, as well as Joel Ayayi and Austin Reaves (on two-way contracts). 

The Lakers now feature a star-studded roster, but the main concern will be the overall age of the team. L.A. now has nine players over the age of 32 and four of the top-five active leaders in overall career games played (James, Howard, Ariza and Anthony). The main questions with this roster are: 

  1. Will the age/injuries limit L.A. in the postseason?
  2. How will Westbrook share playmaking duties with LeBron?
  3. Will the Lakers drop off from last season's league-leading defense?
  4. Do the Lakers have enough three-point shooting?

Last season, James missed 27 games and Davis missed 26 due to injury, and both were limited in the postseason. If both superstars are once again battling injuries in the postseason, the Lakers will suffer a similar fate as last season. However, assuming James and Davis are relatively healthy, the question is: how will the remainder of the Lakers' roster hold up? Is there enough depth to get through the grueling 82-game regular season without suffering too many setbacks?

With some luck and strategic maintenance throughout the regular season, the answer should be yes. While the roster is quite old collectively, their key rotation players did not miss too much time last season due to injuries.

  • Trevor Ariza – 1
  • Dwight Howard – 2
  • Russell Westbrook – 2
  • Talen Horton-Tucker – 2
  • Kent Bazemore – 3
  • Carmelo Anthony – 3
  • Kendrick Nunn – 6
  • Wayne Ellington – 15
  • Malik Monk – 17
  • Rajon Rondo – 26

Out of these key rotation players, only three had more than 10 injury-related missed games last season. Of course, some players did not play heavy minutes at different times throughout the season, but based on this data, it’s reasonable to believe that the Lakers can get through the upcoming season without losing a disproportionate number of players. Injuries are unavoidable and COVID-19 will likely play a factor in terms of players missing games, but with some strategic load management throughout the season, it appears the Lakers have the depth and personnel to persevere. 

In terms of sharing playmaking duties, it’s unclear how James and Westbrook are going to mesh. Westbrook is saying the right things so far: 

“My job is to make sure that I’m able to make his game easy for him. I’ll find ways to do that throughout the game,” Westbrook said at his first press conference as a Laker. “As it pertains to ball-handling and all that, it really doesn’t matter. There’s many different ways you can impact the game without having the ball in your hands. And I’ve been able to do that for many years and I will figure it out.”

Westbrook has played with dynamic scorers and ball-handlers in the past, including Kevin Durant, James Harden (twice) and Bradley Beal. Westbrook’s heavy usage rate, aggressive style of play and inefficiency as a three-point shooter have caused chemistry issues with past teammates, but LeBron is now 36 years old and coming off a rare injury-plagued season.

Perhaps LeBron will look to take a step back from his usual playmaking duties in the regular season and allow Westbrook to take on that volume in his place. Or, perhaps Westbrook will defer to James and Davis, being more selective with his opportunities and acting at the team’s primary playmaker. Considering LeBron’s age and the injuries he suffered last season as well as Westbrook’s desire to win his first championship, there is plenty of reason to believe these two players will find a workable balance in terms of running the Lakers’ offense.

Perhaps the biggest question people have not focused on enough is the possible drop-off on the defensive end. The Lakers had the best defense in the league last season, but that was with a younger roster that featured several two-way wing defenders. Missing from last season’s squad are Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Wesley Matthews, Markieff Morris and Marc Gasol. 

While none of these players are individually elite defenders at their respective positions, they meshed well enough to cover each other’s shortcomings and create a solid, consistent defense. Caruso was a particularly effective wing defender, and Gasol was still an effective anchor when he got minutes. The Lakers added some players who can certainly step in and try to fill the void left behind, but players like Ariza, Rondo, Ellington, Jordan and Carmelo are well past their athletic primes. Younger players like Monk, Nunn, Horton-Tucker and even Bazemore have the mobility to stay in front of wings and should each be in the rotation to a certain extent.

Westbrook also has the athletic ability to be a tough defender, but his focus and effort on that end of the court have been inconsistent for several seasons. The Lakers are going to need Davis to be a defensive anchor in the middle. Last season, AD averaged career-lows in blocks per game (1.6, down from 2.3 the year before), block percentage (4.5%), total rebound percentage (13.8%), defensive win shares (2.4) and value over replacement player (1.9). In addition to getting more out of Davis, L.A. hopes that Howard can provide the same defensive impact as he did during his last stint with the team in 2019-20.

Head coach Frank Vogel has the difficult task of implementing a defensive system with a rebuilt roster that features several players in the twilight of their respective careers. Expect at least a slight drop-off from last season’s top-ranked defense.

Three-point shooting was an area of concern entering the offseason, but the Lakers added a couple of players who should provide spacing for Westbrook, James and Davis to operate. Ellington shot a scorching 42.2% from distance last season on six attempts per game. Anthony shot 40.9% on 4.7 attempts, a nice bump in efficiency over the last six seasons, and his shooting could be a big catalyst for the Lakers’ offense. Monk is coming off his best season from beyond the arc, as he shot 40.1% from distance on five attempts per game. Nunn also had a particularly good season shooting the ball, hitting 38.1% of his 5.7 attempts per game. Bazemore and Ariza showed efficiency from distance last season, though Horton-Tucker continues to struggle from beyond the arc.

In short, the Lakers added enough shooters to this roster to ensure that spacing shouldn't be a major issue unless several players regress this upcoming season, or if defenses force Westbrook into taking a heavy dose of three-point attempts each night. 

The Lakers entered the offseason with seemingly little flexibility to reshape and improve their roster. Despite the odds, Pelinka managed to add another star player and round out the roster with proven veterans who can still contribute at a high level. Injuries and age are a concern, but that is true for several teams in contention. The Lakers enter this season with plenty of star talent, a ton of experience and championship-or-bust expectations as they look to add banner No. 18 to the rafters of Staples Center.

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