The 2021-22 NBA season has presented us all with its share of
surprises — chief among them is the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers' 2020-21 season ended badly, after a disappointing
six-game series lost against the Phoenix Suns. Los Angeles entered
last season as favorites to win, which would have meant
back-to-back championships. But their 2021 first-round elimination
forced the team's management to confront the reality that their
LeBron James-led title window was closing. Sure, Anthony Davis is
also in tow, but Davis was far less successful in New Orleans
without James as a running mate.
So, the Lakers did what any big market team would — they went
shopping for another star. Ultimately, they added Russell
Westbrook. But Westbrook’s fit has been questionable, with the
Lakers winning only 23 of their first 46 games — good for seventh
in the West.
Injuries and COVID protocols have played a big role in Los
Angeles’ struggles with Davis, James and Westbrook sharing the
floor for only 290 minutes across 15 games. Still, the Lakers are
just 8-7 in those games, with a +2.6 point differential when all
three share the court. For context, Davis-James-Westbrook is the
Lakers’ seventh-most successful three-man combination, having
logged the sixth-most minutes — that’s not the desired outcome when
you add someone owed $91 million over two seasons.
But what if, instead of trading for Westbrook, the Lakers went
in a different direction — would they be better-positioned to win a
championship? Let’s explore an alternate reality.
Before we look at what could have been, let’s review what was
given up. In the deal for Westbrook, the Lakers sent out Kyle
Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell and the rights to
the 22nd overall pick in the 2021 draft.
Kuzma is averaging 15.7 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.9 assists in
33.3 minutes per game, after just 12.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6
assists in 27.0 minutes per game across the past two seasons — the
only seasons that he played with James and Davis.
Caldwell-Pope is also playing better without James and Davis,
averaging 11.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game, up from 9.5 points
and 2.7 rebounds per game in the previous two seasons. Then there’s
Harrell, whose per game averages are mostly the same, but is
posting a career-best 25.2 PER.
James and Davis rank 15th and 27th in
usage rate, respectively. Comparatively, there is only Beal —
14th in usage — to contend with in Washington, which
obviously means more opportunity; the next-highest usage rate on
the Wizards is Kuzma, who is 72nd. Ultimately, keeping
Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope and Harrell might have meant a better record
presently because of the games missed by Davis and James. But the
same logjam would exist come the playoffs if all are healthy, which
seems likely to result in ineffective contributions from at least
Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope.
So, Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope and Harrell didn’t work, and neither
has Westbrook. But what other options existed?
Rumors Involving Star Players
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: a Lakers-Kings deal
appeared imminent prior to the Westbrook deal, with talks centering
around a swap of Kuzma for Buddy Hield. As a I recently alluded to
in a piece about off-season
redos, Hield-to-Los Angeles made much more sense.
Would the Lakers be better with Hield? Probably. Hield’s 15.1
points, 22.3 usage rate and 52.7% Effective Field Goal percentage
is better than Westbrook’s 18.5 points per game, 27.7 usage rate
and 46.6% eFG. Like Westbrook, Hield has played in all of his
team’s games this season, too.
Further exemplifying Hield’s fit — 65% of his shot attempts come
off one dribble or less, which pairs perfectly with James’ style of
play. Comparatively, 33% of Westbrook’s shots require seven or more
dribbles, and another 33% require between three and six
But the Lakers apparently examined both deals and chose
Westbrook. Were there any other deals the Lakers considered?
The biggest rumor involved San Antonio and would
have seen the Lakers enter into a Kuzma-for-DeMar DeRozan
sign-and-trade deal. Regardless of what combination of Kuzma,
Caldwell-Pope and Harrell would have been required to get him,
DeRozan is clearly an upgrade on Westbrook — or at least he would
be if he’d have performed as well for the Lakers as he has for
DeRozan was the centerpiece of the Chicago Bulls’ offseason face
lift. The Buller are presently 28-16, after winning just 43% of
their games last season. DeRozan’s usage rate — 31.2, which is good
for 12th in the NBA — is significantly higher than
Westbrook’s, and it’s higher than James, too; but the difference
between DeRozan and Westbrook is obvious. DeRozan shoots 22% of his
shots at the rim, 24% from between three and 10 feet, 40% from
between 10 and 16 feet, 36% from 16 feet to the three-point line
and only 13% from beyond the arc. And he's shooting, 64%, 41%, 53%,
45% and 33% from those ranges, respectively. Comparatively, 21% of
Westbrook’s shot attempts are three-pointers, of which he connects
on only 30%. And while he’s still relatively effective at the rim
(58%), he’s less efficient from three to 10 feet (37%), 10 to 16
feet (38%) and 16 feet to the three-point line (41%).
Other Possible Deals
The Lakers were clearly on the hunt for offense, and there
weren’t many other difference-makers traded in 2021 — with the
exception of Kyle Lowry. Lowry accepted a lesser role to join the
Heat, but his impact has been obvious. Lowry is scoring less while
collecting more assists, receiving about as many minutes as he has
in the previous four seasons.
Lowry’s box plus/minus is 1.0. For context, a 0 box plus/minus
is that of an average starter and a 2 is that of a good starter,
according to basketball-reference.com; Westbrook has
posted a -1.2 box plus/minus so far this season, DeRozan’s is a 2.1
and Hield’s is a -.2.
This hypothetical deal never made its way into the rumor mill,
but Lowry’s $27 million in 2021-22 is a near match for
Caldwell-Pope ($13.038 million) and Kuzma ($13 million). Could
adding in Talen Horton-Tucker and future draft compensation have
been enough to rival Miami’s deal? Maybe, though I admit most
The Lakers upgrade options were clearly limited. Instead of an
incremental upgrade, Los Angeles chose to take a major high risk,
high reward gamble. Now, the league’s preeminent franchise must
confront the fallout from a gamble-gone-wrong.
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