Far-Fetched Friday: The Lakers Will Be Fine

11/22/2021

As many predicted, this Lakers experiment trading for Russell Westbrook to play alongside Anthony Davis, and LeBron James, has had a rough start. The Lakers are 8-7 Heading into Tuesday night against the New York Knicks. The Lakers have gone 4-6 over the last ten games, 3-5 without LeBron. The offense has looked like a mess, and the defense has looked even messier. The only team with more turnovers per game are the Houston Rockets. The mood around Los Angeles is contentious. Fifteen games into the season, Anthony Davis admitted, "We suck," after a loss against the Timberwolves. However, despite all of that, I still think we will see the Lakers find their way into the Western Conference Finals. As the season continues, the team chemistry, health, and roster will improve under the guidance of LeBron James.

Welcome back to Far-Fetched Friday, where every Friday we give you a bold prediction that we believe will come to fruition. This time, we look at basketball in Los Angeles.

The first season for my optimism is the fact that this team is still learning how to play with each other. James, Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker are the only Lakers that were on the team last year. This team is not supposed to start clicking yet. For a roster of former star players turned old role players, it's an adjustment playing alongside LeBron James, especially Russell Westbrook, who has spent his career as the primary ball-handler. Not to mention, it's an adjustment for LeBron James, perhaps the most intelligent basketball player ever, to play alongside Westbrook. It's going to take some time for these players to learn each other's rhythms and tendencies. Some of the best offense the Lakers have had is the Pick and Roll with Westbrook and Davis, but even they aren't completely on the same page yet. This is something that's going to continue to improve throughout the season. Westbrook historically starts slow. For whatever reason, it takes his body to wind up. It also doesn't help that he seems to be in his head trying to prove himself in front of his hometown. This might finally be the year where Westbrook learns to play within himself.

The second reason is that the Lakers aren't fully healthy. It's a miracle that the Lakers even won 3 games without LeBron, thanks in large part to Carmelo Anthony's efforts. 

The roster was constructed with LeBron James, Trevor Ariza, and Talen Horton-Tucker in mind as the wings of this team. Without them, Vogel has had to play the likes of Kent Bazemore a lot of minutes at the 3, which should be an indication as to why the defense hasn't been that good. With LeBron returning, look for the communication on both ends to improve the quality of play.

Much was made about the types of players the Lakers signed this off-season. All older veterans are well past their prime, but we've seen this time and time again. When you are a contending team, your roster heading into the playoffs will not be the same one you started with. The front office will do whatever to maximize the team's chance to make it to the finals, but a team in Los Angeles with LeBron will also naturally draw several buyout guys. It's hard to forecast who those guys are, but a guy like Terrence Ross will be a dramatic improvement over a guy like Kent Bazemore.

I still worry that some of the current veterans on this team aren't the type to play with maximum effort and commitment to the little things this early in the season. Westbrook deserves to be criticized for his sloppy play at the beginning of the season, but he isn't the only one. Players like DeAndre Jordan, Dwight Howard, and Rajon Rondo have not been playing their sharpest brand of basketball, but why should they? They all have been successful players in the past and can turn it on when they need to, right? I imagine with James back in the lineup and, the stakes become apparent, these veterans will start to clean up their act and buy into how Vogel wants them to play. If they don't, LeGM will waste no time getting rid of them like he did the 2018 Cleveland Cavaliers.

I want to see the young players on the Lakers begin to emerge. 

Talen Horton Tucker, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn are all vital to this team's success. Even a guy like Austin Reeves, whose shooting has been a revelation, will be counted on in crucial moments. Many observers around the league questioned why the Lakers chose Horton-Tucker over Alex Caruso, who has been nothing short of incredible for the Bulls, but since returning, Horton-Tucker has made the Lakers look like they knew what they were doing. In his first three games back, Horton-Tucker has played an average of 34 minutes per game and is scoring 23 points per game. His ability to get his own shot and score from multiple levels is real, and it's only going to get better. By the end of the season, I anticipate James and Vogel trusting Horton-Tucker to be the 3rd option in front of Westbrook. His individual defense with his long wingspan has been disruptive. Malik Monk has already had some growing pains, but the clip of LeBron coaching Monk during a timeout gives me all the confidence that Monk is going to develop into a 3nD guard by the end of the season. Imagine the type of mentorship these young players get from LeBron and Vogel.

If the Lakers do end up making the finals at the end of the season, I'm going to look back at this time and think to myself, "why did I ever bet against LeBron James and Anthony Davis?" 

This team is nowhere near perfect fits for those two bona fide superstars, but neither was the 2020 team that won it all. If LeBron James and Anthony Davis can pace themselves and be healthy in time for the playoffs, this team will be a force. That is part of the reason why I think it is healthy for the Lakers to confront their weaknesses earlier rather than in the season. The smart teams use this time to work on their weaknesses, develop chemistry, and figure out their rotation. They don't anticipate it going this badly, but when you have a player like LeBron James. His sheer presence, IQ, and leadership can will any team to great heights. That's why I'm not going to overreact. The Lakers have real problems to address, but if anyone can figure it out it has to be LeBron James and this coaching staff led by Frank Vogel.


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