Where do we begin? In roughly 18 months, the Los Angeles Lakers went from NBA champions to deserving lottery fodder. They fired their coach. They've turned over the roster three offseasons in a row. Their two best players can't stay healthy. They owe $47 million to a player nobody wants. More than half of their roster is set to earn a minimum salary. Why, someone even hacked the team owner's Twitter account to try to sell some PS5s.
And yet, if you look at the championship odds available at Caesars Sportsbook ... you'll see the Lakers nestled snugly between the Denver Nuggets, who have the two-time reigning MVP, and Miami Heat, who came one shot away from reaching the NBA Finals last season, at +1800. That's the power of having two superstars.
By virtue of employing LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Lakers have to be taken seriously. The last time the two of them stayed healthy for an entire season, they won a championship. Not a single one of their teammates from that 2020 title run is still wearing purple and gold, but the versions of James and Davis we saw in the Orlando bubble were so good that they likely could've won with just about anyone.
The Lakers are going to test that theory this season with a lineup composed primarily of free-agent scraps, unheralded youngsters and veterans desperate to turn their careers around. So let's take a look at the biggest questions facing that group, aside from the medical ones surrounding James and Davis. Here are the major storylines surrounding the 2022-23 Los Angeles Lakers.
- Fired Frank Vogel as head coach. Hired Darvin Ham as replacement.
- Retained only six players from last season's roster: LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Kendrick Nunn, Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel.
- Traded for Patrick Beverley.
- Signed Dennis Schroder, Lonnie Walker IV, Damian Jones, Thomas Bryant, Troy Brown Jr. and Juan Toscano-Anderson to guaranteed contracts.
- Drafted Max Christie No. 35 overall.
- Signed LeBron James to a two-year contract extension with a player-option after the 2023-24 season.
Troy Brown Jr.
Scottie Pippen Jr.
Lonnie Walker IV
Top of the key: So ... Russ?
The Lakers don't want Russell Westbrook. We know that because they just spent an entire summer trying to trade him. Russell Westbrook doesn't want to be a Laker. We know that because his now former agent essentially told us as much. Typically the NBA grants such miserable partners a divorce, but none of the league's other 29 clubs are willing to relieve the Lakers of that $47 million anchor around their neck. So here we are, nearly six months past one of the most unbelievable exit interviews you'll ever see, getting ready to watch Russell Westbrook play his second season in Los Angeles.
Everyone's talking a good game. New coach Darvin Ham says he wants to "diversify" and "redirect" Westbrook's energy into defense and off-ball movement. Rob Pelinka swears that "he's all in to do whatever it takes for this team to win, in whatever role that means." Westbrook himself still thinks the trio of himself, James and Davis can be "unstoppable." It should be noted that coach Ham still has not committed to including Westbrook in his starting lineup.
Gallons of ink have been spilled on the theoretical concept of "role player Russ." The basketball world has been asking him to cut and screen and defend and chill with the mid-range jumpers for his entire career. Nothing has ever compelled Westbrook to embrace such a role before. Perhaps the season from hell changes his mind. If it doesn't? Well, remember, the NBA sours on players quickly. Allen Iverson played his last NBA game at the age of 34. Westbrook's 34th birthday is in November. The Lakers are giving him a chance to become the sort of player capable of helping James and Davis win. He might not get another one.
Next up: Hamming it up
How many first-time head coaches have ever been tasked with a more difficult job than Darvin Ham? Forget about all of the drama, the injuries and the broken roster. Just think about the coach he's replacing. Frank Vogel has led three separate No. 1-ranked defenses. He last did it in 2021, when he got only 81 combined games out of James and Davis. The Lakers have praised Ham for the defense-first culture he's building in Los Angeles. The roster is geared towards something of a defensive renaissance after a disappointing 21st-place finish a season ago. And the coach he'll be measured against is one of the most accomplished defensive leaders of the past decade.
Everywhere you look, that sort of specter is hanging over Ham. He's coaching the team once helmed by Phil Jackson and Pat Riley. He has arguably the greatest player of all time on his roster. And he has to figure out how to deal with all of these distractions and expectations without prior head-coaching experience.
Only time will tell what kind of coach Ham will be. He might turn out to be a very good one. There's almost no way we'll be able to say he's a bad one given the monumental task the Lakers have laid before him. There might not be a coach in NBA history capable of leading this team into the championship hunt. But what if Ham should manage to do so? Start prepping his Hall of Fame plaque.
One more thing: Losing their balance
Part of what made the 2020 Lakers so special was their lineup flexibility. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard gave them elite rim protection in twin tower lineups next to Davis, but the Lakers could just as easily downsize with Davis or even Markieff Morris at center. Morris and Kuzma checked the versatile forwards box on every team's wishlist. Their supply of 3-and-D guards was virtually endless between Alex Caruso, Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley. They even had a spare Hall of Fame creator to dust off for the last few rounds when playoff Rondo emerged from his regular season hibernation to wreak havoc in the bubble. They could play any style and dictate the terms of engagement to any opponent.
Take a gander at the roster above. After James and Davis, who is the most accomplished forward? Toscano-Anderson? He wasn't even in Golden State's playoff rotation. Both of their centers are making the minimum. Meanwhile, between Schroder, Reaves, Beverley, Nunn, Walker and Westbrook, there are far more guards than rotation slots available. This is an incredibly small team.
That couldn't exactly be avoided. It's what happens when you build a roster with minimum salaries. Players like Kuzma command a great deal more. The Lakers could've taken high-risk swings on a few more forwards, but the more proven available talent came at guard. They chose talent over versatility. Maybe they'll find a way to balance their roster as the season progresses, but for now, Ham has to figure out how to juggle a group of players that largely do the same things.
Oct. 18 at Warriors: Last season began with the Lakers, as the Western Conference favorites, hosting the Warriors, just looking to make it back to the postseason after a surprising jaunt down lottery lane. Oh, how the tables have turned. Now it's the Lakers looking to prove themselves against their in-state rival, and if Westbrook repeats his dismal eight-point outing from that loss, the result will be the same as last season.
Oct. 20 vs. Clippers: When was the last time James, Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George all shared the same court? It was December of 2020. What once looked like the NBA's newest major rivalry has been on hold for nearly two calendar years. Now that the Clippers are healthy and the Lakers are on the ropes, you can bet that Leonard and George will want to prove a point against their Crypto.com co-tenants.
Nov. 13 vs. Nets: By this point, we'll likely have a good idea of whether Westbrook 2.0 is really working for the Lakers. If it isn't? Expect a hearty game of footsie between James and former teammate Kyrie Irving, whom the Lakers pursued via trade during the offseason.