Despite the fact that the team and Russell Westbrook himself have found more success since he was taken out of the starting lineup than when he was in it, it still feels like the Lakers will be trying to trade him around that 20-game mark. We’ll see how that plan changes depending on how his play continues to develop (or unravel) in this role over the next 10-ish games; however, it’s doubtful that anything Westbrook does on the court in these next few weeks would change the way the Lakers feel about wanting to deal him.
That’s due to the fact that he’s easily the best asset the Lakers can use to bring in multiple players that help in areas that Westbrook simply can’t make a sizable impact in no matter how well he’s playing. The Lakers wanted to wait until around that 20-game mark to see if teams would be more willing to part with talent on their roster in return for one first round draft pick instead of two after they had their own look at their rosters. Once that happens, the Lakers can then put a roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis that finally makes sense.
However, what if there was another reason that Rob Pelinka, Jeanie Buss, and the rest of the Lakers organization wanted to wait it out before dealing the remaining two first round picks (2027 and 2029) that they can deal for the rest of this decade?
What if they also wanted to see if LeBron and Davis could finally stay healthy while putting on first-team All-NBA performances they showed only three seasons ago? Both of those things would be needed, especially after the championship core of Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had been let go by the team. Even if the team started with a record of — oh I don’t know — 2-7, Pelinka and the Lakers’ front office could then at least take comfort in the fact that their two superstars were ready to lead a championship contender that could be unlocked via one Westbrook trade.
There’s still the question of whether or not the surrounding role players are as complementary as those championship-winning role players I just mentioned. There have been some positive surprises from that group. Lonnie Walker appears to be a great scoring compliment to LeBron and AD, while also showing more than satisfactory point-of-attack defense. Troy Brown seems penciled into the starting lineup moving forward as a guy who can do a lot on the floor at an average level, including defending, rebounding, play-making, and shooting. Matt Ryan has shown that he’s more than likely better at 3-point shooting than he is at being a DoorDash driver. And in addition to those newcomers playing better than we expected, returning players like Austin Reaves and Wenyen Gabriel have continued to show the same impactful traits they showed last season.
But just as enthused as we can be with these role players, we can be just as dismayed at what we’ve seen from LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
In regards to LeBron, he’s been atrocious on the offensive end by his standards. He’s currently averaging 24.3 points per game on 44.7% field-goal shooting which would both be the worst marks he’s had since his rookie year if the season were to end today.
And it’s not like it’s due to poor shot selection or a lack of spacing. He’s actually averaging more field-goal attempts per game in the restricted area this season (9.3) than he has in any of his past Lakers seasons. However, he has had some puzzling misses when getting to the rim that has led to a 69.0% clip on those attempts which would be about five to seven percent below his best seasons over the past five or so years. That may not seem like much of a difference, but when “LeBron’s field-goal attempts at the rim” is your best and most frequent way of scoring… that small percentage difference can be detrimental.
In recent years, especially during last season when the Lakers had spacing from hell, LeBron has been able to rely on his 3-point shot that has aged just like LeBron’s overall career has: fine wine. Each Lakers season of his has marked a new career-high in those attempts per game, with LeBron making 35.2% of those attempts across 2018-2022. However, he’s been abysmal from beyond the arc this season, currently shooting just 20.9% on 6.9 attempts per game.
As for AD, all-in-all I think he’s been pretty amazing this season. He’s been especially great on the defensive end as he’s currently 4th in the NBA in “stocks” (steals and blocks combined) per game at 3.7 (what makes this even more difficult to write is that Myles Turner is currently tied for 2nd at 3.8). Without him, the Lakers would come nowhere close to the current fifth-ranked spot they occupy in the best defensive ratings in the league.
But although he’s averaging 52.9% on 17.3 field-goal attempts per game this season, his play on the offensive side has been confusing with not enough juice for what the Lakers need out of him. That confusion comes from things like his free-throw attempts per game (5.1), currently on pace for his lowest output since his 2012-13 rookie season. This has been a statistic that has dwindled in his injury-riddled past few seasons with the Lakers, however, he had his near-career-high in the 2019-20 championship at 8.5 per game. That’s a number that he should be at this season. In his defense, the Lakers have received a peculiar whistle from the referees this season.
But the most troubling thing about AD’s offense is his second halves.
Before the season, Darvin Ham said AD was the key while Ham and LeBron also stated that the offense would go through Davis. Of course, most looked at that dubiously given the fact that it had been stated before basically every one of the Lakers’ four seasons with AD, with that doubt being affirmed when you see that LeBron is still averaging 4.6 more field goal attempts per game. It’s even easier to scoff at that notion when looking at his second halves, where Davis is averaging 6.3 field goal attempts compared to the 10.8 he averages in the first half. It’s become a dramatic issue in the past two games, as AD only had four attempts in the second half of Friday’s loss vs. the Jazz and only two in Sunday’s loss to the Cavaliers (AD and the other starters were pulled with around five minutes left in the game).
And I haven’t even addressed their health issues. Although they’ve only missed one game combined between the two of them, both are already dealing with nagging injuries only nine games into the season. Davis has had a lower back issue that started in the first week of training camp, with it visibly hurting him in most of the Lakers’ games this season (although those grimaces have lessened over the past couple of games). As for LeBron, he’s been listed as probable on nearly every injury report with a foot issue. In Friday’s game vs. the Jazz, he landed awkwardly on that foot while attempting a lay-up before taking a while to get back on his feet. The moment featured an unforced, awkward landing we’ve seen far too many times from LeBron and AD over the past three seasons in what just may be a trend for two injury-prone superstars.
It was always going to be a tough decision for Rob Pelinka to trade away the last remaining first-round picks to part with before the next turn of a decade. And it was never based on that sole fact alone, but on a myriad of factors, with LeBron and AD’s health and play near the top of the priority list. Sadly, through these first few games, the two superstars haven’t given enough to make this an easier decision for Pelinka.
A blockbuster trade involving Westbrook probably would have happened already if we were looking at the 2019-20 versions of these two. Hell, maybe they’re still there under these nagging injuries and slow starts.
But I don’t think the Lakers can continue to mortgage their future on a “maybe.”