No Time to Panic: 3 Reasons Why the Los Angeles Lakers Still Have Hope
“One step forward, two steps back” appears to be the prevalent theme for the 2021-22 Los Angeles Lakers.
Following a potentially tide-changing win over the Miami Heat, LA dropped three of its next four games. The most recent loss came Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks, dropping its record to a pedestrian 8-8.
The Lakers entered the year as title hopefuls but have been anything but. Now, it’s understandable if fans are more concerned with simply making the playoffs, let alone winning an 18th title. But there are reasons for optimism — three in particular — that should be considered before anybody hits the panic button.
3. Anthony Davis looks like his old self
For all of the Lakers’ issues with consistency, one constant has been Anthony Davis. The eight-time All-Star has suited up for all 16 games, a win in itself for the oft-injured big man. But Davis’ play looks far closer to his first season with the Purple and Gold than his second season.
In 2020-21, fresh off of a title, Davis had a career-worst year. The 28-year-old finished with 21.8 points per game, his worst average since his second season with the New Orleans Pelicans. But he also finished with career lows of 7.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, as well as lows in field-goal and free-throw percentage.
On top of his disappointing play, AD was barely able to stay on the court. Injuries to his Achilles and calf limited the superstar to just 36 games, 20 less than his previous career low of 56 with the Pelicans.
Now in his third go-around with LA, Davis is motivated to forget last season. Even after a subpar outing against Milwaukee, the Brow is averaging 23.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game. His 51.5% field-goal percentage is his highest with the Lakers, as well.
Should AD continue his path toward another All-Star Game, the Lakers will have to chance to win against anyone.
2. Russell Westbrook is a second half player
Marketed as the Lakers’ missing piece to the title puzzle, Russell Westbrook is instead being branded as the cause of LA’s struggles. The enigmatic point guard has been criticized for an alarmingly high number of turnovers to go with an uncomfortable amount of missed shots.
That being said, his trouble areas are nothing new. His 5.2 turnovers are less than the 5.4 he averaged in 2016-17, his MVP season with the Oklahoma City Thunder. His 30.0% rate from three is actually higher than his rate in seven of his previous 13 NBA seasons. And if history proves itself right once again, Westbrook should turn things around sooner rather than later.
Two seasons ago, Westbrook was adjusting to playing with James Harden on the Houston Rockets. In November and December, Russ shot 41.9% from the field, averaging 24.5 points and 4.4 turnovers. However, in January and February, he averaged 32.9 points on 53.6% shooting along with a slight decrease to 4.3 turnovers.
Last season with Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards, Russ averaged 20.3 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 9.8 assists before the All-Star break. In 38 games after the break, he averaged 23.6 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 13.1 assists in an MVP-level effort.
Now with the Lakers, his fourth team in as many seasons, it’s understandable that Russ would need time to adjust. But if this season is anything like the previous two, he’s due for much better numbers as he grows more comfortable.
1. Rob Pelinka’s roster vision for the Lakers has yet to manifest
After watching the Lakers fail to repeat, vice president of basketball operations and general manager Rob Pelinka went to work. Over the course of the offseason, Pelinka swapped out the majority of LA’s existing roster, leaving only LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker. However, 16 games into the new campaign, Pelinka has yet to see the results of his work on the court.
The Lakers have been suffering through multiple injuries ever since training camp. The most notable absence is James, who after missing 27 games last season has sat out for 10 of LA’s 16 contests. But aside from the King, several role players have either sparingly played or haven’t played at all.
In the latter category, Laker Nation has yet to see Trevor Ariza or Kendrick Nunn. Ariza, a longtime veteran and member of LA’s 2009 championship team, underwent ankle surgery before the season that will sideline him until December at the earliest. As for Nunn, the Purple and Gold made the third-year guard the fifth-highest paid player on the team with a two-year, $10.25 million contract. But he too has yet to play after battling a bone bruise in his knee.
Two other Lakers are finally back after weeks spent with Ariza and Nunn on the injured list. Wayne Ellington, who like Ariza was a favorite to start on opening night, made his debut on November 4 after missing the team’s first eight games. 10 days later, Horton-Tucker debuted after undergoing thumb surgery in the preseason.
There’s no doubt the Los Angeles Lakers should be better than they have been thus far. But they should also see overall improvements when several contributors Pelinka banked on are back on the court.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.