The retooling of the Los Angeles Lakers feels more like reconstruction, remodeling on the strength of good bones on an old house in an affluent neighborhood with plenty of new parts shuffled in and out of Staples Center.
It’s hard to remember a once-removed champion doing so much, so quick in the aftermath of playoff elimination. Especially when the reasoning can so easily be attributed to injury rather than ineffectiveness, age or anything else we’ve been fed for the last two months.
LeBron James has clearly heard some of the fair observations concerning the Lakers’ key acquisitions, namely Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard and Malik Monk, and in true James fashion has created a rallying cry for the upcoming season with a recent (deleted) tweet.
It’s no different than the “Washed King” narrative he created after the injury-riddled 2018-19 season the Lakers endured — even though anyone of note who called him that must’ve truly scrubbed all social media accounts to rid themselves of such incriminating evidence.
Nobody truly believed James was washed, even if the conversation about the game’s best player didn’t start and finish with him and him alone. No matter the truth or fantasy, he and Anthony Davis took full advantage in the Orlando bubble and captured yet another championship for the storied franchise before things came crashing down against the Phoenix Suns in the first round this past postseason.
Even then, a team with a healthy James and somewhat healthy Davis was expected to resume its spot at the top of the West and at least compete for another title, before the extreme home makeover was performed.
If anyone should be snatching tweets and taking names to the principal’s office, it should be the newest $200 million man (times two) in the Bay Area, who’ll have to babysit the future of the Golden State Warriors while having to drag what’s left of a championship core through a treacherous conference.
Romper Room on one side, Grumpy Old Men on the other.
The league’s top talent has become so plentiful and sustainable, it’s often hard to differentiate when the young flowers will bloom or the older ones will start to wither. Usually, it happens with very little warning, but as time passes on, the league’s thirtysomethings are holding on a wee bit longer than generations past.
And the Lakers are banking that experience will win, considering traditionally, it does.
But the questions are borne from years of watching the main characters exhibit traits worthy of hesitation even though nobody would dare count the Lakers out. They're still the second-best bet to win the 2022 NBA championship, per BetMGM.
How will Lakers deploy Russell Westbrook?
Westbrook has never — never — been the third option. He’s never been content to be a wallflower, or decoy, or screener for someone else. Every act of selflessness comes from being aggressively active in his movements, always with the basketball in tow. James has never played with a consistently errant perimeter player, and one wonders how the perfectionist in him will deal with the randomness that comes in the beauty that is Russell Westbrook.
Westbrook is determined, and James likely wanted that attribute to tap into when meeting before the trade was consummated.
Dwyane Wade was a more mature version of himself when James came to Miami, and even though he willingly downshifted a gear in their second season together, the Heat could’ve won a title if James had been something other than comatose in the Finals. Kyrie Irving is certainly unpredictable in a lot of ways, but not in the same way as Westbrook, and truthfully, the clock on that relationship started ticking the moment James made his triumphant return back home to the Ohio area.
The Lakers addressed issues that dogged them last season (perimeter shooting, defense) and only doomed them when James and Davis couldn’t be spectacular enough to overcome them. Howard is still an effective interior defender, and Monk could be a steal if he truly turned the corner last season as a shooter and consistent performer.
Monk shot a career-high, by far, 58% on corner threes, per Basketball Reference, and 41% off catch-and-shoot, per NBA.com.
Anthony may not be heavily depended on, but he can certainly be a hub in second-quarter stretches and late in the third when James and/or Westbrook need a break from running the offense.
Does this mean Davis will become a third option in the domineering presences of James and Westbrook? Someone has to willingly take a step back, and traditionally, it’s the best catch-and-shoot option of three primary scorers.
It doesn’t feel like James will be that considering he’s not that type of shooter despite his vast improvement in the area, and he’s too good, too dominant to be relegated. Besides, this team is built around the premise he must be great when it matters most for this team to contend worth a damn, and early tweets suggest another storyline he’s creating so he can aggressively knock it down next season for title No. 5.
One could argue this should be the point in James and Davis’ careers where roles reverse and Davis becomes the sun everything revolves around — his talent seems to demand that, and James would benefit from having to carry less of a load from October to April so he can have energy for June.
Until that happens, it’s hard to see it happening and perhaps, that’s another benefit to having Westbrook. He’ll eat up minutes and possessions like Pac-Man, going all out on offense with very little complaint if the two headliners want to pace themselves into games or the season.
How that looks will be interesting enough, and individually James has real threats to his throne as he approaches age 37. Kevin Durant might’ve been the best player in basketball long before the public was ready to admit it and he’s now almost universally accepted as such. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the true crown and could play with a champion’s arrogance as opposed to a challenger’s apprehension now that questions have been answered.
No team is flawless, and no matter the moves Rob Pelinka made recently, a James at less-than-optimal health or effectiveness spells doom regardless.
The one who presented the questions about the Lakers’ personnel moves was the man who made them, not the public for reacting to it.
Pelinka put the questions to James, and it is he who must answer.
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