In his 20th year in the NBA, LeBron James remains an elite player capable of leading a championship contender. Unfortunately, he isn't playing for one.
The LA Lakers won the title just over two years ago in the Orlando bubble, but they’ve been in a rotten way since. After a first-round Playoff exit in 2021, they missed the postseason entirely last season.
This term the Lakers' start was the joint-worst in franchise history after they lost their opening five games. They've drifted out to +3300 to win the championship and they’re +165 to simply make the Playoffs.
In just their second game of the season, TNT analyst Reggie Miller called the Lakers’ biggest issue. He said that their three-point shooting was off and it consistently came up short when it mattered. Throughout that game with the Clippers, the Lakers continued to miss what Miller labelled ‘timely threes’, offering the Clippers a route to victory.
That issue is clear in the Lakers roster and it’s been shown so far on the court. During their five-game losing streak, the highest number of threes the Lakers scored was 10 from their opener, but that was just a quarter of all their perimeter attempts.
The best return the Lakers had in that five-game run was converting 31% of their threes against the Minnesota Timberwolves. When the Lakers finally got a win on the board, it came after a night where 43% of their threes landed.
It’s understandable for a team to struggle from deep if their best distance shooter is going through a rough spell. The problem for LA is that they don’t really have one. Their 13 made threes in that game were split between seven players, with none hitting more than three. That means they need a lot of players to stay consistent, or else their attacking threat dries up.
After the Lakers’ terrible start the team hierarchy has come in for serious flak for their roster construction. Surrounding LeBron with shooting has become a bit of a cliché, while it isn’t exactly some masterplan.
The idea is that LeBron should be on a side that have a real perimeter threat. That pulls defenders out of the paint and creates space for James to charge through. Of course, if you put any quality forward on a side like that, most of them would probably thrive.
The roster-building criticism ignores one thing - LeBron played a key role in putting this team together. The star has been criticised for his front-office involvement throughout his career, earning the nickname ‘LeGM’.
Along with his agent Rich Paul, James made a series of demands to the Lakers which slowly ripped apart their 2020 title-winning team. Going all in for Russell Westbrook cost them Kyle Kuzma, while his salary prevented them from renewing Alex Caruso’s deal.
They slowly lost the defensive strength and shooting threat which had built up, causing the decline the Lakers find themselves on.
In an ideal world, this Lakers side would now be built around Anthony Davis with LeBron revelling in the space created by teams doubling on AD. However, the former New Orleans Pelicans big man can’t stay on the court, with injuries hampering his career.
AD has missed over half of the Lakers’ games across the last two seasons, which means he isn’t a player you can build around. Instead, the team sought out a third star who could partner LeBron when Davies missed out, but that caused the Westbrook problem.
Westbrook starred for the Washington Wizards in 2020/21, setting the record for most triple-doubles in history. However, the fit for him in LA just hasn’t worked, while the hostile reaction he has received seems to have dented his confidence.
Westbrook was getting hate from fans in a recent defeat that he didn’t even play in, because his trade used up basically all the capital the Lakers have. Last season they shopped around their 2027 first-round pick to the point where it basically became a punchline.
The Lakers’ struggles mean they project to be bad by the end of the 2020s, making the 2027 and 2029 picks they’re offering look valuable. The problem is they need to use those just to get rid of Westbrook now, with the trade return unlikely to provide much more than some added role players.
Not only has adding Westbrook hampered the current side, it's also cornered the Lakers in the trade market. Accepting their fate this season and waiting for his deal to expire in the summer seems like the least-worst option for them.