Only 11 months ago, LeBron James and Anthony Davis led the top-seeded Lakers to their 17th NBA title, tying their long-time rival Boston Celtics for the most championships in league history. It was, in all likelihood, the most challenging Finals run to date because it followed a four-month pause near the end of the regular season, a postseason tournament held in isolation, and the sudden death of their franchise’s most beloved player, Kobe Bryant.
Immediately after their title celebration, the front office started preparation for the 2020-21 season with every intention to defend their hard-earned title. That didn’t exactly mean retaining their championship core, as several veterans on the team had expiring contracts, but it did mean management was looking for talent that would keep them at the top and fulfill their needs.
The Lakers walked away from free agency more loaded than before with Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell, the award’s runner-up Dennis Schroder, long-time perimeter threat Wesley Matthews, and former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Despite opting out of his deal and entering the open market, superstar Anthony Davis decided to run it back, re-signing with the team on a five-year maximum extension.
L.A. opened as the preseason title favorites and with a scorching 21-6 record to start, but things quickly turned south when Davis and later James missed time due to lingering leg injuries. Management made a splash signing former All-NBA center Andre Drummond in the buyout market, and the team got healthy just-in-time for their First Round matchup with the Suns, who they were favored against despite falling down to the 7th-seed.
The Lakers were in control leading the series 2-1 but in Game 4 at home, Davis suffered an ankle injury, allowing for the Suns to even it up and dominate Game 5 back on their home court. With the season on the line, Davis returned to the floor, however, it was clear just five minutes in he wasn’t in condition to play, leaving the team short-handed once again until the final buzzer.
The reigning champions and preseason favorites were bounced in the very First Round, to a team that hadn’t even been to the playoffs in 11 years. L.A. spent the next two months watching the Suns run through the West and come within two wins of the title in July, the same team they were close to putting away back in May.
Frustrated by their early exit and the poor play of their new additions, the front office set their sights on massive changes. They opted to ship away most of their supporting cast to land a game-changer who could provide them some insurance. But what followed that splash was a string of interesting signings that has some in the NBA world gushing and some others chuckling.
After reading this column which summarizes their offseason, you will decide whether you think Hollywood’s team will be a blockbuster success or a laughable train wreck:
- Box Office Attraction or Film Crew Nightmare?
On July 29th, the day of the 2021 NBA Draft, the Lakers had another one of their trademark superstar splashes, agreeing to trade Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and their first-round pick for two future picks and 9x All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook. The player known as “Mr. Triple Double” broke the league’s all-time record for the stat back in May, following an unbelievably productive run surging the basement Washington Wizards all the way back to the Eastern Conference playoffs.
At this stage of his career, the future Hall-of-Famer wants to compete for his first championship, joining a contender rather than trying to build one up on his own. He finally decided it was the right time to come home, aligning with two other All-NBA talents LeBron James and Anthony Davis on the L.A. Lakers. The three superstars form the NBA’s new scariest “super-team” and create the most talented trio in LeBron’s illustrious career.
But many in the NBA world believe that this experiment is destined to fail, considering LeBron and Russ are extremely ball-dominant players in the offense, and neither are exceptional off-the-dribble scorers or three-point shooters. Even worse, when LeBron starts playing at his absolute apex in the playoffs, Russ tends to fall apart due to massive inefficiency and poor closing, which are the reasons he hasn’t advanced to the Conference Finals in five years.
Three All-NBA talents in the starting lineup should translate to enormous success, but winning is never guaranteed with one of the biggest on-court egos the sport has ever seen.
- Are Sequels Better than the Original?
Two of the players celebrating the 2020 championship alongside LeBron and AD were former All-Stars and decorated defenders Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo. Dwight’s powerful inside presence gave the team an edge throughout the Finals run, and Rondo’s genius facilitating and Game 6 heroics off-the-bench sealed the deal for the title win.
Last year both left L.A. to play meaningful roles elsewhere, leading Dwight to Philadelphia and Rondo to Atlanta. The former proved to be a reliable interior force who dominated the Wizards in the First Round backing up Joel Embiid, and the latter went on a tear once he was traded to the Clippers, boosting their offense for their first Conference Finals run. Now both are returning on minimum deals to regain their bench roles and help push for another championship.
But it’s easy to be convinced that they won’t make the same needed impacts, because they’re two years older (both will be 36 in the playoffs) and they’ve lost a step defensively. You also have to wonder if Dwight will give it all he’s got since he already has his long-sought-after championship ring, and if Rondo will be able to replicate the same magic with more tear on his body.
These likely Hall-of-Famers have already shown they have what it takes to contribute this late in the game, but it will be difficult to do it again with a very different locker room.
- Were the Cameos Worth It?
On August 3rd, basketball diehards rejoiced when Carmelo Anthony agreed to a one-year deal with the Lakers, finally joining forces with his 20-year combatant LeBron James. Melo came close to retiring three years ago following a failed stint with the Rockets and a vendetta regarding his ego, but he revived his stature over the last two seasons erupting for the Trail Blazers while coming off the bench.
Melo’s arrival accompanies the returns of Dwight and Rondo, marking seven former (or current) All-NBA players on the roster, including one of their four remaining players from 2020, Marc Gasol. Pau’s younger brother played fairly well in his first season with L.A., spacing the floor with three-point shooting and protecting the rim versus starting lineups. He moved to the bench following the acquisition of Andre Drummond, although he still managed to perform in limited time.
But relying on these two former stars comes across as risky since they’ll be in the rotation’s top-7 and they’ll both be 37-years-old. Melo continues to prove he’s an effective scorer although he’s still a major liability defensively, and Gasol keeps producing in a team-friendly manner yet he’s certainly slowed down guarding opposing bigs.
This experienced duo is a tremendous bargain near the minimum price, but will they keep up in their roles as the grueling playoffs roll on?
- Can They Handle the Bright Lights?
With everyone mentioned above outside of Davis suiting up in their 30’s, management knew they needed to sign some younger legs to energize them through the long season. L.A. retained their 20-year-old weapon Talen Horton-Tucker on a hefty three-year-deal, signed former Jordan lottery pick Malik Monk on a minimum, and recruited the tenacious Kendrick Nunn for a very affordable 2-year contract.
The three are in line for significant roles playing on a championship-caliber team. Horton-Tucker fits the Alex Caruso mold of a do-it-all role player for the Lakers, Monk validated himself as a dangerous shooter off the bench, and Nunn continues to grow as an efficient dose of scoring in the backcourt. The last two, Monk and Nunn, could’ve easily earned more, yet they decided to take less in salary so they could play for a contender.
But you wouldn’t be foolish to think this trio won’t have the same success as their predecessors Caruso and Kuzma, mainly because of their offensive limitations. THT has never been a good outside shooter, Monk lacks the poise to play alongside starters, and Nunn has played horrifically in two playoff tournaments to start his career.
All three young guns should make for much-needed regular season upgrades, but are these the right ones to bet on for the most important stretch of the year?
- Will Audiences Remember These Guys?
Los Angeles has almost no wiggle room on their books due to three All-NBA players on their payroll, leading management to fill out their roster either with veterans on the minimum or undrafted players on cheap salaries. The safer move was to look for players with at least nine years of experience, signing Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, and Trevor Ariza, all of which are former Lakers.
Ellington stands to take the place of Caldwell-Pope as a knockdown three-point shooter who starts and finishes games. Bazemore is inserted into the Quinn Cook role as a guy who could space the floor and use his speed to penetrate. Ariza takes the role of Markieff Morris as a forward who could eat up minutes playing tough on the outside.
But you can foresee this aging trio being in way over their head, playing alongside three All-NBA talents and replacing the likes of younger champions. The soon-to-be 34-year-old Ellington is set to man the backcourt alongside the dynamic Russell Westbrook used to thriving next to James Harden and Bradley Beal, the 32-year-old Kent Bazemore will have to operate with less open looks now that he’s away from Steph Curry, and the 36-year-old Trevor Ariza will need to provide some sort of offense if he’s going to be used as a defensive anchor.
These veterans are still worthy of a place in the world’s most intense basketball league, but are they worthy of their spots overexciting younger players?
Hollywood’s team had the NBA world buzzing as they entered Free Agency with Russell Westbrook on his way home, creating a monstrous super-team next to LeBron James and Anthony Davis. There is no limit for a unit featuring the game’s most productive player, the game’s greatest team-player, and the game’s most talented frontcourt player.
However, in the days that followed Los Angeles made a series of fascinating moves, signing mostly old players and a few of the league’s journeymen. They were fortunate to acquire lots of experience on team-friendly deals, and even see the return of three former champions, yet you wonder if starting the season with aging veterans instead of young players was the smart move considering they’re always available in the midseason buyout or trade markets.
The Lakers with a healthy superstar trio and a respectable cast of NBA role players, including a handful of future Hall-of-Famers, creates enough of a ceiling to open the year as the favorites to win the NBA’s Western Conference, but having a mind-blowing six of the league’s 11 oldest players does create enough of a concern to have a pretty low floor.
So which way are you leaning? Either you think the team with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis is no question going to the West with a shot at winning the record 18th NBA Championship, or you think this team of veterans is destined to fall apart due to more injuries and poor chemistry among the stars.
Will the new look Lakers be a blockbuster success or a laughable train wreck? The vote is yours…