Over the past few weeks, the Lakers have been in the news constantly, as the trade rumor mill has picked up speed. The latest reports have the Purple and Gold shopping Talen Horton-Tucker, as they look for an upgrade at the wing position from players like Harrison Barnes or Jerami Grant.
Making matters more grim in Hollywood, are new tidings that Frank Vogel has been coaching for his job with the pressure intensifying after Kurt Rambis, a man who has a direct line into owner Jeannie Buss’s ear, sat in on his coaches-only pregame meeting prior to their Utah Jazz contest, something that is almost unheard of in the NBA. The Lakers won their game against the Jazz, giving Vogel a slight reprieve, but dumping Wednesday’s contest to the lottery-bound Pacers has not only pushed the Lakers under .500, but has ramped up the pressure on Vogel to level 10.
Gossip is fun, and overreactions after an ugly loss are common.
Perhaps Lakers management will sacrifice a promising young player like THT, or maybe they’ll actually fire Frank Vogel, the man who brought a title to LA a mere two seasons ago. Who knows what will happen.
We have one question: Do the Lakers have enough talent on their roster to compete for a chip without making a trade?
Despite everything, we say yes.
Next, we’ll show why the Lakers don’t need a player shakeup.
LeBron James Is Playing At An MVP Level
When LeBron James is healthy, he’s about the surest thing to a second-round playoff guarantee in all professional sports. LBJ’s resume is insane. He led the Cavs, Heat, and Cavs again to at least the semifinals 13 seasons in a row from 2006 to 2018, collecting three chips along the way.
In 2019, he suffered a groin injury, missed half the season, and was never quite the same when he came back during the regular season. The Lakers finished the year eight games under .500, out of the playoffs.
In 2020, he won the title with the Lakers in the bubble, dominating the competition with Anthony Davis.
Last season he missed 27 games with an ankle injury, came back, took off two more weeks because things weren’t quite right, and limped into the postseason at something like 80%. The Lakers were still up 2-1 against the Phoenix Suns despite LBJ’s gimpy ankle. Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope went down with differing leg injuries in game 3. The Suns ended up winning the series as LBJ jacked-up deep contested jumpers in contests 4 through 6 because his gimpy ankle sapped his burst to the rim.
In 2021-2022, LBJ is healthy again. He’s moved to ninth in Basketball References MVP rankings, an insane placement considering the Lakers are sitting at one game below .500 (LBJ is the only player on the list whose team doesn’t isn’t in the top-6 in their respective division).
You’ve heard it all before, but the corny one-liners are worth repeating:
- Father time catches up with everyone but 37-year-old LeBron James
- LBJ comes from an alien race that doesn’t age the same way we do
- James spends over $1 million a year taking care of his body, money well worth it because he doesn’t seem to get older
King James looks spry this year, like an in-his-prime version of himself. He’s attacking the rim like a beast connecting on 78.3% of his shots at the rim, his mid-range turnaround jumper has become death in a can (45.5% from 10 to 16 feet), and when opposing teams send help, he’s still an excellent passer, averaging 13.0 potential assists per game even though he shares the ball with another excellent setup man in Russell Westbrook.
Dunks and Threes rates LeBron James as the fourth best player in the league with a +7.2 estimated plus-minus, and NBA.com’s player impact estimate ranks him fifth in the association (minimum 15 minutes per game) at 17.9.
LeBron James has an argument as the best defensive player in the league in January. Through eight games in 2022, LBJ is holding his assignments to 8.4% under their normal average while defending 13.4 field goal attempts per game, both impressive numbers. But his versatility separates him from the other top lockdown specialists in the league. LeBron James has held his own on the block as a small-ball center and on the perimeter playing the wing position.
As long as LBJ continues to play at an MVP level, there’s no reason we should doubt his ability to drag the Lakers at least into the second round, especially with Anthony Davis set to get back into game action in the next week or so.
The Lakers Have Three Of The Best Minimum Contract Deals In The NBA
If you live outside of La La Land, you’ve probably never heard of Austin Reaves. He turned down an opportunity to get drafted by the Pistons in the second round of the 2021 draft to join the Lakers on a two-way contract. Reaves balled out in summer league and made the big boy squad. He was one of the few role players who performed consistently well for the Lakers during the first half of the year. GM Rob Pelinka rewarded him by guaranteeing his contract during the early stages of January.
Austin Reaves’s traditional numbers don’t jump off the page, but he’s an advanced stats hero. The Arkansas native leads the Lakers in defensive rating (minimum 15 MPG) at a solid 102.8 mark. He’s shown grit and hustle on the less fun end, going 110% as he rushes out to open shooters beyond the arc or locks down his assignments on the perimeter.
Austin Reaves is the perfect complementary role player next to LeBron James. He takes nearly all his shots at the rim or beyond the arc, hitting a massive 82.6% of his attempts within 0 to 3 feet while connecting on 36.7% from three-point range. When Reaves plays next to LeBron James, the Lakers are +6.8 points per 100 possessions.
Austin Reaves is earning less than $1 million this season, but he’s played more like a wily role player who’s been in the league for half a dozen years instead of freshman.
Stanley Johnson isn’t technically signed to a minimum deal. Instead, he’s on his third 10-day contract, but it feels like it’s only a matter of time before Lakers management inks him for the rest of the season.
At 6-6, 242 pounds, Stanley Johnson has the size to give the Lakers center minutes in small-ball lineups, and he also has the side-to-side mobility to bother the top offensive wings in the league. He’s given a Lakers team with one too many undersized guards, something they desperately need, a defensive wing who can take on the opposing squad’s best scorer.
He’s not a great outside shooter, but he hasn’t shied away from launching beyond the arc, nailing 0.7 three-pointers per game on 2.4 attempts. Through Johnson’s ten games in 2021-2022, he’s been the best finisher at the rim in the league, hitting 92.3% of shots within three feet of the basket, which has helped push his effective field goal percentage to 63%, a top-15 mark in the NBA.
With Stanley Johnson and his presumed minimum contract in the fold, he gives the Lakers the defensive toughness and the inside shooting they need to beat up on opposing squads.
Malik Monk rounds out the Lakers’ three top-tier minimum contracts.
He’s formed an instant synergy with LeBron James and Stanley Johnson at the low price of $1.8 million. When Monk, James, and Johnson play together with any other two Lakers players, they have a +11.3 rating per 100 possessions, good for the 96th percentile in the league. The three of them have scored at will, forced massive turnovers, and in general embarrassed the opposition. They’ve done it all without Anthony Davis, a top-10 player who dominates both ends of the court. Imagine what the combination of James, Davis, Johnson, Monk and maybe Avery Bradley or Talen Horton-Tucker will do together.
This season, Russell Westbrook is owed a massive $44 million, which has hamstrung the Lakers cap sheet. Fortunately, Rob Pelinka has assembled the talented group of Austin Reaves, Stanley Johnson, and Malik Monk at a huge discount.
The Lakers Have Been Missing 2 of Their Four Best Players
Anthony Davis has been out for over a month after suffering an MCL sprain on December 18th against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Lakers dumped their first four games after their 6-10 All-Star big man went down with an injury. But have shown flashes since.
In January, the Lakers are 5-4 with nice wins over the Utah Jazz, Atlanta Hawks, and Minnesota Timberwolves. The offense has been clicking, but the defense has been downright ugly at times (28th DEFRTG in January), giving up easy buckets in the lane without AD in the lineup. Once The Brow returns, he’ll help clean up the Lakers’ problems at the rim. It’s easy to see the Purple and Gold’s new rotation of R. Westbrook, M. Monk, A. Bradley, S. Johnson, A. Reaves, T. Ariza, C. Anthony, T. Horton-Tucker, L. James, K. Nunn, and A. Davis pulling together and rounding into form.
Kendrick Nunn has been out the entire season with a bone bruise that won’t seem to heal. The question is: Does Nunn have an argument as the Lakers' third-best player?
Russell Westbrook is undoubtedly the more famous athlete, but Kendrick Nunn was the starting point guard over the last two seasons for a Miami Heat squad that made the finals in 2020 and was the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference in 2021. Nunn is no scrub.
He’s a legitimate starting 1 who averaged 14.6 PPG and 38.1% from deep off 5.7 shots per game during the previous year.
Perhaps you think Westbrook’s overall stats and nine All-Star selections make him the better player. That’s fine. I disagree, but you can make a solid argument. There is no doubt, though, that Kendrick Nunn is an excellent fit on this version of the Lakers. Kendrick Nunn had some of the best catch and shoot numbers in 2020-2021, ending things with a 62.2 effective field goal percentage off 4.2 opportunities per game, showing he can play off LeBron James and Anthony Davis as they go to work on offense.
Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are the closest duo to LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the NBA. Butler plays the small forward position like James and also likes to bull rush to the rim but is capable of finding open teammates when the lane closes down on him. Bam Adebayo is a switchable big like AD who is an excellent rim protector and has a decent mid-range game.
Kendrick Nunn’s numbers from last year with Butler and Adebayo are outstanding. Miami Heat lineups that featured the three of them together were +4.8 points per 100 possessions.
Here’s the point: Kendrick Nunn has been out the entire season, but he’s a quality starting point guard in this league who has shown that he can excel next to a twosome like LBJ and AD.
Nunn will not miss the rest of the season. His knee will heal up eventually, and when it does, he’ll help the Lakers.
Russell Westbrook Seems To Be Settling Down
Russell Westbrook was benched for the final 3:52 of the Lakers loss to the Indiana Pacers and was so unhappy about not closing out the game he and left the arena without speaking to reporters.
Westbrook is also aware that Lakers management has tried to shop him, but his massive contract makes it nearly impossible to find a trade partner.
Things seem bleak for the disgruntled former MVP, but if you look closely, there is a glimmer of hope that Westbrook and the Lakers can make this work.
In January, Russell Westbrook’s frontcourt touches are down from 30.4 in December to a much more reasonable 25.3, third on the team behind LeBron James and Malik Monk. Westbrook is also taking fewer three-pointers since the turn of the new year at only 3.0 per game.
Russell Westbrook is getting to the rack instead of dribbling the ball around without a purpose or jacking up misguided shots from deep. He’s averaging a massive 14.3 drives per game in January with a 42.1% pass rate, showing he’s not a tunnel vision rim attacker who can’t get his teammates involved.
Overall, Westbrook is only coughing up the ball 2.0 times per game in January as he’s slowed things down.
The pessimists will say his field goal percentage is also down in January, which is true. The former MVP is shooting 32.0% overall through eight games, and he needs to shoot the ball better.
Westbrook is an incredibly talented player whose mistakes can supersede his gifts on the basketball court. Still, his shooting numbers will climb if he can continue to play in control while regularly putting pressure on the rim instead of settling for outside jumpers.
This January version of Russell Westbrook is an asset. He’s a player who can help the Lakers win instead of giving away games to less talented teams.
The Lakers Small Ball Lineup Has Added A Twist
There has been one benefit to Anthony Davis missing time over the last month and change: Frank Vogel has found a small-ball lineup that is hammering opposing squads.
Have a look:
R. Westbrook, M. Monk, A. Bradley, S. Johnson, L. James: 123.8 points per 100 possessions (89th percentile), and +10.7 overall across 147 possessions
LeBron James is impossible for opposing centers to cover, creating scoring opportunities in mass for Malik Monk, Avery Bradley, Russell Westbrook, and Stanley Johnson. The lineup above has blitzed the opposition on offense, and with Johnson and James’s toughness in the frontcourt have done just enough on defense to make this one of the best small ball groups in the NBA.
Could a 5-Man lineup featuring LeBron James play extended minutes and win in the playoffs?
No, they’d get hammered on the boards and in the post.
This talented small ball group gives the Lakers a unique look they can throw at the opposition in short bursts during the postseason, pushing any rival into scramble mode as they try to figure out how to deal with this added twist. Often in a tightly contested seven-game series with two talented teams, the squad that can toss out a different wrinkle, ends up winning.
Will The Lakers March Through The Playoffs?
The Western Conference is full of talented teams like the Suns, Warriors, Jazz, and Grizzlies. At the same time, the Eastern Conference is as deep as it’s been in the last 25 years.
It won’t be easy for any team to get to the mountaintop, and we’re not claiming the Lakers will win the title.
We’re saying that despite the Lakers’ first-half struggles, they have the talent as constructed to be considered a title contender. The Purple and Gold need to get healthy and continue to gel. Then their progress in January will turn into more wins.