The Lakers came into the 2021-22 season with championship aspirations after climbing the mountain two years ago and then looking dominant in 2021 as they went up 2-1 on the eventual Western Conference Champion Phoenix Suns before injuries to Anthony Davis and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope blasted them out of the first round.
Things haven’t gone according to plan this year. The Lakers are 27-34 in what is becoming the most disappointing season in Lakers history. Rob Pelinka made a massive mistake trading for Russell Westbrook, a player who thrives with the rock in his hands and looks lost playing off-the-ball next to LeBron James. Anthony Davis is a top-10 player when he’s right, but ever since he put a chip in his pocket hasn’t been able to stay on the court.
The Purple and Gold’s problems go deeper than their mismatched and hobbled “Big-3.” The Lakers are a top heavy mess. Rob Pelinka pushed nearly all his available cap space into three maxed-out players, leaving the rest of the roster a barren wasteland. LA currently has one viable center, Dwight Howard, who at 36 has trouble playing extended minutes. They also have no legitimate 3-and-D wings who can spread the floor on the fun side and play above-average defense.
For all the Lakers’ problems, they still have what nearly every other organization in the NBA covets, a top-5 player in LeBron James.
LBJ has kept Father Time tied up in the basement longer than anyone expected, but he’s chewing through his ropes and is bound to escape at some point. The Lakers have one more chance to reset around their superstar and chase another title.
Below we propose three offseason scenarios that would allow the Purple and Gold to construct a better roster for LeBron James by trading Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis.
Scenario No. 1
Houston Rockets Receive: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: John Wall, Christian Wood
Boston Celtics Receive: Anthony Davis
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Jaylen Brown, Robert Williams III
Lakers New Starting Lineup: John Wall, Jaylen Brown, LeBron James, Christian Wood, Robert Williams
The Lakers and Rockets finally swap the two worst contracts in the league. John Wall is not a better player than Russell Westbrook, but he’d probably be a nicer fit in LA. The Lakers make this deal hoping after John Wall spent the entire 2021-22 season sitting on his sofa, he’d be happy to take the kind of 3-and-D role that Brodie has scoffed at. Wall isn’t known for his long distance shooting or on-ball defense, but he’s a much better ballhawk than Russell Westbrook, and without significant playmaking duties, he should go hard on D for the Lakers. Wall is also only a couple years removed from shooting 37.1% from three-point range for the 2017-18 Wizards, a season mark Brodie has never come close to reaching.
The Lakers would also land Christian Wood to play the starting power forward position. Wood is averaging a double-double for the Rockets this season with 17.5 PPG and 10.1 RPG. He’s not a top-tier rim protector, but he’s mobile enough to play the 4 and would provide excellent supplementary shot blocking for the Purple and Gold. Wood is a solid three-point shooter, connecting on 37.4% from deep off 4.9 attempts per game, and he’s a springy leaper who finishes well at the rim.
The Lakers would hate to lose Anthony Davis because he’s already proven he can win a title next to LeBron James. The problem for the Purple and Gold is simple, though, AD can’t stay on the court, and LA can’t waste another year of LBJ’s greatness, praying their superstar big man makes it through the season in one piece.
The Lakers would acquire Jaylen Brown and Robert Williams III, two durable players for the oft-injured AD. Jaylen Brown is one of the best two-way wings in the league who’d fit perfectly next to LeBron James. Brown could take some of the pressure off James in the half-court with his ability to create his own look off-the-dribble. He’s also an excellent spot-up shooter who’d spread the floor for The King. Brown is a top-tier defender who has no problem taking on the opposing squad’s best offensive wing and locking him down.
Robert Williams III is one of the best defensive centers in the league. He’s a quick-twitch, long-armed menace anchoring the Celtics’ second-rated defense with his rim protection and ability to cover smaller players off switches.
The Lakers starting lineup of J. Wall, J. Brown, L. James, C. Wood, and R. Williams would come with some risks. John Wall could go into the 2022-23 season completely washed. Christian Wood has spent nearly all his time in Houston playing the center position and could struggle moving down a spot. Still, this grouping would feature a steady cast of players who all play, at worst, solid defense and who’d know their roles and excel next to LeBron James.
On the other side of this deal, the Rockets make this trade with the hopes of buying out Russell Westbrook and saving some cash. They’d also land a solid young two-way wing in Talen Horton-Tucker who could grow next to rookie Jalen Green.
The Celtics make this deal because they still look like their one tier below the 76ers, Bucks, and Heat in the Eastern Conference. A healthy Anthony Davis paired with Jayson Tatum would give them a real shot at a title.
Scenario No. 2
Minnesota Timberwolves Receive: Russell Westbrook
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley
Miami Heat Receive: Anthony Davis
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Bam Adebayo, P. J. Tucker, Max Strus
Lakers New Starting Lineup: D’Angelo Russell, Talen Horton-Tucker, LeBron James, P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo
D’Angelo Russell isn’t necessarily a better player than Russell Westbrook. Russell struggles to get to the rack, is not a natural playmaker, and isn’t an elite pick and roll ball handler. Still, he’d be a perfect fit next to LeBron James on the Lakers. Russell is taking more than half his shots from beyond the arc in 2021-22 while connecting on a ho-hum 35.2% of his attempts. That’s OK. He’s 10 flights above Westbrook as an outside shooter, a player who must be accounted for at all times and who’d naturally spread the floor for LeBron James, helping him get into the lane.
D’Angelo Russell isn’t the speediest defender in the league, but he’s learned to leverage his size and surprisingly quick hands to become a top-tier perimeter ace. Overall on the season, Russell is averaging a solid 2.0 deflections per game while holding his assignments to 44.4% from the field.
Malik Beasley’s four-year, $60 million contract is borderline terrible, but he makes the D’Angelo Russell for Russell Westbrook trade math work, so he’d join the Lakers in a backup role where he’d be an upgrade over LA’s current personnel. Beasley’s a 3-and-D type of player who shoots a decent 36.5% from deep off 8.1 attempts per game while playing average perimeter defense.
In the second part of our scenario, the Lakers give up AD for Bam Adebayo, P. J. Tucker, and Max Strus. AD is the best player of the bunch, a game-changing, two-way force. Again, the Lakers can’t wait around hoping The Brow stays healthy.
Bam Adebayo,24, has one All-Star appearance to his name versus Anthony Davis, 28, who’s made the NBA’s mid-season classic eight times. Adebayo doesn’t feature the type of top-end talent that AD possesses, and he’s probably not an All-Star in the Western Conference. With that said, he’s proven he’s more than capable of playing second-fiddle to a superstar on a championship-caliber squad by helping guide the Heat to the Eastern Conference crown in 2020.
Adebayo is a game-changer on defense. He’s a 6-9 interchangeable center, an elite rim protector, and perimeter disrupter. On the season, he’s holding his covers to 5.4% under their normal average while picking up 2.5 deflections nightly as he guides the Miami Heat’s 6th rated defense. On the fun side of the ball, Adebayo constantly pressures the rack with his ability to use an array of spin moves and a quick first step to blow by slower centers on the perimeter or by crashing down the lane in pick and roll actions.
P. J. Tucker and Max Strus are also solid role players. Tucker played an instrumental part in the Bucks title last season, providing stirring defense as he held some of the best offensive players in the world to a 43.3% shooting mark throughout the 2021 postseason. Strus is an excellent backup forward. He’s averaging 10.6 PPG off a 40.3% clip from deep while playing hard-nosed defense this season for the Heat.
Unlike this year’s Lakers squad, that is the Jane Doe of the NBA, our updated version of the Purple and Gold would have a true identity. Lakers management would surround LeBron James with four excellent defenders in D. Russell, T. Horton-Tucker, P. Tucker, and B. Adebayo who’d help him get stops on the less fun end and who’d defer to the King and his playmaking greatness on offense.
The Timberwolves make this deal for Russell Westbrook because he’s still a valuable NBA player. Brodie’s an awful fit next to LeBron James, but his drive and kick game would flourish with Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards, two excellent three-point shooters.
The Heat would instantly make this trade because, as great as Adebayo is, he’s a tier below Anthony Davis. The combination of a healthy AD, J. Butler, K. Lowry, and T. Herro would be enough to win it all.
Scenario No. 3
New York Knicks Receive: Russell Westbrook, Talen Horton-Tucker, 2027 First-Round Pick, 2023 Second-Round Pick
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, Kemba Walker, Alec Burks
Phoenix Suns Receive: Anthony Davis
Los Angeles Lakers Receive: Deandre Ayton, Mikal Bridges
Lakers New Starting Lineup: Kemba Walker, Mikal Bridges, LeBron James, Julius Randle, Deandre Ayton
This trade with the Knicks would be risky as hell for the Lakers. They’d be trading Russell Westbrook, a player whose contract expires at the end of the 2023 season, for three questionable players in Julius Randle, Evan Fournier, and Alec Burks, all of whom recently signed multi-year deals. The Lakers make this transaction despite the hazards because there is tremendous upside here, and in LA, it’s play for a title or go home.
Julius Randle has struggled this year in New York. His three-point percentage has cratered down to 30.1%, he’s hitting only 62.7% of his shots at the rim, and he’s turning the ball over 3.5 times per game, the worst mark of his career. It’s not all bad, though. Randle’s still one of the best big men playmakers in the league. He leads the Knicks in passes made at 52.9 per game and in assist points created (14.8 per contest). Randle also crashes the glass hard, picking up rebounds in tight spaces.
Most importantly, Randle’s on-ball defense is upper-tier. He doesn’t provide elite rim protection, but he can hold his own on the block against post players and switch onto quicker guards by the arc. Julius Randle is stifling his assignments into a 42.9% connect rate on the season, an excellent mark.
Evan Fournier’s four-year, $78 million contract is excessive. Still, he’s averaging 14.6 PPG while hitting 39.6% from deep this season for a New York team lacking a genuine playmaker. Imagine what he’d do next to LeBron James? Fournier’s outside stroke would make him an excellent floor-spacing sixth man for the Lakers.
Kemba Walker is the third player to suffer the Boston Celtics’ point guard curse, following Isiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving down the rabbit hole after leaving Beantown. Is Walker, 31, washed? He’s only two years removed from making the All-Star team. Kemba Walker might never get back to his Charlotte Hornets days of dominance, but he can still be a valuable player for the Lakers. Walker has a 36.0% career three-point mark and can provide secondary playmaking for LBJ and Randle. And if he struggles, the Lakers can bench him and bring in Austin Reaves to play the 1.
Alec Burks is a professional scorer. He’s knocking down 38.5% of his three-point attempts and 39.4% of his shots from 16 feet to the arc in 2021-22. He’ll be an offensive boon for the Lakers off the bench.
The Lakers’ transaction with the Suns would also be risky. They’d be trading a superstar in AD for Deandre Ayton, who’d presumably get maxed out by Phoenix before the deal, but might not be a future All-Star. The Purple and Gold make this trade because even though Ayton can’t manufacture his own points like Davis, he’s a dependable young center who has proven he can anchor a championship-caliber defense while playing as perhaps the best roll man on offense.
The Purple and Gold would also land Mikal Bridges in this deal. He’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, a no-ego player who has single-handedly shut down the likes of Stephen Curry, James Harden, and Trae Young this season. Bridges is connecting on 35.8% of his long-distance looks in 2021-22, but he’s much more than just a 3-and-D player. Roughly 40% of his shots this year have been off drives to the rim where he’s hitting a very impressive 60.3% of his attempts. Bridges, 25, is averaging 13.4 points per game this season alongside Devin Booker and Chris Paul, two players with usage rates north of 25%. It would be easy to see Bridges putting up 17 points or more per game if given a chance.
Throughout LeBron James’s career, we’ve seen that if you surround him with a good defensive big man and three players who can connect from deep, you’re guaranteed a trip to the second round of the playoffs, and more times than not, he’ll get you all the way to the finals.
This version of the Lakers might not have another star, but it would be stacked with fringe All-Stars who’d know their role and who could easily help LBJ pocket his fifth chip.
From the Knicks’ point of view, this would be an incredible trade, an opportunity for a do-over because NY is devoid of a true All-Star with little hope for the future. The Knicks would be horrible next season, but things can’t get much worse than what we’ve seen from them this year. After going through hell during 2022-23, they’d have heaps of cap space. Westbrook and his $47 million contract would be off the books. The Knicks front office wouldn’t be tied down by Randle, Fournier, and Burke's long-term deals either. New York could build a coherent team around RJ Barrett.
The Suns would also take our deal in a heartbeat. Phoenix owner, Robert Sarver, doesn’t think much of Deandre Ayton. He refused to max him out after he helped the Suns reach the NBA finals. And while Phoenix would miss Mikal Bridges, they have Cameron Johnson, another excellent two-way wing, waiting patiently to step into the starting lineup. A combination of Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Anthony Davis would be one of the best trios in the league, a grouping more than capable of hanging a banner together.
The Lakers Offseason Will Be Must-See-TV
The Lakers still believe if Anthony Davis returns from injury before the play-in tournament, they can make noise in the playoffs. That’s a nice sentiment, but there’s no evidence from the 2021-22 season showing LBJ and AD can make it work with Russell Westbrook and their cast of minimum-contract role players. In fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Purple and Gold miss the postseason altogether. They’ve lost three in a row coming out of the All-Star break, and the 10th seeded New Orleans Pelicans are only 1.5 games back of them while the 11th seeded Portland Trail Blazers sit only 2.5 behind them.
If the Lakers miss the postseason or get knocked out in the first round, things will blow up in La La over the offseason. Head coach Frank Vogel could be gone as well as GM Rob Pelinka. Russell Westbrook could accept a buyout or get traded, but it’s doubtful he’ll be in Hollywood next season. AD could also get shipped out if the right trade becomes available. The Lakers will almost certainly look different next year, but they could go full-makeover on the NBA and come back with LeBron James and a brand new crew surrounding him.