Expectations were high for the Lakers and Nets heading into the 2021-22 season. The Purple and Gold added Russell Westbrook to one of the top duos in the NBA, LeBron James and Anthony Davis, while Brooklyn was stacked with three future Hall-of-Famers, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving.
Slow starts are common and understandable, but it's safe to say things have gone sideways on both coasts more than halfway through the year. While other early struggling teams have begun to make their playoff pushes, the Lakers and Nets have gone the other way.
Here's a breakdown:
The Philadelphia 76ers: 19-16 on Jan. 1/ current record: 32-22/ 6-4 over last ten games
The Boston Celtics: 17-19 on Jan. 1/ current record: 31-25/ 8-2 over last ten games
The Atlanta Hawks: 16-19 on Jan. 1/ current record: 26-28/ 7-3 over last ten games
Dallas Mavericks: 17-18 on Jan. 1/ current record:32-23/ 6-4 over last ten games
Denver Nuggets: 18-16 on Jan. 1/ current record: 30-24/ 7-3 over last ten games
Minnesota Timberwolves: 16-19 on Jan. 1/ current record: 29-25/ 7-3 over last ten games
Now have a look at the Lakers and Nets:
Los Angeles Lakers: 18-19 on Jan. 1/ current record: 26-29/ 4-6 over last ten games
Brooklyn Nets: 23-11 on Jan. 1/ current record: 29-25/ 1-9 over last ten games
Los Angeles and Brooklyn are both going backward, and as things stand now, each squad is out of the top-6 in their respective conferences with no guarantee of making the real postseason.
Below we'll illustrate how the Lakers and Nets have become the two most disappointing teams in the NBA.
Los Angeles Lakers
Russell Westbrook has been dragged through the media like a ship anchor getting pulled along the bottom of the ocean during a hurricane. And after his last two games, which include an overtime benching during the Lakers' overtime victory against the New York Knicks, and a 3-11 performance against the Milwaukee Bucks, things are only getting worse. There’s no way around it, Russell Westbrook is one of the worst high-volume shooters in the league with a 30.0 3P% and 43.7% overall.
Westbrook's shooting woes are real, and they've hurt the Lakers throughout the season while causing aggravated fans in Hollywood, tired of seeing Brodie malfunction at the rim multiple times per game to seek psychiatric help. The Purple and Gold rank 23rd in the league in offensive rating, but the three-man combination of a healthy LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Malik Monk is one of the best scoring trios in the NBA.
LeBron James is second in the league in scoring, pouring in 29.1 points per game off clean, unguardable fadeaway jumpers and bull-in-the-antique-store rumbles to the rim.
Since Davis came back from a sprained MCL in his left knee, he's playing boulder-on-your-shoulder basketball, averaging a massive 28.0 PPG, 12.5 RPG, and 2.8 BPG. He's got that glint in his eye that sets the rest of the league on edge.
Over the last 15 games, Frank Vogel has upped Monk's minutes to 30.4 nightly, and he's responded by playing like a younger, more athletic CJ McCollum. He's averaging 16.1 points on 45.7% from deep while showing excellent cutting skills to the rim and burst through the lane through that span.
Nobody's trying to say the Lakers' bottom-ranked offense has not been a major disappointment.
The Lakers are only one spot up on the bricktacular New York Knicks in scoring production!!!!!
Still, it's the Purple and Gold's once-vaunted defense that has really sunk their season.
LA is 1-6 against the Western Conference's top-three teams, Phoenix, Golden State, and Memphis. All three organizations feature excellent backcourt duos. The Suns have an All-Star tandem of Chris Paul and Devin Booker, and the Warriors suit up MVP candidate Stephen Curry and sharpshooter Klay Thompson. Lastly, the Grizzlies start All-Star Ja Morant and future All-Star Desmond Bane.
The Lakers have nobody on the roster who can slow down these guard twosomes. As of late, head coach Frank Vogel has toggled between three starting backcourt players, Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, and Malik Monk, trying to find some type of two-way combination.
Russell Westbrook is one of the worst perimeter defenders in the league, and Frank Vogel has done everything in his power to minimize his deficiencies. He hides him on the worst perimeter offensive player from the opposing team, and he sends help when he is switched onto an elite scorer. Still, Westbrook is allowing his assignments to shoot 3.5% over their normal average, through 34.7 lackadaisical minutes per game where he routinely gets lost on help coverages and struggles to contain his man.
Avery Bradley tries hard, but Frank Vogel routinely tasks him with guarding the Ja Morant's, Stephen Curry's, and Chris Paul's of the league, a job he's not equipped to handle. Avery Bradley is allowing his cover to shoot 8.2% over his normal average, one of the worst marks in the league. At 6-3, 180-pounds, Avery Bradley doesn't have the size to bother shooters on the perimeter, and he tends to get lost maneuvering around screens.
Malik Monk was one of the worst defenders in the league last season for the Charlotte Hornets. This year, he's trying hard on the Lakers, and he's transformed into a solid player on the less fun end. Still, he's nowhere near a lockdown ballhawk with the skills to cool off the top point guards in the NBA.
The Lakers recent loss to the Bucks is a perfect example of their backcourt’s inability to get stops against a Milwaukee guard rotation of role players. The Purple and Gold ended up giving up a combined 43 points to J. Holiday, G. Allen, P. Connaughton, and D. DiVincenzo as the LA got stomped 131-116.
Lakers diehards will argue that Anthony Davis and LeBron James have spent significant time on the sideline with injury this season. That's true. LBJ and AD have missed close to a third of the season, and both men play excellent D.
Anthony Davis has played the rangiest defense in the league when he's been available. He's fifth in the NBA in blocked shots per game, providing the Purple and Gold with solid rim protection, and he's first in the association in contested three-point shots (minimum 10 games played) at 4.1 per contest. No defender in the league covers more ground on the less fun end than AD.
LeBron James's MVP case rests as much on his defensive prowess as his scoring output. He checks in with the league's sixth-best defensive field goal percentage (minimum 10 DFGAs) at 39.4%. LBJ is showing in 2021-22 he's more than capable of containing opposing centers down through small forwards, a feat only a handful of the most switchable defenders in the league can accomplish.
AD and LBJ's presence on D covers up a lot of missteps, but they don't solve LA's problems of stifling opposing guards. James and Davis's two-way play isn't nearly as potent in the Western Conference if the Purple and Gold don't have players like former Lakers Alex Caruso (98th percentile in Dunks and Threes defensive EPM) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (71st percentile in Dunks and Threes DEFEPM). Both athletes have the size, speed, and overall defensive capabilities to shut down opposing guards.
The Lakers haven't had time to gel with their constant injury problems, but if we're being honest, they don't have the parts to beat the guard-heavy top squads out west. The Lakers need to find better overall backcourt defense to go from a massive disappointment to a genuine playoff team.
The Brooklyn Nets are owners of the NBA's longest active losing streak after getting shellacked by the surging Boston Celtics on Wednesday night. They've lost nine games in a row and 10 of 12 since Kevin Durant was sidelined with a knee injury a couple of weeks ago.
The Nets have dropped from first in the Eastern Conference at the end of December to eighth place, clinging to a play-in spot, giving Brooklyn the honors of plunging through one of the largest month-and-change free-falls the NBA has ever seen.
Some of this is expected.
The Brooklyn Nets, like the Lakers, are the Swiss cheese of the NBA, with a plethora of injury holes up and down their lineup.
KD is a generational talent, and any team would feel his loss. Three-point ace Joe Harris has been out since the season's early stages with an ankle issue. LaMarcus Aldridge has also missed time with his own ankle problem. And you know about Kyrie Irving and his refusal to get vaccinated.
Still, the Nets have had future Hall-of-Famer James Harden nearly the entire season along with Patty Mills, the best backup point guard in the league, and the combination of DeAndre' Bembry and Bruce Brown, two young and athletic forwards.
James Harden has stunk it up over the Nets' recent rough stretch shooting 38.7% from the field through 37.8 uninterested minutes throughout Brooklyn's last 12 games. When James Harden was doing James Harden things in Houston, you could surround him with four random NBA players, spread the floor for him and let him pound the opposing team into submission through his relentless foul-drawing isolation attacks and his incredible passing ability.
This season, Harden is an All-Star, and he's averaging close to a triple-double, but like Russell Westbrook, the traditional stats don't tell the whole story. The Beard's usage rate is down to 33.6% in 2021-22, close to a full 10 percentage points lower than during his heyday in Houston. He's lost a step (or two), and his three-point percentage is the lowest of his career at 33.2%. It's become obvious Harden is not the same player he was when he bulldozed the league for the Rockets.
Making matters worse, James Harden looks like he doesn't want to be in Brooklyn, and now trade clouds have amassed overhead, with the latest intel, per ESPN, claiming there's a real chance the 76ers and Nets could pull off a Ben Simmons for James Harden.
This Harden situation is a mess, but it's not the first time we've seen him blow up a team. It seems like forever ago, but just last year, The Beard was a member of the perennial playoff contender, Rockets, before he showed up to work out of shape and forced Houston management to deal him.
The Nets' other future Hall-of-Fame guard, Kyrie Irving, might be the biggest frustration in the league. I will not criticize his choice to forgo the vaccine, but damn, his decision hurt the Nets. Irving is a wizard with the ball in his hands, and if he'd played the entire year building up chemistry with the rest of the roster, losing KD for a dozen or so games wouldn't be nearly the problem it has become.
As things stand, the Kyrie Irving in-on-the-road/out-at-home experiment has failed. The Nets are 4-8 with him in the lineup and have looked like a disjointed mess when he's suited up. Who knew team continuity is essential?
The Nets' disappointments go beyond their superstar backcourt and injuries.
They are 19th in the NBA in defense, lower than any NBA champion has ever ranked. While other teams like the Clippers and Mavericks have rallied around each other after an injury shelved their superstar, playing swarming defense and doing everything they can to eke out victories. The Nets have gone the other way, landing dead last in DEFRTG since KD went down.
The road ahead doesn't get easier for the Nets. Brooklyn has games against the Heat, Celtics, Bucks, Raptors, and 76ers coming up, and if they don't find a way to play at least passable defense, they could find themselves under .500 as February turns to March.
There Is Hope For The Lakers And Nets
You can't talk about the Lakers or Nets without first mentioning each squad's lengthy 2021-22 injury report.
A healthy and engaged LeBron James and Anthony Davis solve many problems. Barring a trade, the Lakers will continue to have issues stopping top-shelf backcourt players, but the duo of LBJ and AD should be enough to push the Purple and Gold into the postseason, where nobody wants to see them in a seven-game series.
Similarly, Kevin Durant, by himself, is about the surest thing to a playoff guarantee there is in the league. The Nets will continue to struggle with Kyrie Irving in and out of the lineup, and with James Harden's slow decline (if he isn't traded), but as long as KD and his offensive genius are ready to go, this Brooklyn squad will make the NBA's second season.