What LeBron James Can and Can’t Fix with These LA Lakers

Morry Gash/Associated Press

In 2019-20, Anthony Davis’ first season in Hollywood, the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t register their eighth loss till their 41st game of the year. In 2020-21, loss No. 8 came in game No. 30. And now, this season, following a 109-102 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday, the Lakers are 8-8, .500 through 16 contests.

Fans, analysts and members of the organization can easily (and maybe rightfully) chalk the slow start up to an early absence for LeBron James, who’s now missed 10 games to injury, but this was ostensibly a big part of why L.A. traded for Russell Westbrook.

The “two stars and depth” model earned the Lakers a title in 2020, but LeBron and AD broke down toward the end of 2021 before eventually falling to the Phoenix Suns in the first round of the playoffs.

Adding Russ—a prolific, night-in, night-out worker who played more minutes than all but eight players over the three seasons prior to this one—was supposed to be a hedge against stretches like this.

Instead, a solid outing on Wednesday notwithstanding, Westbrook’s non-LeBron minutes have been disastrous for the Lakers. 

So far, the Lakers are a disappointing (but manageable, given the small sample size) plus-0.5 points per 100 possessions when both LeBron and Russ play. They’re minus-8.3 when Westbrook plays without LeBron.

Russ’ individual numbers are better in the latter scenario (21.1 points, 8.6 assists and 8.3 rebounds per 75 possessions, with a still-below-average 53.5 true shooting percentage), but that’s far from a big enough consolation for that kind of team dropoff.

Of course, any team would struggle without its best player, and that’s especially true of LeBron-led squads. In each of his 19 seasons, LeBron’s teams have had better net ratings when he’s on the floor. And over the course of his whole career, that swing is a massive plus-11.3 (plus-7.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on, compared to minus-4.1 when he’s off).

L.A. will obviously be thrilled to have its 36-year-old do-everything forward return, something that could happen as early as Friday against the Boston Celtics, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. However, expecting LeBron to be a cure-all at this point of his career on this roster may be too much.

For one thing, coming back from this injury won’t suddenly eliminate health concerns. After well over a decade of seemingly impossible durability, given the number of regular, postseason and international minutes LeBron played, he’s finally showing signs of mortality.

He missed 27 games in 2018-19, his first season with the Lakers. In 2019-20, he got an unprecedented, pandemic-induced midseason hiatus before the postseason, something that certainly contributed to how fresh he looked throughout his title run in L.A. And then, injuries showed up again last season. He missed another 27 games, and he’s already up to 10 absences in 2021-22.

If another ailment creeps up, and decades of history suggest that’s in play for almost any NBA player who survives in the league to his late 30s, the Lakers are right back in the position they’re in now.

That’s a hypothetical, though, even for someone approaching his 37th birthday. The more concrete problem is a defense that’s been about as bad with LeBron on the floor as it is with him off.

LeBron has been a bit more consistent than he was in his last couple of regular seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he still tends to pick his spots on that end. And Westbrook is prone to mind-boggling lapses that even 25-year-old LeBron couldn’t have covered.

Positive Residual @presidual

The Russell Westbrook Experience, Part 2 https://t.co/VwXbQZ7KBa

Earlier this month, with 21 seconds left in the game and the Lakers down two to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Westbrook left his man (the nearest to the basket) to chase the ball like your eight-year-old nephew in the local youth league. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander predictably found Luguentz Dort for the wide-open dunk that sealed the loss.

And as random as that occurrence might’ve been for most other NBA players, it’s almost a given with Russ now. Complete letdowns on defense are part of the package, and it’s tough to imagine LeBron having the cure for another star’s years-long issue.

The return of LeBron won’t necessarily fix spacing issues either. He’s been below or right around the average three-point percentage in each of his Lakers campaigns, but even in his best shooting years, defenders always prioritized guarding the drive over his jump shot. In lineups with AD, LeBron and Russ, packing the paint will be the default for opponents.

On the season, L.A. has shot significantly better with LeBron on the floor, due more to the looks he creates than his own efficiency, but winning minutes with three non-shooters is more than an uphill climb in today’s NBA.

If this all sounds very “doom and gloom,” that’s because, in comparison to what we’ve seen from other contenders like the Golden State Warriors, Suns or Brooklyn Nets, it kind of is.

But again, it’s early. And LeBron has only played in six games. It’s almost impossible to draw well-informed takes from that little action. And, at the very least, his return bolsters the depth of a team that’s been missing more than him for much of this season.

AD, Westbrook, Kent Bazemore and Carmelo Anthony are the only Lakers who’ve shared the floor with LeBron for more than 100 minutes this season. Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn, L.A.’s fourth- and fifth-highest paid players, have yet to play a single minute with LeBron.

It’s fair to withhold grand judgments on this team before it’s healthy (even if that may elude them all season).

The offense should be generally better with LeBron back too. That sounds reductive, but few players across NBA history have been able to engineer high-efficiency possessions as consistently as LeBron.

While a Westbrook-led offense is often about leveraging chaos, LeBron’s are almost regimental. He operates in the middle of the floor, directs traffic around him, knows exactly which seam to attack and which kick-out or dropoff options will be most open.

What the Lakers have to somehow figure out is if there’s some overlap between those two contrasting styles. 

On Wednesday, Russ was plus-three, had 15 assists and limited himself to just three turnovers. Of those dimes, only five came in transition or immediately after Westbrook received a pass from someone else. Those may need to be more common when LeBron returns.

There may be a temptation to move LeBron off the ball more often. Again, he’s not an elite floor spacer, but he’s a better shooter than Westbrook. How do you take the ball out of LeBron’s hands, though?

Instead, Westbrook will need to learn how to feast when attacking off his own rebounds or after the ball has been swung around the floor. He’ll also need to move more when he’s off the ball. That isn’t a skill he’s had to hone much throughout his ridiculously high-usage career, but there are non-shooters who can thrive with timely cuts and flashes. Just watch Bruce Brown play for the Nets.

All of that will take time (if it ever happens at all), but this isn’t the only season in which LeBron has had to problem solve his way through the campaign. There were learning curves for various rosters in Cleveland and Miami too.

Like the ones before, it’s impossible for LeBron to straighten this out without playing. As early as Friday, he’ll be back at his abacus.

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