Over the halfway point of the 2021-22 NBA season, things haven’t exactly gone to plan for the Los Angeles Lakers, who find themselves behind the contending pack.
Sitting in ninth place (24-25) in the Western Conference, 3.0 games back of the Denver Nuggets in sixth and a whopping 15.0 games shy of the conference-leading Phoenix Suns, the Lakers are squarely in Play-In range with some serious work to do.
LeBron James injury update
Despite LeBron James playing some of the best basketball of his career, their season has been somewhat derailed by injuries and COVID-19 health and safety protocol absences, along with Russell Westbrook’s slow start to life in LA. James sat out Thursday’s 18-point loss to the Philadelphia 76ers as they once again fell back on the wrong side of .500 heading into the second night of a back-to-back in Charlotte.
The team announced shortly before tip off on Thursday that James would not play, listing him day-to-day with a knee injury. It’s the 13th game he’s missed this season with the Lakers posting a 5-8 record in games he’s missed.
The good news? Eight-time All-Star Anthony Davis is back in the lineup, returning for Tuesday night’s 106-96 win over the Brooklyn Nets. Davis had missed the Lakers’ previous 17 games after suffering a sprained left MCL back on Dec. 17 in a matchup against the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Lakers had gone 10-10 in games Davis has missed this season.
Los Angeles’ visit to Brooklyn was the third game of a six-game trip that continues with games against the 76ers, Hornets and Hawks, with a matchup against the reigning champion Bucks the following week. Of their remaining seven games before the trade deadline, they only play two teams above .500 and outside of their game against the Bucks, on paper, they have an opportunity to put together a nice run and make up some ground in the standings.
According to Tankathon, the Lakers have the third toughest remaining schedule this season and their next stretch of games in the lead up to the trade deadline could prove pivotal in the direction their season goes.
Lakers upcoming schedule 2021-22
|Date||Opponent||Time (ET)||National TV|
|Jan. 28||at Hornets||7:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|Jan. 30||at Hawks||1:00 p.m.||–|
|Feb. 2||vs. Trail Blazers||10:00 p.m.||–|
|Feb. 3||at Clippers||10:00 p.m.||TNT|
|Feb. 5||vs, Knicks||8:30 p.m.||ABC|
|Feb. 8||vs. Bucks||10:00 p.m.||TNT|
|Feb. 9||at Trail Blazers||10:00 p.m.||–|
With their full roster back on the floor, this next stretch of games will give them a good indication of where they stand, amid swirling speculation that some changes could be on the way.
It’s no secret that the Lakers need something to change and while Davis’ return could well be the lightning rod to spark a run and get them back on track, their roster issues go deeper than just having missed Davis for an extended stretch.
Head coach Frank Vogel’s job security has been the topic of recent speculation, with reports emerging that he is ‘coaching for his job’ as the Lakers struggle to gain ground in the Western Conference. A poor stretch of games in the lead up to the trade deadline could prove to be the final straw for the Lakers front office, who are desperately trying to make the most of what’s left off LeBron James’ championship window. (Although it looks like it could go another 10 years)
With limited salary cap flexibility and almost no draft capital, making a move at the deadline will be tricky. The Russell Westbrook-sized elephant in the room is the easiest to point to with the nine-time All-Star struggling to impact the team’s offense consistently, averaging 18.6 points (his lowest since 2009-10), 7.9 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game on 44.1/29.9/67.5 shooting splits — not to mention he’s making $44 million this season and has a $47 million player option in 2022-23.
“The challenge is how to be the version of myself for this team, that’s what I’m trying to figure out,” Westbrook told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. “I want to get better as the season goes on, and I’ve got to take responsibility for the things I’m doing and how I’m making those around me better. We have a legitimate chance to be able to win it all, and to do that, I’ll have to be better—and I know that I will be.”
Finding a buyer for Westbrook will be difficult, with Rockets guard John Wall a name that has been floated in recent days. The Undefeated’s Marc Spears reported Tuesday on The Hoop Collective podcast, that the only “realistic” target for the Rockets to make a deal for Wall would be for Westbrook, however, they would look for Westbrook to come off the bench if here were to suit up for them? Seems unlikely.
“I was told that they have a couple on the table, several on the table, but the only one that’s really has some, you know, realistic potential to it is with the Lakers for Russ. They actually make, I don’t know if it’s nearly to the same dollar, but a similar salary, so you can trade them one-for-one without including anybody else. That 2027 Laker pick that you mentioned before, that first-round pick, seems to be pretty coveted, and I would expect it to be included in such a deal. But John’s in Miami. He’s been working out. He actually asked the Rockets for permission to be in Miami so he could be near his kids and focus on working out.”
NBA reporter Marc Stein reported that if Westbrook were to find himself back in Houston they would likely look for him to take a buyout, with their main focus, getting off Wall’s contract and acquiring the Lakers’ 2027 draft pick.
Wall, who has not played a single game for the Rockets this season, on paper appears to be a better fit than Westbrook, but is it a move that puts them over the top? Probably not.
Kendrick Nunn and Talen Horton-Tucker have also been dangled in trade talks along with future draft assets, but what the Lakers could get in return remains in question.
If the Lakers are able to string together a run of games ahead of the trade deadline, with their full roster on deck, perhaps the trade talks die down, but as it stands, something has to change for the Lakers, whether it be on the roster or the coaching staff, we will just have to wait and see.