No NBA team was more disappointing this season than the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. opened the season among the inner circle of favorites to win the NBA championship, joining the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks as the only teams with better than 10-to-1 title odds, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Alas, the Lakers won’t even get to participate in the play-in tournament, let alone the playoffs or the NBA Finals.
The degree to which they fell short of expectations is not quite unprecedented, but still makes this among the small handful of most disappointing seasons in recent memory. The Lakers underperformed their preseason over/under by 19.5 wins. But it wasn’t just the betting markets that thought highly of the Lakers. While there were plenty of skeptics of the Russell Westbrook trade, L.A. was nevertheless predicted to finish at or near the top of the Western Conference standings by a great many prognosticators.
Just about the only expectations the Lakers did not dramatically underperform were those of the FiveThirtyEight RAPTOR-based prediction model — but even RAPTOR did not project that they would finish below .500 and miss both the playoffs and play-in tournament entirely. Instead, we predicted a 42-40 finish. Our model did, however, pretty much nail the single-biggest reason L.A. disappointed so badly. As we wrote in our season preview:
The model does not like this version of the team. L.A. has the ninth-best projected record in the conference, which would have the Lakers once again competing in the play-in tournament. The reason behind that: RAPTOR views LeBron James and Anthony Davis as the only net-positive players on the roster during the regular season. The model is particularly low on Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, who are projected to play sizable roles.
Navigate over to our RAPTOR leaderboard for this season, and you’ll see that among those who played at least 750 minutes this season, James and Davis are the only Lakers who rated plus-2.0 or better. That’s a dramatic drop-off from the previous two seasons, when the Lakers had five (James, Davis, Danny Green, Alex Caruso and JaVale McGee in 2019-20) and four (James, Davis, Caruso and Montrezl Harrell the following season) players rated plus-2.0 or better. Not only that, but after having four (James, Davis, Green and Dwight Howard) and three (James, Davis and Harrell) rated as positives on both offense and defense in the last two seasons, the Lakers had two (James and Austin Reaves, the latter just barely) this year.1 Westbrook, meanwhile, was worth negative-3.1 points per 100 possessions, one of five players rated negative-2.0 or worse.
Beyond lacking depth and two-way contributors, the Lakers did not get the performances they might have reasonably expected out of their stars. After adding 7.1 and 5.6 points per 100 possessions to his team’s performance the past two regular seasons, James added only 4.7 this year. That’s quite good, but also outside the top 10 players leaguewide. And after Davis was worth 5.7 and 4.0 points per 100 possessions to L.A.’s scoring margin in 2019-20 and 2020-21, he was worth just 2.3 points per 100 this season, and also missed large chunks of the season due to injury. That’s not bad, but surely the Lakers expected Davis to be worth more than, say, Kevin Love. This is in part because James and Davis combined to play only 3,488 minutes, which was more than they played last year but fell far short of the 4,447 they played during the Lakers’ title season. After playing in more than 94 percent of his teams’ regular-season games through the first 15 years of his career, James had played only 74 percent of Laker games entering this season. (He played 68 percent of games this year.) Davis, meanwhile, has now missed 88 of 226 regular-season games since arriving in L.A.
It’s notable that the only two non-James-and-Davis players who rated as net positives were rookie Austin Reaves and fifth-year guard Malik Monk, two of only three rotation players on the team who were under 25 years old this season. The team L.A. built was extremely old, with a minutes-weighted age of 30.2 years old, according to Basketball-Reference.com. That made the Lakers the oldest team in the league this season by nearly a full year, as well as tied for the 36th-oldest team (out of 1,260) since the NBA-ABA merger prior to the 1976-77 season.
Building such an old roster carries risk, as evidenced by not just this team but similarly aged teams of the past. Using a metric called Wins Above Age-Derived Expectation, or WAADE,2 we can see that the 49 teams since 1976-77 with a minutes-weighted age above 30 years old have combined to underperform expectations by an average of 3.11 wins per season. This particular Lakers team underperformed by 19.82 wins, which ranks 1,202nd out of the 1,260 team seasons in the database. It’s the ninth-worst mark since the 2010-11 season — and it gives the Lakers three of the 10 worst WAADE seasons since then.
|2014-15||New York Knicks||26.9||17||65||-25.99|
|2015-16||Los Angeles Lakers||26.5||17||65||-24.14|
|2014-15||Los Angeles Lakers||27.0||21||61||-22.45|
|2021-22||Los Angeles Lakers||30.2||33||49||-19.82|
The worst Laker season among those included here was the 2015-16 campaign, also known as Kobe Bryant’s farewell season. That was the nadir of Lakers basketball, and the organization spent the next two seasons both stockpiling young talent and clearing cap space for a run at James.
We can use RAPTOR wins above replacement to map out the Lakers’ rise to the top and subsequent fall from grace, going back to Bryant’s final season. From the end of that 17-win debacle through the team’s 2020 title run, L.A. added an average of 10 net wins per 82 games each season, via a combination of internal improvement (5.2 extra wins per year) and savvy acquisitions outweighing departing talent (4.8 wins per year).
|Net WAR/82 from…|
Unsurprisingly, acquiring James for the 2018-19 season made a significant impact. He was worth +8.3 net wins per 82, and the additions of Davis (+10.8) and Green (+5.5) further bolstered the roster for 2019-20, to go with James’s own bounce back from injury (worth +5.1 net wins of internal improvement). As they built to a championship, the Lakers’ returning players always improved year-over-year, and the value of their new acquisitions almost always ran up a big margin over the cost of their departing talent. That formula is how you go from 3.8 WAR per 82 to 43.8 WAR per 82 in the span of just four seasons.
But the years since have not been as kind in this accounting. Between 2019-20 and 2020-21, L.A.’s returning talent got worse by nearly 11 net wins per 82 games, causing the team to fall off by nearly 10 WAR overall despite its newcomers continuing to outproduce its departures in terms of production. (Injuries to James and Davis explained essentially all of this drop-off.) And the bottom completely fell out this season, with another dip for returning players and a massive deficit of more than 13 wins per 82 for newcomers relative to departures. (Hello, Westbrook; goodbye, Harrell, Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, among others.)
Amazingly, the Lakers’ decline to 19.4 WAR per 82 games this season leaves them worse off now than they were at the end of the 2017-18 season (24.7 WAR per 82), the year before they added James. In essence, all of the gains Los Angeles made in WAR during the immediate lead-up to its 2020 championship have since been lost — and then some.
The question, then, is how do the Lakers get themselves out of this mess? The answer is … well, there might not be one. L.A. has only five players under contract for next season — James, Davis, Westbrook (assuming he picks up his $47 million player option), Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn — but those five combine to put the Lakers well over the projected salary cap, and they carry enough of a cap hit that merely signing minimum contracts to fill out the roster would bring the team’s total salary over the luxury tax line.
Is there a Westbrook trade out there similar to the one the Lakers themselves made last offseason? It seems unlikely that anyone will be lining up to take on his gigantic salary commitment — let alone giving up assets to do so, as the Lakers did. They might instead have to attach first-round picks to Westbrook to get another team to take on his money (and likely negotiate a buyout). The problem is that the Lakers already owe their 2022 pick to either the Pelicans (if it falls between No. 1 and 10) or Grizzlies (between No. 11 and 30), while the Pelicans also own swap rights to L.A.’s top 2023 pick and the 2024 pick outright.
Once the 2022 draft passes, the Lakers gain an extra first-rounder they can throw into trade offers. But with James under contract only through next season, they may want to hang onto those assets so they have something in the chamber to build around Davis, should James decide to leave after next year so he can eventually go play his final season with his son, Bronny. James is extension-eligible this offseason, but it’s hard to see him wanting to commit to additional years with the Lakers, given the state of the roster.
And there’s also the question of whether the Lakers should even want to commit to James beyond next year. He is now regularly missing games, his performance is beginning to drop off from “best player in the world” to “one of the best players in the world” levels, and he’s unlikely to get better as he approaches 40 years old. But if James is not the foundation of the team’s next few years, who is? Davis can’t be counted on to stay healthy, either, and the young players who performed well this season are not under contract beyond this year.
Davis has already had to address potential trade speculation, and it’s possible that a Davis deal could be the Lakers’ best way out of this mess. But even sending him elsewhere for a package of players and picks would almost certainly not make the Lakers a better team next season, and it’s hard to imagine such a deal netting them a long-term commitment from LeBron. It also wouldn’t solve the Westbrook issue, nor would it deliver an answer regarding the best coach for this team going forward, with L.A. parting ways with Frank Vogel. Then there’s the overarching question of whether the front office is even capable of building a winner. After all, the Lakers landed James in free agency in 2018 largely because of their location in Southern California, not their shrewd management.
Barring a similar stroke of fortune, the Lakers will have to do the hard work of rebuilding their roster — and do it without the kind of assets teams often need to build winners. It’s an unenviable task made all the more difficult by the organization’s unfamiliarity with its current circumstances. The franchise has almost always been one that is smiled upon by the Basketball Gods, with stars seemingly lining up to play in Forum blue and gold for decades. But the Forum is long gone, these Lakers are not those Lakers, and it’s unlikely that there’s a savior on the horizon. There’s no easy way out of this predicament, and thus no clear path back to contention.
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