Fortunes were supposed to be different this time. New coach. New young players. A healthy LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Yet the Lakers are struggling as mightily as they did before, entering Sunday 0-5.
The Lakers blew a fourth-quarter lead last Sunday against the Trail Blazers, with Russell Westbrook shouldering the blame for an ill-advised jumper with less than 30 seconds left and the Lakers up by 1. In Denver, with Westbrook out with a hamstring injury, the Lakers played one good quarter and were put away late by the Nuggets.
Meanwhile, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, who put together this flawed roster, just signed a contract extension. And owner Jeanie Buss continues to make the major decisions.
The organization is a mess, and nobody is going to feel sorry for a team that includes James and Davis.
Pelinka sought to improve the roster by getting considerably younger, signing Lonnie Walker, a former first-round pick who never reached his potential in San Antonio; Troy Brown, who flamed out with his two previous organizations; and Juan Toscano-Anderson, a former defensive spark plug in Golden State who lost his role last season to Gary Payton II.
The Lakers got younger but not necessarily more talented. The problem is perimeter shooting. The Lakers entered Friday’s game against the Timberwolves last in the NBA in 3-point percentage (22.3). They are off to a historically bad start from behind the arc in an era where 3-point shooting is mandatory to win.
Kendrick Nunn, who was supposed to help last year’s club before missing the season with a mysterious knee injury, is shooting 29 percent in his return. Westbrook entered Friday 1 for 12 from the arc (8.3 percent).
While new coach Darvin Ham has improved the defense, the Lakers can’t score consistently.
“We’ve got to make some shots,” James said. “Some of it is early-season stuff. Obviously it’s a new system, a new group of guys. We’re still trying to get familiar with one another. We’ve been at the bottom of everything offensively.”
Westbrook has been blamed for a lot of the Lakers’ issues, but it obviously isn’t all his fault. But his status on the team and his $47 million expiring contract continue to spark debate about whether a trade is desirable for both sides. Westbrook has regressed dramatically as a shooter and his playmaking is questionable.
He used to rely on his speed, athleticism, desire, and ability to finish at the rim. Westbrook has never been a premium shooter, but now his poor midrange and 3-point shooting have encouraged defenses to double James or Davis, leaving Westbrook open. And Westbrook is stubborn enough to take those shots in a quest to prove he’s still an All-Star-caliber player.
Westbrook, who turns 34 in two weeks, is experiencing what many former cornerstones endure once they hit their early 30s and their skills begin to decline. They remain convinced of their star power and talent, and believe the right situation will transform them back into All-Star players.
In other words, Westbrook is not trying to be a role player, although the Lakers brought him off the bench Friday. Ham met with Westbrook during the summer, encouraging the guard to flourish under the new coaching staff and revamped roster. But Westbrook has been essentially the same player and the Lakers have to ponder whether he will ever adapt.
“We’re four games in, and it sucks to lose, but there’s time for us to right the ship, and it starts now,” Ham said. “It starts yesterday. But again, the more energy we can put on the offensive side in terms of running habits, creating separation, making sure we execute. Our consistency with our energy, maintaining our energy and competitive spirit throughout the 48-minute game, irregardless of what’s going right, what’s going wrong, that’s how you create a culture.”
Creating that culture is going to be a meticulous process, and there isn’t much the Lakers can do to upgrade their roster unless they use Westbrook in a trade.
If the Lakers stand pat, they have enough salary next summer to sign another standout player to join James and Davis. But at age 37, there may not be too many more next years for James, whose tenure in Los Angeles has been mostly a disappointment, save the bubble championship in 2020. James signed off on the Westbrook trade, and the Lakers sent out two pieces from that title team — Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — to facilitate the deal.
Pelinka also allowed key defender Alex Caruso to sign with the Bulls after Caruso made it apparent he wanted to return to Los Angeles. Pelinka then dealt rising prospect Talen Horton-Tucker to the Jazz to get Patrick Beverley, and while Beverley plays hard and can still defend, he’s not a shooter.
The hope is when Dennis Schröder returns from a hand injury and the veterans adapt to Ham’s system, fortunes will be better. But even in the best-case scenario, the Lakers have little chance of competing with the likes of the Warriors, Grizzlies, and Suns in the Western Conference.
DOWN THE ROAD
Udoka may later be in demand
There have been questions about the conditions of Ime Udoka’s suspension, which is unprecedented.
Can Udoka attend a Celtics game? According to an NBA source, Udoka will not be attending any Celtics game this season. That does not prevent him from attending other NBA games, but as far as being seen in the stands watching the Celtics, that’s not going to happen.
Also, according to an NBA source, the Celtics would not prevent Udoka from pursuing other jobs, and he most certainly will be a head coaching candidate, perhaps next season, when his suspension concludes and he likely reaches a contract settlement with the Celtics.
The Celtics will not stand in the way of another team pursuing Udoka. There are hot seats for Doc Rivers in Philadelphia and Steve Nash in Brooklyn, previous stops for Udoka. But considering the circumstances of Udoka’s suspension and the negative publicity it could bring, it’s unlikely anything anything will happen this season.
Udoka is making roughly 50 percent of his salary not to work, and the Celtics would certainly love to get out from under that commitment, but they also have the option of bringing Udoka back next season, if Joe Mazzulla doesn’t work out as coach.
The Celtics’ brass want Mazzulla to become the permanent coach, and if the team flourishes this season, it would be more inclined to work out a settlement with Udoka.
The decision to suspend Udoka was a Celtics decision, and not one of the NBA, and he doesn’t face any penalty from the league. Of course, the NBA had to be informed of the Celtics’ decision, but it left it up to the club to determine Udoka’s fate.
But as time passes and the demand for talented coaches increases, especially in situations such as in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, the demand for Udoka will increase.
As for Rivers, he was not hired by 76ers general manager Daryl Morey, and this is a pivotal season for the franchise, considering James Harden and Joel Embiid are now healthy. Rivers has been criticized for the inability to push teams to the next level, blowing 3-1 leads twice in the conference semifinals while with the Clippers, and losing twice in the second round in Philadelphia.
Rivers said recently he still enjoys coaching and that he is optimistic that the 76ers will get it together and become a contender in the Eastern Conference. But a slow start that included a home loss to the Spurs is putting the pressure on management to cure the organization’s ills.
Udoka has already proven to be a top-10 NBA coach, leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first season, helping Boston finish the regular season 33-10 after an 18-21 start. He galvanized the franchise and the players, which is why it was such a crushing blow to Celtics brass when he violated the conduct policy.
The organization will continue to ponder whether Udoka can ever coach in Boston again, and it will place full support behind Mazzulla, who has begun his coaching career seamlessly after being thrown into the position just days before training camp.
As long as Mazzulla continues to lead the club on a positive path and the Celtics contend in the East, it’s highly likely he will remain the coach.
Brown’s decision had to be made
Jaylen Brown severed ties with Donda Sports a day after the Globe reported that he would remain with the Kanye West-created marketing company despite West’s racists and antisemitic comments over the past several weeks. West has reiterated those statements in recent days, and he was dropped by Creative Artists Agency and Adidas, likely costing him in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Brown released a statement Wednesday, regretting his initial decision to remain with Donda and condemning West’s statements.
Brown has a lot at stake and made the right decision. He is a shoe free agent, and, according to NBA sources, interested companies such as Nike and New Balance were beginning to back off negotiations because of Brown’s affiliation with West.
Brown is not clamoring for a new shoe deal. He has been a free agent for months since breaking ties with Adidas. Brown is wearing a variety of Kobe Bryant Nikes as a tribute to the late Lakers star but has yet to commit to a company.
Brown is very aware of his off-court marketing opportunities, as well as his crusade to provide better educational opportunities to underrepresented communities. The affiliation with West was already damaging those endeavors, but Brown also felt he needed time to reflect on his friendship with West and didn’t want to appear he was deserting the troubled rapper in his time of need.
The next goal for Brown should be to create his own marketing firm and also create more educational opportunities. It will require a considerable effort, which is what Brown alluded to during his interview with the Globe. Brown wants to concentrate on basketball, and the West issue was becoming a distraction.
But to expect a 26-year-old to make such significant decisions without careful thought and consideration is shortsighted and unfair. Brown was heavily criticized for not immediately ending his relationship with Donda, but he needed a few days to consider his next move. He needed to consult with Rams All-Pro defensive lineman Aaron Donald, another Donda client who also decided to leave the company.
Bravo for Banchero’s start
The raves for Magic rookie Paolo Banchero have been loud and well deserved. He already the Magic’s primary cornerstone, after just two weeks of his first season. Banchero, who played one year at Duke, is a physically imposing and versatile player who can play three positions.
Last Saturday, he faced off against Celtics forward Blake Griffin, another former No. 1 overall pick who was physically imposing and athletically gifted coming out of the draft in 2009. Griffin had a lot of good things to say about Banchero.
“People said this about me when I was coming in [the NBA], but once he truly learns the NBA’s in and outs, he’s going to be scary,” Griffin said. “He didn’t back down from anybody. He’ll have ups and downs, but he’s going to be fine. He’ll be good.
“He’s incredibly physically talented. His presence is on the game.”
Griffin said he sees similarities between himself and Banchero. He said he understands Banchero’s journey.
“My rookie year I was just trying to keep my head above water,” Griffin said. “I wanted to play as hard as I could and go against everybody. That’s what I like about him. He didn’t back down from anybody. He’ll have ups and downs, this is how rookie years go, no matter how good you are, how good of a rookie year you have. But he’s going to be good.”
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, another former Blue Devil, formed a friendship with Banchero last season and hung out with him after Duke beat Boston College last season in Chestnut Hill.
“He’s somebody I’m pretty close with,” Tatum said. “This time at Duke last season we spoke pretty frequently, and he’s somebody I’m extremely happy for. From playing at Duke to being the No. 1 pick to how well he’s been playing these first [few] games, I couldn’t be happier for him and his family. I know how hard he works. I know how good of a person he is. That size, to be that height and to be that bulky and essentially do anything, obviously he’s going to continue to get better.
“I was happy I finally got a chance to compete against him, and we’re going to have many more battles in the future.”
Tatum said he’s humbled by incoming players who model their games after him. It wasn’t that long ago (2017) that Tatum was a skinny rookie vying to compete with the game’s stars.
“It means a lot. It’s funny I guess because I’m in my sixth year now and guys are coming in at 19 and have been watching me their whole high school career, first year in college,” Tatum said. “Just how the tables have turned. I remember being in that position and playing against guys I really admired and looked up to. But the best part about it is, the respect is always there, but I think the way you show it is you go out there and compete.
“No matter how much I like his game or like him as a person, I’m not going to take it easy on him at all. I think even more so trying to go at him to kind of let him know I respect his game and I know what he’s capable of.”
There were high expectations in Detroit that the Pistons would contend for at least a play-in spot with their young and improving roster coming off a solid ending to last season. But after winning their season opener against Orlando, the Pistons lost five consecutive games and have a treacherous schedule ahead with games against Golden State, Milwaukee (2), and Boston (2) over the next two weeks. The Pistons are trying to avoid getting buried in the East, especially with teams such as the Hornets, Wizards, Bulls, Knicks, and Cavaliers off to strong starts. Whether coach Dwane Casey ends up on the hot seat depends on organizational expectations, but the Pistons expect to take a significant step this season behind Cade Cunningham and Saddiq Bey … Former Celtics first-round pick Romeo Langford was hoping for an opportunity for more playing time going to the rebuilding Spurs, but San Antonio is off to a 4-2 start with their young talent and Langford has not been able to break into the rotation. He played in three of the first six games, averaging 8.3 minutes and 2.7 points. Langford, who did not sign a rookie extension with the Spurs, will be a restricted free agent next summer … In Indiana, former Celtics first-round pick Aaron Nesmith has started four of the team’s six games, averaging 8.7 points. His issue continues to be lack of production from the 3-point line. He’s shooting 31.8 percent from the arc this season, but he should get plenty of opportunities for a rebuilding team … Some intriguing players remain on the market after not signing contracts this summer, starting with Carmelo Anthony, who was not brought back by the Lakers. Players such as Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge, Hassan Whiteside, and Isaiah Thomas are also waiting for calls and staying in shape. A primary reason why they remain free agents is a lack of demand by clubs, as well as teams wanting to see if younger players can fill important roles. Teams can begin signing veterans to 10-day contracts in January, and some of these players may have to wait until then to get a chance. The Celtics brought in Griffin to help the thin frontcourt, and he agreed to a guaranteed deal for this season.
Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.