By Tim Reynolds/AP Basketball Writer
The season isn’t even two weeks old. Only 5% of the games have been played. Drawing any conclusions at this point would be ridiculous.
Except, perhaps, this one: The Los Angeles Lakers are in trouble.
The Lakers are taking an 0-4 record into Friday’s game at Minnesota. They’re at the bottom of the Western Conference, and if Orlando wasn’t 0-5 the Lakers would have the worst record in the NBA. They’re 78-87 since winning the 2020 NBA title. LeBron James – on pace to pass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA career scoring leader in a few months – is winless after four games for the second time in his career, the other being his rookie season.
“There’s plenty of time for us to right the ship,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “It starts now. It starts yesterday.”
It should have started in July.
The Lakers surely know this: James is at his best when surrounded by shooters. They maximize the value of his passing game and they open lanes for him to attack the rim, which even in Year 20 he does probably as well as anyone.
And this team, evidently, doesn’t have shooters. The Lakers better go find some.
Frank Vogel got blamed, Russell Westbrook gets shamed, and it’s entirely possible that neither of those guys is the primary reason why the Lakers are struggling. They were 8 for 30 – 26.7% – from 3-point range against Denver on Wednesday night. They’re shooting 22.3% from beyond the arc so far this season, by far the worst in the NBA. Small sample size, but awful nonetheless.
“We’ve got to make some shots,” James said after the 110-99 loss to the Nuggets.
It sounds simple. It isn’t.
The last time a team shot worse than 22.3% from 3-point range in a season was 1990-91. Washington – then the Bullets– shot 19.4% that season. They made only 55 shots from deep that whole season. It wasn’t really a part of the offense.
Now, 3’s are essential. Vital. An absolute must. The Lakers are averaging 25 points per game from 3-point range. The league average, entering Thursday, is 36. That’s an 11-point difference. The Lakers aren’t good enough right now to make up an 11-point difference.
“Obviously, it’s four games. Obviously, the four games that we’ve been playing have been on national TV. Obviously, everyone’s been able to watch,” Lakers guard Patrick Beverley said. “The critique is there for everyone to do. But it’s the game of basketball. Everyone’s going to even out.”
It’s not just the shooting. Westbrook isn’t healthy; hamstrings are touchy, so who knows when he’ll be right again. Anthony Davis – the guy who was supposed to extend James’ career by being Robin to his Batman, or even vice versa – has been dogged by injury after injury, and he was grabbing at his left side repeatedly in Wednesday’s loss in Denver. The Lakers didn’t have Kendrick Nunn at all last year, they haven’t had Dennis Schroder yet this year and won’t for probably a few more weeks.
It’s always something.
But shooting better is the quickest fix.
Miami figured out the formula that turned James into a champion: surround him with shooters and let him work. In the Miami days, it was Shane Battier, Mike Miller, Mario Chalmers and – of course – Ray Allen. The Cleveland title year, he had J.R. Smith and Kevin Love, with Kyrie Irving knocking down perhaps the biggest 3 of that season in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. The title year with the Lakers, there was Danny Green.
On this Lakers team, there’s … well, not really anybody yet.
Key word: Yet. A trade has to be coming.
Blaming Westbrook isn’t fair. He’s not an elite shooter. Never has been. This isn’t news. But he averaged 18.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.1 assists last season. He was one of five players who finished last season with those averages. Five. Luka Doncic, James Harden, Dejounte Murray and two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokic were the others. Saying 33-49 was Westbrook’s fault is comical.
But his massive-and-expiring contract that will bring back the most in return, and that’s why he’ll be the player that is moved if the Lakers find a dance partner.
The Lakers aren’t the only team off to perhaps a surprising – not the good kind of surprising – start. Brooklyn took a 1-3 record into Dallas on Thursday night. Philadelphia is 1-4 going into its game Friday at Toronto. Miami avoided a 1-4 start by winning in Portland on Wednesday.
But 1-3, 2-3 and 1-4 all are better than 0-4. The West is loaded. The Lakers have given all the contenders a head start. And if the Lakers don’t make a move soon, this season looks destined to end like last season did: badly, and early.