The Los Angeles Lakers prepared for the 2021-22 season with the expectation of being a title contender once again.
They made another splashy free-agent signing, bringing Russell Westbrook over from Washington in exchange for Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell. They added veteran Carmelo Anthony for depth and shooting. They even opened the season as favorites to win it all with consensus +275 odds.
After a sub .500 start through December which has the team teetering in seventh place in the West, it’s time to start wondering if L.A.’s hopes at another championship are dead?
What do the oddsmakers say?
YouWager has the Lakers odds of winning the NBA Championship all the way up to +1400. That puts the team in the neighborhood of the Miami Heat (+1200), as the closest comparison.
Despite their record, there are not very many teams with shorter odds than the Lakers. Only the Heat, Jazz (+900), Bucks (+700), Suns (+675), Nets (+265) and Warriors (+400) have shorter odds. The Lakers are even ahead of the Chicago Bulls (+2500), which has been among the best two-way teams in the NBA.
Has LeBron been here before?
LeBron James has not been on losing teams this late into the season very often in his career. The Lakers were under .500 into February in 2019, a season which saw them miss the playoffs as James was sidelined for the end of the year. It snapped a streak of 13-straight playoff appearances for the king.
Before that, James had not been under .500 since 2004 with the Cavaliers. Again, James and the Cavs just barely missed the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference.
This Lakers team is far more talented than either of those teams to say the least. As we near the All-Star break and the trade deadline, the real worry will start to set in.
Will L.A. turn it around?
The best and only way to turn the season around for the Lakers is: no. 1, good tendencies; and no. 2, roster moves.
L.A. has one of the worst offenses in the league right now, ranking 24th in offensive efficiency. Westbrook takes his share of flack for this because of his lack of an outside shot. But there is more to it than that. Westbrook, James and even Anthony Davis do their best work in the same part of the floor. The post and the paint are where this team has an advantage and it’s also where the team gets congested. Not a good tendency to have. The floor needs to open up for the sum of these parts to be effective.
Meanwhile, the team has the best defensive rating in the NBA, giving up less than 108 points per 100 possessions. This is a great tendency and one that is most valuable come playoff time.
There is no easy solution for the Lakers to improve their roster like years past. Westbrook’s contract has a cap hit of more than $40 million this year and next, making it practically unmovable. The few young players that would be tradable, such as Malik Monk, are more valuable than what they would be likely to bring back.
The Lakers are going to climb once they stabilize a closing lineup. It may be just enough to climb into home court for the first round, but not enough to compete for a title.