LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the core of a potential championship team, but who will fit around them? (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
STATS & ANALYSIS

How the Los Angeles Lakers Can Contend Next Season

Like the NBA champion Warriors, the Lakers have enough star power. They just need the supporting cast to go with it.

If there’s any team that can try and use the blueprint the Golden State Warriors just employed to win an NBA championship, it might be the Los Angeles Lakers.

Once Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson finally got healthy at the same time, Warriors general manager Bob Myers was able to put the right pieces around them to keep a title window open that many thought had been slammed shut.

Of course, there are caveats aplenty here, but the first thing the Lakers need to do is get LeBron James and Anthony Davis healthy.

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James turned 37 on Dec. 30 and missed 26 games this season. He was never able to develop a rhythm with Davis, who missed 42 games. If those guys can’t stay healthy — or unless Los Angeles plans on trading one or both of their supermax duo — the rest of this blueprint is moot.

Whether it was LeBron himself or general manager Rob Pelinka who put together the 2021-22 Lakers team that finished 33-49, it was an exercise in how not to build a modern roster around one of the very best basketball players to ever live. L.A. couldn’t stay healthy, couldn’t defend, couldn’t shoot, and committed too many turnovers with the league’s oldest roster. In other words, Pelinka has his work cut out for him.

So let’s assume they stay healthy and see where Los Angeles can go from here.

Priority 1: Sign Young, Versatile Players Who Can Shoot and Defend

Though the Lakers have an estimated $146 million on the books for next year just for James, Davis, Russell Westbrook (who we’ll get to, don’t you worry), Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn and Austin Reaves— assuming Westbrook and Nunn exercise their player options, while they could pick up Stanley Johnson’s team option— they have a bunch of open roster spots to build out a proper supporting cast. L.A. will get a $6.4 million tax mid-level exception and small trade exceptions worth $2.7 million and $1.7 million, but the team will mainly have to go bargain hunting in free agency.

Pelinka and James need to look for a mix of youth and experience who can handle the ball and shoot it, spacing the floor for LeBron and Davis. Malik Monk was a player who fit that bill, but he may have played so well that he priced himself off the team. But signing a veteran pu pu platter of Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Wayne Ellington, Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, DeAndre Jordan, and DJ Augustin didn’t cut it in the modern league. Golden State was able to develop young talent like Jordan Poole while signing quality veterans who could shoot and defend like Otto Porter Jr., Gary Payton II, and Nemanja Bjelica.

The market is going to be crowded for players like this, but another year of James’ career can’t be wasted with lackluster talent around him.

Priority 2: Get the Most out of Russell Westbrook, Whatever that Means

They said a much-hyped talent with an oversized contract could never work, but Golden State was patient with Andrew Wiggins, and he was an integral piece to their championship team this season. Can the Lakers make it work with Westbrook? The experiment failed spectacularly last season after trading Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a first-rounder at last year’s draft. Those were all players L.A. could use moving forward!

Assuming Westbrook opts into the last year of his deal at $47 million for next season, the Lakers could either try using their 2027 or 2029 first-round picks as sweeteners to offload him this summer or let it ride and free up cap room for the summer of 2023 when LeBron will be 38 and Davis will be 30.

Golden State had a player in D’Angelo Russell who didn’t exactly fit next to Curry or Thompson, and was able to ship him for Wiggins and the pick that became Jonathan Kuminga. Can the Lakers take a page from the Warriors’ playbook and get someone for Westbrook who better complements their superstars?

Though it’s a tough pill to swallow, the best move might be to put Westbrook in the best position to succeed on this team with the second unit while LeBron and AD are on the bench, unless he can somehow prove that he can co-exist with players markedly better than him. Westbrook will be Darvin Ham’s biggest challenge as a first-year head coach, an unenviable situation the Lakers need to solve if they want to become an elite team next season.

Priority 3: Sign Players Who Fit & Don’t Sell

They may not have been household names like Melo, Dwight, or Russ, but Warriors like Poole, Payton II, Porter, and Kevon Looney all had more win shares last season than the future Hall of Fame trio because they were better fits next to Curry, Thompson, Wiggins, and Draymond Green. The Lakers need to find more players like Monk, Reaves, and Johnson who knew their roles and how to make the team better alongside James and Davis. Los Angeles can learn some things from Golden State, but only if it starts prioritizing winners on the court over flashy names.

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