Put us out of our misery: How the LA Lakers Missed the Playoffs Just Two Years After Winning It All
By: Johan Chua
On an April 5 matchup between the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns, Lakers’ announcer Stu Lantz was caught on a hot microphone pre-game telling the Lakers, “Let’s get this over with. Put us out of our misery”—a plea that seemingly reflected the overall sentiment of the Lakers’ drained fanbase who were enduring one of their most tumultuous seasons in a while, to say the least.
At this point, the Lakers were in a position no one expected them to be in when the season started: bouncing between the 8th and 10th seed of the Western Conference (on par with all-star-less teams like the Sacramento Kings), with every new loss crushing more and more of their postseason dreams.
After 48 minutes of basketball, Los Angeles would fall to a 31-48 record, eliminating them from the NBA Play-In Tournament and any playoff contention hopes.
That loss, of course, confirmed the skepticism from analysts across the league who doubted that pairing Russell Westbrook with the existing Laker duo of Lebron James and Anthony Davis (and in the process trading away Kyle Kuzma, Montrez Harrell, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) would bring home championship number 18 for the franchise—it clearly didn’t.
Now, this raises the question: How did the Lakers go from a championship team to out of the playoffs in just two years? In the NBA, such an occurrence is a rarity with the prevalence of two-peats and three-peats in modern league history. But for the LakeShow, a quick glance at a chart of their regular season win percentages reveals a consistent decline over the past two years.
So, relative to their previous two seasons, what about their overall performance as a ball club this 2021-22 season changed?
Westbrook Was Not The Missing Piece
When the Lakers first began underperforming, fans and analysts alike were quick to blame Russell Westbrook for the collapse; after all, his perplexing turnovers, notorious off-the-backboard misses, and missed dunks at times were only magnified on the Hollywood stage. To make matters worse, due to the franchise’s championship aspirations, Westbrook was expected to make up for the lost production of guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Dennis Schroder, and Alex Caruso from the previous season. Thus, many have criticized the LA native’s performance—including Laker legend Magic Johnson, who even went as far as saying “This trade could go down as the worst trade in Laker history”.
But the extent to which these accusations are fair is up for debate: Did Russell Westbrook’s play severely decline? Or did the media and fans just hold him to unreasonably high standards? Or was it a combination of both? To find out, Westbrook’s career averages can be plotted to see how his performance as a Laker compares to other seasons.
Analyzing Westbrook’s average points over his career, a somewhat parabolic trend can be discerned with a peak in point production during the 2016-17 season when he won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award. Looking more recently, a steady decline in scoring over the past three seasons is seen for Westbrook that has continued with the Lakers. In fact, with 18.5 points per game, Westbrook’s 20-21 play was the worst of his 14-year career since his rookie and sophomore season.
Westbrook’s assist and rebound numbers over his career display a more volatile pattern than his points; but nonetheless, a trend similar to his scoring, Westbrook experienced a significant drop in assists and rebounds per game between the 2020-21 and this past season with the Lakers. Interestingly, the best assist and rebound numbers of his career came during the 2020-21 season with the Washington Wizards. This made the drop in statistics this year seem more extreme, an idea further reinforced by how comparable his 2021-22 numbers were to that of his 2019-20 season.
Contrary to mainstream criticism, Russell Westbrook did not become more of a “turnover machine” as many have accused. Rather, the data shows that he did not turn the ball over as much relative to his career. With 3.8 turnovers a game, the LA native actually recorded his lowest turnover numbers in eight seasons—meaning that, strictly looking at turnovers, the Lakers actually got a better version of Westbrook than they bargained for. Some may argue that this could have been a result of him playing more off-the-ball with the Lakers; however, when translating his turnovers per game into a per 36 minutes statistics, the same exact trend is apparent (the 4.0 turnovers committed per 36 minutes this past season was still the lowest in eight years). Although still unacceptably high for a point guard on a championship contender, Westbrook’s past season was still an improvement from his career average of 4.1 turnovers per game.
Lastly, Westbrook’s efficiency (as measured by his shooting percentages) over the 2021-22 season has stayed relatively constant. Compared to his 2020-21 season, Westbrook’s free throw, 2-point, and overall field goal percentages have slightly risen; while his 3-point percentage dipped closer to his career average.
Although the Lakers got who they traded for and despite his credentials, Westbrook’s production has dwindled without a doubt. But, perhaps this decline in performance reflects a fundamental issue of fit: placing a ball-dominant, non-shooter alongside Lebron James was simply a mistake.
Vogel Likes Defense
Vogel has been known to be one of the premier defensive masterminds in the league. Over the course of the Lakers’ championship run in the Orlando Bubble, the nine-year head coach made numerous adjustments on the defensive end, allowing his team to dominate any matchup they faced.
Over the past couple of years, under Vogel’s guidance, the Lakers established their identity as a defensive juggernaut enabled by impenetrable size and exceptional rim protection; and it worked, it won them a championship.
However, the Lakers’ defense only got worse, with the team only giving up more points to their opponents with each passing season. This increase from giving up 107 to 115 points per game has coincided with a drop from 3rd to 21st in the league in defensive rating over this short 3-year span, which is shocking.
Analyzing the shooting percentages of the Lakers’ opponents, however, tells a different story. While the 3 point shooting of their competitors has stayed relatively consistent at 35%, the data shows that the Lakers’ defense inside the arc has improved compared to the past season (but nonetheless, is still worse than their championship year)—evidence that the team was missing the interior rim protection they once had, and that teams were getting into the paint easily.
Questionable Roster Construction Given Vogel’s Background
Of course, this plummet had a lot to do with the roster overhaul and drastic personnel changes the franchise underwent. When a coach as defensive-minded as Frank Vogel is handed a roster of offensive studs who were notorious for being defensive liabilities over their careers (ie. Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook, Malik Monk), there is only so much he can do.
During the championship season, Vogel had a multitude of defensive weapons he could deploy in his savvy schemes, from shot-blockers like Dwight Howard and Javale McGee to lockdown perimeter guards such as Alex Caruso. This enabled Vogel to make whatever adjustments he wanted on an opponent-by-opponent basis to dominate on the defensive end.
Rather than preserving this, Lakers’ management handed Vogel an older and smaller roster comprising shooters who cannot defend, defenders who cannot shoot, and a third superstar who cannot do either.
During the 2019-20 season, the Lakers had a fine mix of veteran experience and youthfulness. Their plan of attack was predicated on defending well and running in transition, which they excelled at. The very next season, they doubled down on this by letting go of older players in favor of younger and fresher legs, decreasing the median age by a year (and making Lebron James’ 36-year-old age at the time an outlier). However, with an already aging roster, the Lakers exacerbated the issue by trading what was left of their youth for older talent (Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Dwight Howard). As such, the median age spiked from 27 to 31, making the team one of the oldest in the league. This posed two major disadvantages: not only were the Lakers slower and had to play at a slower pace, but they were also very injury prone.
To make matters worse, the Lakers—having lost their youthful energy on defense—did not have any size advantage to make up for it. During their title season, all but one of LA’s regular rotation players were at least 195 centimeters (6’5”) tall. This allowed them to be a tall, long defensive powerhouse that could clog passing lanes and protect the rim. The following season saw the Lakers maintain a median height of 198 centimeters, but with a lower maximum; and the current season saw the team lose their size advantage, with a decreased median height of 193 centimeters. With this smaller lineup, the team became vulnerable both inside and out.
In short, every coach has their strengths and weaknesses. But this season, it appears that the front office’s vision for the team diverged from Vogel’s skill set—resulting in a team that was still trying to “figure it out” two-thirds of the way through the season.
LA’s Offense Would Make Up for Defensive Deficiencies…In Theory
LA reeled in an unbelievable amount of talent over the 2021 offseason.
NBA Most Valuable Player
9× NBA All-Star and 2× NBA All-Star Game MVP
9× All-NBA Selections
2× NBA scoring champion
3× NBA assists leader
NBA 75th Anniversary Team
10× NBA All-Star
6× All-NBA Selections
1× NBA scoring champion
NBA 75th Anniversary Team
And these two soon-to-be Hall-of-Famers were added to the already star-studded lineup of Lebron James, Anthony Davis, Rajon Rondo, and Dwight Howard. On paper, this team had all the scoring power in the league and would be an unstoppable force on offense. Many believed that whatever defensive woes they experienced would be overcome through their sheer offensive talent. But this was far from the case in practice, as they ultimately tallied an offensive ranking that placed them 23rd out of 30 in the league.
Despite the star power, the Lakers haven’t improved much from their 2019-20 season in terms of points scored per game. Although they experienced drastic improvement from the 2020-21 season in point scoring, they weren’t as great of an offensive threat as their championship squad was—and that team was considered very weak offensively.
The Lakers’ overall shooting percentages tell a similar story: not much improvement in 2-point, 3-point, and overall field goal percentages despite the star-studded lineup.
So What Happened?
The 2021-22 season was a forgettable disappointment for the Lakers—having not even earned a spot in the play-in tournament (which 2/3 of the league makes) despite being favored as championship favorites when this team was first assembled. Furthermore, the team’s performance this year becomes more upsetting when placed in the context of the franchise coming off an NBA championship just two seasons prior.
In the past two years, the roster improvements and transformations Lakers’ management made have been ineffective, and if anything, have only pushed them further away from another title in the Lebron James era for the Lakers.
From analyzing the blockbuster trade for Westbrook to their defensive and offensive performances, a clear takeaway emerges: the Lakers should have done what almost every championship team does—keep its core and run it back. Looking back, continuity would have helped the Lakers as a hasty roster reconstruction only introduced more issues for the basketball club.
Shifting away from what won them a championship meant that the team’s roster lost its defining characteristics and strengths that allowed Vogel to thrive in the playoffs. Introducing new players that struggled to execute Vogel’s schemes rendered the head coach’s gameplans less effective, and eventually the lack of fit between coach and roster translated to poor (and sometimes borderline embarrassing) play on the court.
Thus, if this 2021-22 season proved anything, it’s that the franchise overreacted to their underwhelming post-championship season. The Lakers decided to “go big or go home”, and now at home, the team is faced with a crucial offseason ahead of them in order to get themselves back on track.