The Los Angeles Lakers limped through the start of the 2021-22 NBA season but are finding their feet and rising up the standings.
The Los Angeles Lakers are always the talk of the NBA – good or bad – and the introduction of Russell Westbrook and a poor start to the 2021-22 NBA season have only fueled conversations further.
Now 5-3 to be 3rd in the Western Conference, the 2019-20 NBA champions are making moves. Their record looks perfectly fine on paper. However, the path they have taken together there, and the bumpy road that still lays ahead paints a different picture.
The Season So Far
Back-to-back losses to start the season got tongues wagging before the Lakers ended the drought with an ugly win over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Needing Melo to score 28 points and relying on a missed free throw late isn’t ideal, but you can’t be too picky when it’s the first W of the season.#LakeShow
— Jason (@SportsJO13) October 25, 2021
Beating the San Antonio Spurs to move to 2-2 offered a little bit more confidence, but losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder quickly put an end to the idea that this group had started to click.
Russell Westbrook’s performance, in particular, became a worrying focal point as he put up numbers (20 points, 14 rebounds, 13 assists) but wiped away all of his good work with ten turnovers, poor shooting late and two technicals leading to an ejection. Westbrook produced the most Westbrook-like performance in a match he was brought in to win. When the Lakers are playing bad teams without LeBron James and/or Anthony Davis, it’s Westbrook and his unrelenting energy and hustle that is meant to earn the W.
Overall, the Lakers aren’t producing the sort of numbers worthy of a team sitting on the second line of betting in the Championship Winner market at $6. Their middling offence scores only 108.1 points per 100 possessions (13th) while their defence allows the opposition to score 107.2 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the Utah Jazz ($11), Miami Heat ($13) and Chicago Bulls ($34) are all in the top ten in offence and defence while occupying top spots in their respective conferences.
But with James back in the lineup and winners of three on the bounce, albeit against the Cavaliers and Rockets (twice), the Lakers are trending the right way and starting to justify their championship price.
We’ve seen signs of what this team can do at their best.
While it shouldn’t have been necessary, the end of LA’s 119-117 win over the Rockets is a positive. James took over the game in the 4th quarter and bullied his way to the basket. He’s not going to play young teams he can dominate single-handily every night, but he flicked a switch and stepped up when it mattered. Notably, Westbrook didn’t overplay his hand. He saw James change his mindset and got out of the way. A Westbrook fast break into James dunk is the sort of play Lakers fans envisioned should things go right for this playing group and a late-game iteration of that play sparked up yet another “are they starting to click” conversation.
The fact is that this team doesn’t need to click in November and December. James and Davis are already proven as NBA champions and Frank Vogel knows how to coach a team that is preparing to peak at the right time. The Lakers are the oldest team in the league, and while not all of those old heads have made it as far as lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, they know how to navigate a season and put themselves in a position to dominate in April, May and June.
One of my favorite things about the LeBron experience has been that he realizes he only has x drives left in his legs so he saves them up for the fourth and then is like "yeah that's right mfers I'm still LeBron" and gets like 7 effortless ones in a row.
— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) November 3, 2021
The Lakers limped through the opening week of the season but have offered enough over their last three games to trust they will find their feet sooner or later. James and Davis are playing well, Westbrook is slowly adjusting while Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza and Wayne Ellington – four players expected to contribute late in the season – are yet to see the floor and build themselves into the rotation.
The Brooklyn Nets are the current NBA favourites at $3.50 but their start to the season and the continued absence of Kyrie Irving adds more appeal to LA’s $6. Cohesion matters in this league and Irving, James Harden and Kevin Durant have only played eight games together. When Irving returns, if he does at all, will be crucial to Brooklyn’s chances.
More specifically, the Lakers are on the second line of betting to win the Pacific Division at $2.80. The Phoenix Suns made the NBA Finals last season and are current favourites to win the division $2.50. Chris Paul has taken them to another level – one that revolves around consistency and beating the teams they should to pile up wins. However, there is some uncertainty within the group. Deandre Ayton isn’t happy with his contract situation which could impact on-court performance. Paul, while he seems ageless at times, is 36-years-old and won’t bounce back from an injury quite like he would have in the past. Currently 3-3 for 8th in the Western Conference and behind the Golden State Warriors ($3.50) and Lakers, the Suns have a bit of work to do.
If Westbrook can do what he was brought into the team to do and win enough games for the Lakers to finish up with a top-four seed in the West, the Lakers will win the Pacific.
But this is the Lakers and the NBA. Chaos is usually just around the corner and their $11.50 to miss the playoffs will be of interest to some.