The Los Angeles Lakers have started the new season with legitimate championship aspirations. Both the players and the front office believe they are good enough to win their 18th title.
Last season they had the best record in the Western Conference after the trade deadline. Then they won the play-in game against Minnesota and defeated both Memphis and Golden State 4-2 to advance to the Conference Finals. Although they were swept by Denver, it was a competitive series as LA had a chance to win each game
At the onset of this season, much attention is being focused on Denver’s opportunity to repeat, the Suns’ new trio of stars and the retooled Bucks and Celtics in the East. Some prognosticators have even picked the Warriors, despite their difficulty defending the paint, to finish ahead of LA.
What must the Lakers do to become a genuine title contender this season? It starts with providing positive answers to these five questions:
5. Will the Los Angeles Lakers improve their 3-point shooting?
The Lakers finished 25th in the league in three-point shooting percentage last season. They didn’t fare much better the previous two years when they ranked 22nd & 21st. Is it realistic to think they will be any better this season?
The team is off to another slow start so far. But their outside shooting should definitely be upgraded this season. Here’s why:
The Lakers roster has undergone a complete makeover beginning at last season’s trade deadline. In 2020-21, their percentage was dragged down by the below-average shooting of Dennis Schroder, Markieff Morris, Wes Matthews, Talen Horton-Tucker and some guy named Anthony Davis (more about him coming up).
The following year the main culprits were Russell Westbrook, THT and AD again, Austin Reaves and three part-timers, Trevor Ariza, Rajon Rondo and Wenyen Gabriel.
Last season’s under-performance was mostly caused by Patrick Beverley, Schroder, LeBron James, Westbrook, Davis and two players acquired at the deadline, Rui Hachimura and Jarred Vanderbilt.
Most of the players named above are gone. But in the small four-game sample so far, the team is shooting just 29% from behind the arc. Still, a look at the individual players on the roster offers a ray of hope.
D’Angelo Russell shot 41.4% from deep in his 17 regular season Laker games. In preseason he raised that to 45.5% although in 4 games so far this season he’s only shot 30%. Still, that’s a small sample, and he made a couple of big fourth-quarter 3s against Orlando. He remains one of the best three-point shooting point guards the Lakers have ever had.
Reaves was on the poor-shooting list during his rookie season. But last year he improved to a tick under 40%. In the postseason he shot 44% (on 88 attempts) and this preseason he hit on a ridiculous 66.7%. Although he is also off to a rocky 4-16 start, that is bound to improve. Once he gets on track he may combine with Russell to give the Lakers two 40% shooters from beyond the arc in their starting backcourt for probably the first time ever.
But wait, they’re not alone. Taurean Prince, who is a 37% career shooter has vowed to shoot at least 40% this season. He shot 46% in the preseason and in 4 games he’s at 41%. That means the Lakers may surround AD and LeBron with THREE 40% three-point shooters.
And there’s more. Anyone who watched Hachimura can see how good his shooting form looks. He raised his three-point shooting to 49% in the playoffs and should be a legitimate threat this season.
Max Christie, who will eventually get court time, also has a nice stroke and shot 42% last season on 62 attempts. Gabe Vincent is off to a horrid start, missing 13 of his first 14 shots, but he made 38% during Miami’s playoff run last season. And Christian Wood is a career 38% shooter from deep who is still finding his place with his new team.
If you’re keeping score, that’s 7 guys all capable of shooting above the league average of about 35%. But that still leaves two other important Lakers.
The first is Anthony Davis. His long-distance shooting dropped off a cliff the last three seasons to a gruesome 24%. You would think he should stop taking any long shots.
But AD worked hard this offseason and in five preseason games shot 46%. So Coach Darvin Ham has given AD the green light to shoot 3’s, especially if he can continue the way he started in preseason. He’s been selective so far this season, making 3 of 7, 43%.
The second of course is James, whose conversion rate declined to just 32% last regular season and a dismal 26% in the playoffs. Lakers fans started to cringe every time he got set to launch a bomb. He doesn’t look any better early this season, making just 7 of 23 from deep, 30%. You’d think that a guy with an acclaimed high basketball IQ would realize that he should cut back on his long-distance attempts, but he’s still taking 6 attempts per game so far.
Neither of the two stars are natural outside shooters. The hope this season is that each is smart enough to stop taking long shots when they aren’t falling. They have teammates at every position who are better equipped to shoot from long distances so each can focus on scoring in and around the paint, where they are both lethal.
This season, for the first time in memory nearly every perimeter player on the Lakers this season is a three-point threat. Opponents must give their primary attention to AD and LeBron on the inside. That should leave guys like Russell, Reaves, Prince, Hachimura, Vincent and Christie open behind the line. It will be a major surprise if the Lakers don’t improve their three-point shooting percentage. They should also end up exceeding the NBA average.
4. Can Austin Reaves live up to his hype?
Austin Reaves steadily improved throughout his sophomore season when he averaged 13 points per game and shot 53%. Down the stretch, he played so well that he almost forced Ham to insert him into the starting lineup for the final 8 games. In those games, he averaged 18.6 points while shooting 55%, including 48% on 3’s.
He continued to shine in the postseason when he started all 16 playoff games and averaged 17 points. He was at the top of his game against Denver, averaging 21 ppg while shooting 55% overall, 56% from deep and 100% (15-15) from the free throw line.
Reaves was the second-leading scorer for Team USA (14 points in 22 minutes) this summer and drew accolades from Coach Steve Kerr. And in limited preseason action, he hit the ground running and looked extremely sharp (16 points in 22 minutes).
Even though he is off to a very slow start so far, Reaves should still be one of the top “third-best” players in the league. He might approach the coveted 50-40-90 percentages in field goals, three-point shooting and free throw shooting while scoring 17-20 ppg. Additionally, the former collegiate point guard is a fine passer who should average 4-5 assists a game while also grabbing the same amount of rebounds.
Is there reason to worry that Reaves might slip? There’s always a chance he could burn out during the long season, especially since he has played nearly non-stop competitive basketball for a full year. But that doesn’t seem likely for the 25-year-old hoops junkie.
So the answer to the question is yes, there is every reason to expect Reaves to ignore the hype and have an outstanding season.
3. Who is the real D’Angelo Russell?
As good as Reaves was against the Nuggets, D’Angelo Russell was on the other end of the spectrum. He couldn’t hit a shot (just 2-15 from deep and 10-31 overall) and was targeted as the Lakers weak spot on defense.
Russell was vilified in the offseason by fans who clamored for the Lakers to sign any point guard other but D-Lo. Even though he had played well up until the Denver series, frustration with his awful performance reigned supreme.
But the Lakers front office took a broader view. They understood that judging a player on his worst four games wasn’t accurate or fair. Russell had averaged 17.4 points and 6.1 assists in his 17 regular season games after the Lakers traded for him. Also in 16 playoff games, his overall numbers of 13.3 points and 4.6 assists weren’t bad.
And when they compared Russell to other guards in the league, they came to an inescapable conclusion: there are only a handful of other point guards in the league who are better-combined passers and scorers, both behind the arc and inside the paint, than D-Lo.
Then they factored in the strong relationship he had built with Reaves and others along with the good chemistry the team had once Russell joined them. It became a relative no-brainer to re-sign him.
Details of his contract revealed that not only did he take a whopping 45% pay cut from $31 million to $17 million but the second year is a player option. And the contract doesn’t contain a no-trade restriction. So naturally many fans assumed that Russell would automatically be traded by midseason.
However, D-Lo arrived at training camp in great physical shape with a positive mental outlook. And in preseason games he played terrific on offense (13.5 ppg and 5.3 assists in 20 minutes, shooting 57.4% overall and 45.5% behind the arc) and displayed a surprising willingness to play tougher defense.
In the early games so far Russell has not yet been an effective outside shooter. But it’s not at all unrealistic to believe that D-Lo will still be one of the league’s best #4 options behind Davis, James and Reaves, and will average 15-18 points and 6-7 assists while shooting at or near 40% from deep. And if he plays decent defense the team should be in great shape.
2. Will the Los Angeles Lakers have a strong bench?
At least on paper, the Lakers could have their strongest bench in team history. That’s quite a statement considering that they’ve won 17 titles with multiple superlative reserves throughout the years including Michael Cooper, Bob McAdoo, Mychal Thompson, Robert Horry and Lamar Odom. Let’s take a closer look.
Rui Hachimura wasn’t anything special in the 33 games he played for the Lakers in the regular season after being acquired just prior to the trade deadline. His stat line read 9.6 points, 48.5% overall field goal percentage and just 29.6% behind the line. But his 16 games in the playoffs were a completely different matter: 12.2 points, 55.5/% shooting and 48.7% from deep. He was a particularly bright spot against both Memphis and Denver.
Hachimura worked hard during the offseason, often with LeBron. If he can show that Playoff Rui is the real deal, he will help the team immensely. He’ll likely be the first sub to enter the game for Coach Ham.
Christian Wood has career averages of 14.8 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 52% from the field and 38% on three’s. He may take a little time adjusting to his role with the Lakers but he has the ability to provide the best offensive punch off the bench of any Lakers big man since McAdoo in the early 1980’s.
Gabe Vincent performed well when he moved into Miami’s starting lineup for the playoffs last season. His preseason injury set him back a bit, but if he can pick up where he left off he’ll be an excellent third guard. Max Christie looks ready to contribute on both sides of the ball in the backcourt once Ham gives him the opportunity. Additionally, Jarred Vanderbilt is a first-rate perimeter defender who may replace Prince as the fifth starter once he returns from injury.
Altogether, the contributions of Hachimura, Wood, Vincent, Christie, and Vanderbilt (or Prince) along with Cam Reddish and Jaxson Hayes should be equal to or better than the reserves of any other NBA team.
1. Are the Los Angeles Lakers’ two stars still dominant?
When Anthony Davis and LeBron James are at or near full strength they remain one of the most dynamic duos in the NBA. Having them on the court together gives the Lakers a good shot at winning any game.
To nobody’s surprise, the Lakers’ title hopes are contingent on both stars being healthy for the playoffs. That’s the same as it’s been the last four seasons.
But removing a top star from any other contender would also evaporate its title hopes. Denver almost certainly would not have won the championship last season if Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray weren’t both healthy. Phoenix needs Kevin Durant and Devin Booker on the court to have a legitimate shot. In the East, Milwaukee’s chances ride with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Damian Lillard while Boston must have a healthy Jayson Tatum and Kristaps Porzingis.
For the Lakers, however, the health of AD and LBJ is more of an iffy proposition. In their four years together, they have only been injury-free once in the playoffs, during the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 championship season.
At some point, Father Time will slow down LeBron. However, the strong, deep roster that GM Rob Pelinka assembled this season should lend enough support to keep both him and Davis fresh. Ham’s plan to limit James to fewer than 30 minutes in most games for the first time in his career is wise. At least in theory, it would reduce the wear and tear on the soon-to-be 39-year-old and preserve him for the postseason.
This Lakers team is certainly built to withstand regular-season injuries. We’ll have to wait for May and June to see who’s still standing.
The Western Conference will be a minefield of competitive teams. Victories won’t come easily. It will take the Lakers a little time to get rolling. And if they can answer all 5 questions positively, this season still looks promising.