Why holding on to a role player might diminish Lakers’ title chances

Why holding on to a role player might diminish Lakers’ title chances

“It’s going to take a minute for us to become a team we know we are capable of being,LeBron James said following the Lakers’ preseason loss to the Warriors. “We’re going to have moments where we’re not quite right there. We may take steps backwards. But that’s all part of … I think nothing is worth having if it’s not worth working for.”

Trust The Process

It’s been almost a month since LeBron, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook’s first court time together, and not a lot has changed. The Lakers are still an ongoing experiment, fluctuating between stretches of looking like true contenders and blowing huge leads in two collapses against the Thunder.

Ten games into the season, the answer to the question “how good are the Lakers” is probably somewhere between those extremes — being 5-5 and sitting as the ten seed speaks to their mediocrity. But just like in the preseason, the answer to that question still depends on Westbrook’s integration. And that’s a process.

Despite showing flashes of superstardom, the Lakers’ biggest off-season acquisition is yet to acclimate to the life of a third star. After an 8-point, 1-13 outing in a loss to the Blazers, Westbrook is averaging 19 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game, shooting just 41.8% from the floor, leading the league in turnovers with 4.9 per game. As he continues to struggle with consistency on both ends of the floor — defense in particular — Russ has the entire organization on his side.

Carmelo Anthony leaped to his defense after a poor clutch performance against OKC and a terrible shooting night against Portland. LeBron James and Anthony Davis waste no opportunity to emphasize their patience with Russ, despite the losses. Frank Vogel has said time and time again he just “wants Russ to be Russ” — team-high usage rate of 29.5% shows he’s allowing Westbrook to play his game.

And while all of this is to be expected, none of it would’ve been necessary had Rob Pelinka played his cards differently over the summer. Pairing Westbrook with LeBron and AD might have a higher upside, but there was a guy on the market who would’ve been a much better option for the Lakers.

No Westbrook, no process

Before the Lakers acquired Westbrook from the Wizards — they gave up Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and the draft rights to Isaiah Jackson — they were among top suitors for free agent Kyle Lowry. Two sides were even close to a deal, but Pelinka and the Lakers decided against it the moment Toronto demanded a role player to be included in the sign-and-trade.

Multiple sources told The Athletic that the Lakers and Raptors discussed a trade that would have sent both members of Los Angeles’ starting backcourt, Dennis Schröder and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and likely some draft compensation to Toronto for Lowry. The sticking point was the inclusion of Talen Horton-Tucker.

Bill Oram and Jovan Buha, The Athletic

Horton-Tucker is yet to make his debut for the Lakers this season. The 20-year-old picked up a thumb injury in pre-season and is weeks from returning to action. Lowry, on the other hand, is Miami’s starting point guard, averaging 11.3 points and 7.5 assists per game on 38.3% from three, turning the Heat into one of the best defensive teams in the league — fourth-best DEF Rating behind the Clippers, Nuggets, Warriors.

The 35-year-old is past his prime but is still a very valuable asset at the point guard position. All the stuff he brings to the table — shooting, defense, consistency — are all the stuff Westbrook hasn’t been able to give to the Lakers, nor he ever will.

The upside is still huge, and we’ve seen flashes of it this early into the season. But with LeBron being 36 and AD being injury-prone, instead of conducting the biggest chemistry experiment in recent NBA history, the Lakers would’ve been in a better place with a safer option at the PG position.

Kyle Lowry would’ve fit that role perfectly — Westbrook, so far at least, hasn’t been able to do it.