With the NBA trade deadline approaching, frustrations are mounting within the Lakers about the current makeup of the roster — tough truths are being told as the Bucks led by as many as 30 in a brutal reminder of where the Lakers are 55 games into the season.
“It tells me we ain’t on their level,” LeBron James said. “I mean, I could have told you that before the game.”
Four quarters of basketball against the Bucks put an entire season’s worth of problems on display, a mismatched roster, a frustrated Russell Westbrook and a toothless defense showing the gap between the defending champions and the currently play-in bound Lakers.
The roster’s not working, an admission coming from sources inside the locker room that matches what the on-court product has shown through 55 games.
With James defying age (he scored 25 or more points for the 20th consecutive game) and Anthony Davis playing at a high level, the Lakers are simply losing too often and nowhere near close enough are not closing the gap on the NBA’s true title contenders.
And while still very productive, even James has to know that his time playing like this isn’t infinite.
After the game Tuesday, with the NBA trade deadline less than two days away, the Lakers appear resigned to difficult truths about their team. Perhaps drastic measures are the only hope for rescuing this season that hit another low point against the Bucks in a 131-116 loss that looked much worse.
A late-game conversation on the Lakers’ bench between the team’s three stars was caught on camera, the frustration with the season too hard to ignore as Westbrook tried to encourage James and Davis.
“Listen, I want to help AD. I want to help Russ. AD wants to help me, help Russ and Russ wants to help us,” James said. “Obviously, lately, Russ hasn’t felt like he had an opportunity — or with the opportunities he’s been given — he hasn’t helped us as much as he would like. We haven’t done a great job of helping him. But at the end of the day, it’s always kind of started with myself and AD, and Russ joined the team as well.
“So, we just had a little moment right there and understanding that there’s still a lot of basketball to be played. There’s still an opportunity for us to make a mark on this season, but it’s going to take some — it’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take a lot.
“But nothing is worth having if it’s not worth working for.”
The work is one thing. Whether or not it’ll matter is another.
On one hand, the group hasn’t been able to play enough together — Tuesday was just the 18th game with James, Westbrook and Davis all healthy. On the season, the team has used 27 different starting lineups, an indictment of the roster’s fit and inability to stay available.
Some of that is blameless — a COVID-19 outbreak among a fully vaccinated team in December that spread into the coaching staff, broadcast booth and traveling media. Some of it falls on trusting an almost comically old roster to stay healthy.
Yet some of that is a result of Vogel’s searching for groupings that make sense, lineups that can work with Westbrook’s unique (and rigid) skillset.
Twice in the last month, including in overtime Saturday against the Knicks, Vogel benched the former MVP — the team’s marquee addition watching the Lakers pull out a win. Tuesday, as the Lakers cut the Bucks’ 30-point lead to 10 midway through the fourth quarter, Vogel again kept Westbrook on the bench.
With the comeback fizzled, Westbrook approached Davis and James on the bench, telling them he was sorry he couldn’t be out on the court with them.
“Unfortunately I wasn’t in the game to be able to help them, and that’s why I came here, to be able to help them out,” Westbrook said after the game. “So, unfortunately I haven’t been able to do that for them, but that’s not my call. I can be there as a leader and as a voice, whatever it is that is needed for the team, and that’s what I’ll do until, you know … my number or whatever is called during that time.”
Vogel said he still believed in Westbrook as a closing member in the Lakers’ most important lineups, but there’s room to choose otherwise whether it’s the right thing to do.
“That’s always the plan,” Vogel said. “The game can tell you otherwise if other guys are gonna be in there.”
Westbrook pushed back against the idea that he needed to prove something to Vogel or anyone else about whether or not he should be playing minutes in the clutch.
“I shouldn’t have to hit any benchmark to be honest. I’ve put in a lot of work and I’ve got a lot of respect in this game. I don’t gotta hit a benchmark or I shouldn’t have to,” he said. “I’ve earned a right to be in closing lineups. Numbers will tell you, I don’t have to explain that. But like I said, once again that ain’t my decision. That’s his decision that he and the staff think is best for the game. And unfortunately (I) just kinda gotta just go with it and figure it out the best way I can, and be there for my teammates as much as I can and make sure I’m coming to work and doing my job as a professional.”
The most logical option for Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, should he choose it, would be to send Westbrook to Houston for the jettisoned John Wall — who hasn’t played for the Houston Rockets this season because of an ongoing disagreement about his role. The two players were already once traded for one another because their salaries match, though the Lakers would, according to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, need to add an asset like their 2027 first-round pick to push that deal through.
Wall has only played 113 games in the last five seasons and is a marginally better three-point shooter than Westbrook.
It would be a cruel ending to Westbrook’s time with the Lakers, the guard getting booed in the team’s last two home games. Tuesday, he smiled when he was asked about and said that he viewed it as a “sign of respect.”
Mentally, he said, he blocks it out by focusing on the good that he can do with basketball as his platform — a healthy, well-adjusted attitude that hasn’t, this season, translated to on-court comfort.
But he still smiled Tuesday while talking about the perks of playing in L.A. — dropping his children off at school and seeing family and friends.
“I don’t take that part for granted,” Westbrook said. “Basketball is a short time of your life and I enjoy it and have fun and want to compete at the highest level, but also it’s not the end-all, be-all. And there’s something that’s bigger than basketball that we can do as people and I understand that so that’s why I’m comfortable with whatever comes. Cheers, boos, it doesn’t really matter.”
There are limited high-impact options with the rest of the roster. Talen Horton-Tucker has been uneven and is viewed skeptically around the league while Kendrick Nunn, the owner of the other tradeable contract of note, still hasn’t debuted this season because of an injured right knee. The return in a deal for either or both of those players wouldn’t fix the Lakers’ problems.
Making a move like dealing Westbrook would fly in the face of the argument the Lakers have made most publicly — that this team needs more consistency. It also would signify a massive admission that their offseason decisions were a bust, an overreaction to blowing a 2-1 series lead against the Phoenix Suns in the playoffs last year before Davis was injured.
Maybe the Lakers can stay the course and get to that level again. Maybe they can’t.
“We got a lot of basketball left,” Davis said. “We can turn this around but it’s going to take a lot of work. To do it, it’s going to take us as a team, collectively to do so. We got to buy in. We just got to, everyone go out there and play for each other.
“Play hard. Play selfless. And try to turn this around before it gets really bad.”
Yet really bad might already be here.