Lakers Catching Fire at Fortunate Time


Repeat after me: no matter what, you can never count out the Lakers until the very end.

Since L.A.’s championship run in the 2020 NBA Bubble, the team unknowingly braced for a steady, three-year decline plagued by injuries and questionable roster construction. All of that culminated in the Lakers’ 33-win campaign last season, the fewest regular-season wins by the franchise since 2016-2017.

Even at the beginning of this season, those same concerns remained a running problem. But after a roster makeover near the 2023 trade deadline, L.A. can officially put itself back in the postseason picture after a recent surge.

The Lakers are 10-6 since the Feb. 9 trade deadline, and any record above .500 is a miracle given how bad the start of the season was. As of Mar. 21, the Lakers sit at 35-37 and (somehow) only 1.5 games behind Golden State for the sixth seed. Even then, L.A. appears bound a Play-In Tournament bid.

How have the Lakers bounced back after a slow start? Who are the new pieces on L.A.’s roster, and what does this mean for a potential playoff run in April?

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Who’s in, who’s out?

In total, L.A. traded six players, a top-four protected 2027 first-round pick and two second-round picks during trade season. In exchange, the team acquired versatility, quality depth and fit in the process.

First, the Lakers stole headlines by shipping out the disgruntled Russell Westbrook and some change for D’Angelo Russell, Malik Beasley and Jarred Vanderbilt. Earlier, L.A. also acquired former lottery pick Rui Hachimura from Washington before capping things off late with a Patrick Beverley-for-Mo Bamba swap with Orlando.

As of now, here is what the Lakers’ core roster depth currently looks like:

At first, it’s nothing too crazy, right? Consider where this team was before the trade deadline, however. There’s clearly a lot more for James, Davis and coach Darvin Ham to work with here.

For starters, losing Westbrook turned out to be a major case of addition by subtraction. Westbrook’s ball-dominant style rarely fit well next to AD and James, both of which also needed the ball in their hands. Essentially, L.A. shipped out Westbrook’s heavy usage which didn’t make sense given his poor outside shooting and turnover-prone habits.

Of course, the Lakers’ early stumbles weren’t all Westbrook’s fault. That’s what makes the rest of the incoming pieces even more intriguing during this mini post-deadline upswing.

The positives: optionality, fit, general talent

Both Russell (37% from three on 6.9 attempts per game) and Beasley (35% from three on 7.9 attempts per game) give L.A. major improvements in catch-and-shoot three-point marksmen. Even with both of them, the Lakers still rank 27th in three-point percentage and 26th in three-point makes.

Russell’s ball-handling (6.4 assists per game) and general volume (third-most field-goal attempts behind AD and LeBron) provide the Lakers with a regular-season innings-eater. In other words, he shoulders a greater burden to save James and Davis for the postseason. And remember, LeBron continues to nurse a right tendon injury which still needs to be reevaluated.

And then there’s the defense, where Vanderbilt comes into play. Vanderbilt is the ideal power forward who can play center, guard multiple positions, and be a multi-level athlete on both ends of the court. The Vanderbilt-AD frontcourt is a very scary defensive duo for opponents. If the Lakers need to go small for a bit, Vanderbilt at the center spot isn’t a terrible option, either.

These combinations weren’t available to L.A. at the beginning of this season. Now they are.

Even better for the Lakers is the overall improved talent on the team. There’s solid NBA-worthy depth at every position. Based on the depth chart above, L.A. rosters 11 trustworthy players who can give the team a lot of playing time while providing multiple reliable skill sets.

The biggest concern is if any of this will matter into the playoffs. With the 70-game marker approaching, time continues to tick for the Lakers in what’s been a contentious playoff race all season. Does L.A.’s current roster translate to the postseason? Can Beasley and Russell hold up defensively? How about Vanderbilt on the offensive end? Are the new acquisitions enough to make up for the Lakers’ continued statistical deficits?

There are three statistical marks to watch for to see if they improve or not, as seen below.

L.A. in 2022-2023 by the numbers:

  • Opponent rebounding: 25th or worse in offensive, defensive and total rebounding. Can Vanderbilt and Hachimura improve that deficit?
  • Defensive shooting luck: Lakers’ opponents shoot the fifth-most threes per game, but make them at the second-worst percentage in the league. Will that regress back to the mean? Does L.A. have the defensive personnel to keep that up?
  • Outside shooting: the Lakers are towards the top in general field-goal percentage and two-point scoring, but rank towards the bottom on all three-point statistical categories.

Even with the new additions, there are still some long-term concerns looking ahead to the playoffs.

The West: a window as open as can ever be

The good news for the Lakers is that in this year’s Western Conference, anything can happen. Teams seeded fourth through 12th are all within a few wins of each other. Only Denver, Sacramento and Phoenix are separated from the rest of the conference.

As stated above, it’s likely L.A. will probably get into the Play-In. Honestly, a first-round matchup against either the Nuggets or Kings doesn’t seem like the worst-possible draw, right? The Lakers will have the superstar advantage compared to both teams, and neither boasts a Kevin Durant-like scoring wing who can torch a pretty thin Lakers’ defensive forward rotation.

Even at the guard spot, we need to see how both Jamal Murray and De’Aaron Fox can produce in the postseason given their relative careers. That makes L.A.’s guard troubles on defense more minimized.

L.A.’s biggest weaknesses will be against teams like the Warriors, Clippers and Suns. All those teams possess a high-scoring upside that the Lakers will have trouble matching. In the case of the Clippers and Suns, there are some favorable matchups to take advantage of against L.A. (especially at the wing spot). As for Golden State, a high-powered Warriors team remains tough to bet against.

Overall, the Lakers’ postseason ceiling comes down to two questions. First, how healthy are LeBron and AD? And second, is there enough on this roster next to L.A.’s two superstars?

Lakers fans felt disappointed after three-straight underwhelming seasons. With LeBron heading toward the end of his career, this feels like the last opportunity for a title with James in L.A.

At the very least, the trade deadline put the Lakers on the right path. Now, it’s up to L.A. to stay on that path or not.

About Dominic Chiappone

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