From Day 1, new Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham has talked about instilling a defense-first culture and holding players -- even superstars -- accountable. Just like Frank Vogel did.
Several players who had left the Lakers are back on minimum contracts: Dennis Schroder, Damian Jones and Thomas Bryant. Last year, ex-Lakers Rajon Rondo, Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza and Avery Bradley all returned for the minimum, and none of them are currently on an NBA roster.
So why should anybody believe that the forthcoming season will be different from the dark, dispiriting one that came before it?
For one, it is likely that Davis, who played only 40 games last year -- and only 22 of those alongside LeBron James -- will be available much more often. Perhaps Ham will even have some semblance of roster continuity over the course of the season, enabling him to mix and match different lineup combinations and land on a relatively stable rotation. In 2021-22, no five-man unit appeared in more than 16 games or played more than 89 minutes together for the Lakers.
Davis' presence and better injury luck in general would not have made that team a contender. The shooters couldn't defend, the defenders couldn't shoot and the blockbuster trade was a bust out of the blocks. But this team is different! In late August, Los Angeles traded Talen Horton-Tucker and Stanley Johnson to the Utah Jazz for Patrick Beverley, precisely the kind of player it didn't have last season. He's a physical defender at the point of attack, relishes the chance to check bigger players and has spent most of his career playing off ball-dominant stars.
Besides Beverley, who turned 34 in July, the Lakers went after players much younger than the ones they'd targeted in recent seasons. The oldest free-agent additions are the speedy Schroder and the high-flying Juan Toscano-Anderson, both of whom are 29. Joining them are wings Lonnie Walker IV and Troy Brown Jr., who are both 23 and coming off their rookie contracts. Jones and Bryant are 27 and 25, respectively.
Walker, signed with the taxpayer midlevel exception, is effectively the Malik Monk replacement. Kendrick Nunn, who signed the mini-MLE in 2021, is finally healthy after missing all of his first season in Los Angeles with a knee injury. Toscano-Anderson makes the frontcourt more versatile, Brown theoretically does the same on the wing and Jones does the non-shooting-big stuff that Bryant, a stretch 5, doesn't do. Some of the new guys won't play that much, but the returning Austin Reaves surely will. By default, Reaves' emergence was the best thing to happen to the Lakers last season.
For a LeBron team, there are not particularly high expectations. The roster feels cobbled together because it has been, and it feels incomplete because it almost certainly is. Westbrook's $47 million expiring contract is hanging over everything, and the Lakers' 2027 and 2029 unprotected first-round picks are available if the right deal comes along. The moment that they part with them, though, this strange in-between phase will be over and they'll be all-in with whatever comes back in return. Newly extended general manager Rob Pelinka can only trade those picks once, and when they're gone there won't be much left.
Lakers believer: Everybody likes to take shots at the Lakers. Everybody wants to rip on their supposed lack of depth and spacing and their affinity for signing guys who have been there before. Everybody wants to make fun of Russell Westbrook and the trade that brought him to L.A. and the fact that he's still there. But what everybody's forgetting is that the Lakers employ LeBron James and Anthony Davis. So there.
Lakers skeptic: I promise you no one is forgetting that the Lakers employ LeBron and AD. Is that really the best you've got?
Lakers believer: …no, I was just getting started, obviously. Um, Juan Toscano-Anderson was a really nice pickup. He's smart, unselfish, athletic and switchable. Lonnie Walker IV can get buckets. Patrick Beverley makes all the sense in the world next to LeBron. Dennis Schroder came back at the right price. Damian Jones should've never gotten away in the first place. It's finally Kendrick Nunn time. Oh, and Matt Ryan's shooting is insane. Did you know he worked at a cemetery last year? I think he deserves a roster spot.
Lakers skeptic: I can tell your heart isn't really in this. You talked yourself into the franchise-crippling Westbrook trade, just like you talked yourself into the ill-considered Schroder and Montrezl Harrell signings and the chemistry-ruining Andre Drummond experiment. You're haunted by your many takes about the potential of Talen Horton-Tucker. You're not even trying to convince me that the Lakers are going to make it work with Westbrook anymore, and you're not making reckless proclamations about the Lakers competing a title. I see you. It's OK.
Lakers believer: Stop it! Maybe the last couple of seasons have tempered my expectations, but that's totally normal. I still think the Lakers are going to comfortably make the playoffs as long as LeBron and AD are relatively healthy. As for Westbrook, I'll be honest: With Beverley on the team and Schroder in the mix, I'm anticipating that he'll be traded sometime in the next four months. Public opinion has swung way too far on him, though, and I'd like to see Darvin Ham pair him with Beverley in the backcourt in Davis-at-5 lineups. For now, anyway.
Lakers skeptic: How much did it pain you to bring up Davis-at-5 lineups yet again? Let's see what Davis himself said about it on Wednesday: "I trust Coach's decision. I mean, I'm pretty sure he heard AD wants to play the 4, so he knows where I stand, but at the end of the day, I want to win, so if that's me playing the 5, that's what it's got to be." That doesn't sound like a guy who's excited about this possibility. The front office should just get the inevitable Myles Turner trade over with already. Related: Why exactly did Rob Pelinka get an extension?
Lakers believer: Like everybody else, I've thought about what this team would look like with Turner and Buddy Hield instead of Westbrook. Starting and closing games with Beverley, LeBron, AD and Turner is an appealing proposition from a defensive perspective, for sure, and Hield's off-ball movement would give the offense a different dimension. If the Lakers have decided that this isn't enough of a home-run to justify giving up both picks unprotected, though, I respect that. That package probably isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and something much better could pop up in between now and the deadline.
Lakers skeptic: Like what? Pau Gasol isn't about to fall from the sky and save the franchise again. If another superstar becomes available, an expiring contract and two picks isn't getting it done. You saw how much Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Dejounte Murray cost in the summer. LeBron turns 38 in December, and the Lakers have failed spectacularly in three of his four seasons with the team. What's wrong with the Turner-Hield package? No playmaking? LeBron can make more plays then! In a situation this desperate, they can't wait around for the perfect trade.
Lakers believer: You're doing the beggars-can't-be-choosers thing? Come on. That's not how the Los Angeles Lakers -- or any team, for that matter -- should operate. Besides, LeBron just signed a two-year extension. And why is it that the same people who insist that the Lakers are terrible are also pushing for them to cash their chips in as fast as possible? If they're a pile of stinky trash, then what's the point of trading for a scented candle? At least be consistent.
Lakers skeptic: Correction: It's functionally only a one-year extension; he has a player option in 2024-25. Another correction: I never said the Lakers were trash. They have made some trash decisions, though, particularly in the 2021 offseason. Somehow I'd forgotten that they didn't just trade Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell for Westbrook, they also traded the No. 22 pick in the 2021 draft. The Pacers wound up with that pick and took Isaiah Jackson, who'd probably start for this Lakers team. That's wild! Quentin Grimes, Bones Hyland and Herb Jones were also on the board, by the way. Any of those guys would have paired well with Alex Caruso, and I feel like Wesley Matthews would have been a nice mentor for Grimes specifically.
Lakers believer: FFFFFFFFFFFINE. YOU'VE BROKEN ME. TRADE THE PICKS FOR TURNER AND HIELD. THROW DANIEL THEIS IN THE DEAL, TOO. WHATEVER. JUST GET SOME COMPETENT GROWN-UPS ON THIS TEAM AND BALANCE THE ROSTER A LITTLE BIT. LEBRON DESERVES BETTER THAN THIS. LOS ANGELES DESERVES BETTER THAN THIS. AND LET'S BE HONEST: THE SUPPORTING CAST WASN'T PERFECT IN 2020, EITHER. PLEASE, PELINKA. I'M BEGGING YOU.
Lakers skeptic: I knew you'd find your way here. Welcome. And yes, that is a scented candle. Pumpkin spice.
The curiosity: Lonnie Walker IV
It's easy to clown the Lakers for signing Walker. After shooting a cumulative 40.3 percent from 3-point range his first two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs, he shot 35.5 percent in Year 3 and 31.4 percent in Year 4 on far bigger samples. Walker has always taken a long 2s, has never shot them efficiently and has never been an above-average defender. San Antonio typically hid him on whichever perimeter player it deemed the least threatening.
And for a second-draft guy, Walker was expensive. He signed a one-year deal for the full taxpayer midlevel ($6.5 million), which left the Lakers with only minimum contracts to offer other free agents. (One ripple effect: They could only sign 19-year-old Max Christie, the No. 35 pick in the draft, to a two-year deal. If Christie shines in his second season, the Lakers will have to decide whether to give him a significant raise or lose him. Eleven teams signed a second-round pick to a standard contract, and the Atlanta Hawks are the only other one who did it this way.)
If Walker is productive, though, no one will care about any of that. At 24 years old, with a smooth-looking jumper and eye-catching athleticism, you can catch watch his highlights and come away convinced he has star potential. On this Lakers team, if he just approximates what Malik Monk brought on offense last season and is not a liability on the other end, the signing will look like a smashing success.
And if it turns out to be a smashing success, the Lakers might actually be able to keep him, which wasn't the case with Monk. The big benefit of giving him the mini-MLE is that they won't be priced out immediately when he hits free agency.
One more thing
It is difficult to overstate the importance of Davis' jumper. In the 2020 playoffs, the high-water mark of his career, it sometimes felt like he couldn't miss. Davis shot 38.3 percent from 3-point range on 2.9 attempts per game in those 21 games, and, according to Cleaning The Glass, made 49 percent of his long 2s. In the two seasons since then, Davis has shot a cumulative 22.9 percent from deep and 38 percent on long 2s.
Recently, Davis said that he dedicated his offseason to fixing his shot, via The Athletic, and that this was because of the wrist injury he suffered in January.
"That's all it was," Davis said. "I never lost confidence in my shot. Just battling a little wrist injury."
Davis added that he's now "completely healthy" and has his muscle memory back from behind the arc. Ham wants him to shoot more 3s, and, if defenses have to respect his jumper, it would go a long way toward improving Los Angeles' spacing. I'm not going to put his preseason stats here because the sample is way too tiny to mean anything, but the form looks good.