On June 3rd, the Phoenix Suns eliminated the Los Angeles Lakers from the playoffs by a series margin of 4 games to 2.
The loss left many Laker fans disappointed, as the team had high expectations coming into the season. The team had just won its 17th championship against the Miami Heat during the quarantine season in the “bubble,” and the Lakers made several big-name acquisitions in the off-season.
Following the championship, the Lakers traded Danny Green to the Oklahoma City Thunder and Javale McGee to the Cleveland Cavaliers; they let free agents Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Dwight Howard, JR Smith, and Dion Waiters walk away. Then, the Lakers waived Quinn Cook shortly before the season had begun.
These moves surprised Laker fans; however, the Lakers appeared to be upgrading their roster. They had just acquired the two front-runners for the Sixth Man of the Year award in Dennis Schroder and Montrezl Harrell. Schroder was seen as a major upgrade over Rajon Rondo, and Harrell was envisioned as the player that would provide the Laker bench with energy and scoring. In addition to these two acquisitions, the Lakers signed Wesley Matthews and Marc Gasol and acquired Jordan Bell and Alfonso McKinnie. The Lakers also brought back Anthony Davis, Jared Dudley, Kostaps Antetokounmpo, and Markieff Morris.
When the Lakers made these moves, they envisioned a wide-open floor for LeBron James. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee have always been solid defenders; however, they do not space the floor. Marc Gasol, on the other hand, spaces the floor. Danny Green was an inconsistent shooter for the Lakers last offseason, so they signed Wesley Matthews, who has been known to be one of the most consistent 3-point shooters in the NBA. Rajon Rondo was great in the playoffs; but Dennis Schroder is younger, more athletic, and a better scorer than Rondo .
After the off-season, many had the Lakers as the clear favorites in the NBA. Many had projected that the Lakers would only have two obstacles standing in their way: the shortened off-season and injuries.
Perhaps the shortened off-season led to several injuries on the team. Throughout the year, the Laker stars were bit by the injury bug. LeBron James was the clear-cut MVP front-runner until Solomon Hill dove into his ankle. Anthony Davis has been dealing with injuries to the groin, Achilles tendon, and right knee. In addition, Alex Caruso, Marc Gasol, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma all dealt with injuries this season.
The Lakers still looked like title favorites up until LeBron James went down with his injury. At the time, the Lakers were a top-three seed in the Western Conference and were winning games without Anthony Davis. However, after James’ injury, the Lakers had several struggles with shooting, rebounding, and athleticism in the paint. The Marc Gasol experiment did not seem to work out well for the team because he was not taking many 3-pointers, and, when he was shooting them, he was only scoring about 36% of the time.
Since the Lakers had these problems, they opted to make moves at the waiver deadline rather than the trade deadline. The team signed Cavaliers center Andre Drummond and Rockets shooter Ben McLemore. Drummond was seen as the best big man on the buyout market, as he had averaged 17.5 points and 13.5 rebounds per game with the Cavaliers.
After the Lakers made the moves, their struggles continued. Without LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the team continued to fall in the standings. The Lakers fell to seventh in the West and were going to compete in the play-in tournament.
The Lakers beat the Golden State Warriors during the play-in game. Before going into the Suns series, however, the Lakers had some clear-cut issues. Anthony Davis not healthy. There were clearly chemistry issues, and the Lakers did not look like a championship-winning team.
While chemistry issues were not public, it was clear that there was tension in the locker room. Montrezl Harrell was getting DNPs in the playoffs and tweets saying that he should be playing. Dennis Schroder deleted “Los Angeles Point Guard” from his Instagram bio, and Andre Drummond was shooting 3’s during halftime.
Chemistry may not have been the sole problem with the Lakers during the season. As stated, they also dealt with injuries, and certain players were clearly not enjoying full health. As an example, the Lakers attempted to bring Anthony Davis back in Game 6 but, just minutes into the game, he re-injured his groin. Also, LeBron James was not fully healthy in the playoffs. In the Suns series, James averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds, and 8 assists a game, his worst postseason statistics since 2005. James was attacking the basket as frequently in the playoffs, and when he was he was struggling to score in the paint. James finished by only shooting 47% in the playoffs, which is the lowest percentage he has shot in the playoffs since 2014.
The Lakers now have several questions to answer in the off-season. Is LeBron James actually on the decline? What will they do with their free agents? Who will be their point guard next year?
The Lakers do have several options with their team. They can trade Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma, and, if Montrezl Harrell picks up his player option, the Lakers will have $36 million in cap available this off-season. That is enough for another max spot. The Lakers could look to pursue a trade for players such as Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker, or they could spread that $36 million evenly on free agents. The Lakers could also simply attempt to win the championship with their current roster as constructed.
Either way, the Los Angeles Lakers had a very disappointing 2020-21 season; however, they have the flexibility to remain competitive in 2021-22. The Lakers have several options through trades, free agents, and a draft pick.