The Los Angeles Lakers finally got their first win of the 2021-22 NBA season in a hard-fought 121-118 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday night. Los Angeles withstood a 40-point effort from Ja Morant and some late foul drama to finally get on the board this season, but problems still remain in the team’s pursuit of an 18th NBA championship.
It has only been three games, and there’s a belief the Lakers will ultimately figure this thing out when the games start mattering more, but Los Angeles’ defensive woes are nothing to brush under the rug. The team ranked 19th in the league in defensive rating entering Sunday’s contest. That isn’t a concerning stat on its own but the Lakers also don’t have a significant advantage on the glass despite featuring bigger lineups because Anthony Davis refuses to play the center position. Los Angeles was tied for 15th in defensive rebounds per game, tied for 22nd in offensive rebounds per game and 18th in total boards. The Lakers got out-rebounded by the Grizzlies 49-36 in Sunday’s win. However, those problem areas pale in comparison to the team’s primary issue: integrating Russell Westbrook into the offense successfully.
Westbrook was supposedly the missing piece to LA’s championship puzzle. You don’t gut half the rotation to bring in a guy and think he’s not going to be a major factor in your title pursuit. The dynamic point guard is having problems offensively, which isn’t surprising given the relatively new role he’s being placed into. However, the turnovers are concerning. Westbrook has tallied 17 turnovers across three games, compared to 26 assists. He’s shooting 34.9 percent from the floor on relatively high volume, which is another issue.
This isn’t the Thunder or Wizards, where Westbrook was the primary offensive initiator who’s maddening plays were tolerated because the team didn’t have other options. Unfortunately, the guard also isn’t good enough from deep to steer him towards more of a catch-and-shoot role. Compounding this problem is Davis’ refusal to be a center in small-ball lineups for extended minutes. The Lakers clog up the floor with two bigs and a non-shooter in Westbrook, leaving LeBron James to go into isolation mode far too often. James is good enough to do so, but that won’t fly in the playoffs.
One out-of-the-box solution would be to surround Westbrook with three shooters on a secondary unit for most of his minutes. The Lakers would only be able to run one big man in this scenario but it’ll unlock Westbrook’s best attribute, which is his aggressiveness attacking the rim. The guard would be lethal in pick-and-roll situations, while having enough spacing around him to keep defenses honest. After all, isn’t that why the Lakers brought in some quality marksmen during the offseason with Kent Bazemore and Malik Monk?
The flip side of this solution is that Westbrook would essentially be demoted from the starting lineup, or what the Lakers would deem their best lineup. That won’t sit well with any of the three superstars but it most definitely won’t sit well with the point guard. One thing is for sure; the Lakers can’t play isolation basketball all the way to a title. Ultimately, the defense will improve once the effort level improves as the season goes on and the games start mattering more. If the Lakers can solve Westbrook’s role in this offense, they’ll answer the major question currently circulating around the team.