The Los Angeles Lakers transformed their team as much as anyone did during the 2021 NBA offseason.
Following last season’s disappointing first-round exit, they overhauled the roster around franchise pillars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. When the dust settled on all their wheeling and dealing, only those two, Marc Gasol and Talen Horton-Tucker remained from the 2020-21 roster.
Did the Lakers push themselves closer to a championship, or will this wealth of activity prove to be nothing more than water-treading? We’ll break out our red pen to assess and attach a letter grade to their three most critical moves of the summer.
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The knee-jerk reactions to L.A.’s blockbuster deal for Russell Westbrook were an equal mix of astonishment and doubt. The former dealt with the tremendous talent level shared by the trio of Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The latter revolved around the spacing and ball-dominance concerns of bringing Westbrook to an offense led by James.
Those concerns are valid and won’t really go away until we see how this works on the court. James has historically worked best with shooters, and Westbrook, a career 30.5 percent shooter from three, is not that. Westbrook might be the best playmaker James has played alongside, though, and the right bit of creativity and buy-in could lead to some dynamic two-man actions between them.
It’s a gamble, but the potential payoff is enormous. Hoop heads have long wondered how Westbrook might fare with more off-ball activity as a cutter and screener. If he’s on board with some stylistic changes, the Lakers could uncover extra areas in his game. Even if they don’t, they’ll benefit from his downhill attacking and the sparks he’ll provide in transition.
Considering the caliber of player the Lakers received, it’s hard to hate the cost. The Lakers gave up Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell for Westbrook and three future second-round picks. Now, Westbrook’s enormous $44.2 million salary is a big part of the price, too, but if L.A. doesn’t mind footing the bill, who are we to argue?
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Perhaps you’ve heard a time (or 10) that this roster is a little—how can we put this—experienced. Kent Bazemore is the seventh-youngest player on the roster (including the two-way players), and he celebrated his 32nd birthday in July.
The biggest buck to the aging trend is Talen Horton-Tucker, who has two NBA seasons under his belt and can’t legally down an adult beverage until Nov. 25. That’s part of why it made a ton of sense to bring him back in restricted free agency on a three-year, $30.8 million deal.
But Horton-Tucker’s ability is more appealing than his age. He’s already a plucky, multi-positional defender with impossibly long limbs (6’4″ with a 7’1″ wingspan) and a tenacious approach. He’s also a sneaky-good shot-creator with the handles and tempo changes to keep defenders off balance. If he finds consistency with his outside shot (career 28.5 percent), he could prove helpful at both ends of the floor.
The Lakers can get good minutes from him now—he averaged 20.1 last season—and maybe great ones out of him down the road. An eight-figure average salary might seem steep given his limited track record, but it’ll be a bargain if he nears his peak sooner rather than later.
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Nearly all of the Lakers’ external signings had to settle for the league minimum. Kendrick Nunn was the exception, as L.A. added him using the taxpayer mid-level exception.
The 26-year-old could’ve pocketed more coin elsewhere, but he was drawn to the Lakers’ championship chances and veteran leadership.
“Just that chance to go out there and win a ring,” Nunn told reporters. “A good chance, a great chance to win a ring. … I look at the roster around, and I’m one of the younger guys, so I’m going to be a sponge to a lot of these guys in the locker room and just continue to grow and develop my game as well.”
Nunn is more of an undersized scoring guard (6’2″) than a playmaker, but the Lakers have enough passers to work around that. They may not have as many complementary scoring threats, which is where Nunn can really shine. He has averaged better than 14 points in each of his first two NBA seasons and set personal best shooting rates from all three levels in 2020-21, posting a 48.5/38.1/93.3 slash line.