With the opening night of the 2021-22 NBA season less than a month away, it’s time for a preview of the upcoming season. HoopsHype has already come out with their projection and has the Lakers finishing atop the Western Conference. The Lakers return just three players from last season’s squad, but when two of those three are LeBron James and Anthony Davis, that can only mean championship aspirations. Let’s take a look at how each of the Lakers’ players project according to the trusty FiveThirtyEight Player Projections. These projections use the past performance of statistically similar players to project future performance for the upcoming season (read the full explanation here).
The Lakers’ two stars are both projected in the All-Star category, one notch below the top tier of players who project as MVP Candidates (Giannis, Jokic, Harden, Doncic, Embiid). Davis was a projected MVP Candidate heading into last season, but sees a drop in projected Wins Above Replacement (WAR) after an injury-plagued 2020-21 campaign. LeBron remains a projected All-Star, even heading into his age 37 season. His two most comparable players according to FiveThirtyEight are the two players ahead of him on the leaderboard of all-time regular season scoring, Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Lakers’ dynamic duo will have to carry a heavy burden this season if FiveThirtyEight’s projections are right about the Lakers’ supposed third star.
A Dubious Starter?
Brutal. Russell Westbrook is one of the most polarizing players in the game today, and apparently FiveThirtyEight’s algorithm is not a fan. He replaces a point guard in Dennis Schroder who last year projected as an “Average Starter.” Despite averaging a triple-double last season, skeptics remain dubious of Westbrook’s ability to impact winning. His high usage % will seemingly have to take a dip this year. But the question of whether he or Lebron cedes control of the ball-handling and playmaking duties will be one of many fascinating Westbrook-related storylines to follow as the season progresses.
New additions Kendrick Nunn (projected 2.2 WAR), Kent Bazemore (1.2 WAR), and Wayne Ellington (0.6 WAR) all project as rotation players. Who wins the other starting spot at guard, and who closes out games in that slot should be interesting positional battles to watch throughout the season. Head coach Frank Vogel has some serviceable options to choose from, but he has shown a propensity for mixing up his rotations and trying out different lineup combinations during the regular season. It will be an interesting choice between young legs and shot creation (Nunn), pure shooting (Ellington), and defense (Bazemore).
An Offensive Specialist and an Up-and-Comer
The Lakers also have two other young guns on the wing in Talen Horton-Tucker (projected 2.1 WAR) and Malik Monk (0.6 WAR) who will compete for minutes with Nunn, Bazemore, and Ellington. Horton-Tucker is marked as an “Up-and-Comer”, a category usually reserved for first round picks. A move like snagging THT in the 2nd round of the 2019 draft, and then re-signing him this season may be one of the keys to extending the Lakers’ title window. Ditto for signing a former lottery pick in Monk, an offensive specialist who finished last year shooting 40% from 3-point range. The Lakers will have to hope that these guys develop, otherwise they’ll be relying on (mm… how to say it nicely?) their veterans.
A couple of players who have been part of previous Laker title runs, Trevor Ariza (projected 1.2 WAR) and Dwight Howard (0.7 WAR), both at age 36, figure to have roles carved out in the Laker frontcourt rotation. How much these guys have left in the tank is a common question for not only for these two, but also the remaining players on the Laker roster. FiveThirtyEight is relatively kind to bestow the title of “Scrappy Veteran” on Ariza and Howard. The last 3 Lakers were not so fortunate.
A Scrub and Two Guys Way Past Their Prime
Former All-Stars DeAndre Jordan (“Scrub”, age 33), Rajon Rondo (age 35) and Carmelo Anthony (age 37) all project to have negative WAR contributions in the upcoming season. Anthony was the only one of the three to have had a positive WAR last season (+0.1), but both he and Rondo are now in the “Way Past His Prime” category. Rondo can likely help the team without being on the court much. DJ and Melo figure to compete for minutes with Ariza and Howard. Egos will need to be put in check. On the bright side, an aging roster means a high potential for games missed due to injury and rest, which may open up ample opportunities for everyone to shine.
We can expect LeBron, AD, and Russ to each be in the 32-34 minute per game range this upcoming season. Kyle Kuzma and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope had the Lakers’ 4th and 5th highest minutes per game last season at around 28 per game. Nunn was the only one to have that high a minute per game total last season, so we can probably pencil him in there once again. I’m hoping that THT takes that 5th spot in the 28 minute per game range. The rest of the guys should be fine with 15-20 minutes per game.
Is this a Championship Roster?
The Bucks won it all last season with three projected All-Stars (Giannis, Khris Middleton, Jrue Holiday), one average starter (P.J. Tucker), two rotation players (Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton), and two scrubs (Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes) as their top 8 rotation players. In order for the Lakers to win it all this year, they’ll need Russ to be closer to borderline All-Star than “Dubious Starter”, and LeBron or AD to be closer to MVP Candidate than All-Star.
The Brooklyn Nets loom large as a juggernaut. While Harden is the only one projected as an MVP Candidate among the Brooklyn big 3, Kevin Durant could just as easily be too if not for missing all of 2020 and part of last season due to injury (which brings down the algorithm’s projected WAR significantly). FiveThirtyEight’s projections are bullish on other Net players as well including Joe Harris (Average Starter), Blake Griffin, Bruce Brown, Patty Mills, and Landry Shamet (rotation players). The Nets have enough talent to win a championship even if they were to hit some bad injury luck throughout a playoff run (as they nearly did last season).
The Lakers’ margin of error is much smaller, as they’ll need a clean bill of health and all the pieces to fit better than many expect them to. LeBron, AD, Russ, and Melo won a gold medal together way back in 2012 at the London Olympics. Can they win an NBA title together almost a decade later? Father time is not on their side.