Lakers preview: Five questions to consider as training camp opens

Los Angeles, CA, Thursday, March 3, 2022 - Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (6) shows dissatisfaction with a ref's call late in the game against the LA Clippers at Crypto.Com Arena. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)
LeBron James might break the NBA's all-time scoring record this season, but the question entering training camp is can he mesh with Russell Westbrook to make the Lakers a contender? (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Everyone will be excited. They’ll exude confidence. They’ll talk about righting wrongs. The tone at media days around the NBA is almost always identical, with everyone looking forward.

But things went so badly for the Lakers last season that it’s hard to drum up any significant optimism for a team that finished in 11th last season and didn’t pull off a big offseason move outside of a new head coach.

Still, there’s plenty of star power, plenty of drama and plenty of questions on the table for Monday’s media day. Here are the five biggest:

So, what’s the deal with Russ?

Russell Westbrook opening camp with the Lakers would’ve probably been viewed as an upset at the start of the offseason, but his contract combined with the Lakers’ lack of draft picks and a so-so group of tradeable players has the team ready to try to make it work with the future Hall of Fame guard — at least for now.

Westbrook attended the player-organized mini-camp in San Diego and has been the most visible Laker this summer, showing up for Darvin Ham’s introductory news conference, summer league in Las Vegas and Patrick Beverley’s introduction with the Lakers. All of this happened while the Lakers were looking at options for shipping Westbrook out of town.

One of those options — to Utah — vaporized last week when the Jazz dealt forward Bojan Bogdanovic to Detroit. The Lakers, said people with knowledge of the situation who weren't authorized to speak publicly, were willing to include a first-round pick in a trade for the shooter, but the team continued to balk at taking on long-term contracts — a sign that maintaining salary-cap space next summer remains one of the top priorities. The Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs conceivably could be trade partners, but there doesn’t seem to be a deal that works for both teams in either scenario, though that could change.

It means the Lakers are going to roll forward with Westbrook, hoping Ham, a second season of familiarity, the fallout from a soft trade market and more can make things fit better than they did a year ago, when they couldn’t have fit much worse.

How does Westbrook feel about being back with a team that traded for and signed starting-level point guards in the last month in Patrick Beverley and Dennis Schroder? Can’t wait to hear.

Can LeBron keep going?

James will enter his 20th season with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387-point scoring record in his sights. James has 37,062 points and has scored fewer than 1,300 points in a season just once. Last season, James averaged 30.3 points per game and would’ve challenged for the scoring title had it not been for injuries.

While James staying healthy is key, maybe the most problematic thing is that despite his excellent offensive play a year ago, James couldn’t affect winning and cover for the Lakers’ glaring shortcomings around him.

All-Star forward Anthony Davis and LeBron James slap hands during a game last season.
All-Star forward Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James enter the season healthy and hopeful of returning to playoff contenders. Do they have the supporting cast to do it? (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Critics of the Lakers’ summer point to James as one of the ultimate “go-for-broke” players, someone who gives you a credible chance at a championship. The Lakers, though, have been more calculated when it comes to roster improvement.

The Lakers undoubtedly need him on the court, although he’s only played more than 60 games since joining the franchise in 2019-20, when they won the title. Yet can they truly ask him to carry them and reasonably expect it’ll be enough?

Can Anthony Davis be the guy?

This all leaves Anthony Davis as maybe the most important Laker.

A healthy Davis in shape, in rhythm and dominating would give the Lakers an All-NBA big man who could rival centers Nikola Jokic of Denver and Joel Embiid of Philadelphia in terms of impact because of his two-way prowess. The version the Lakers have had the last two seasons has been a mix of inconsistency and unlucky with injuries.

If he’s healthy, the Lakers have a chance. If he’s not, the hill will probably be too steep to climb.

Can Patrick Beverley move the needle?

Acquiring the guard ended up being the biggest move the Lakers made this offseason. While there weren’t any real “3-and-D” options available in their price range, the Lakers are hoping to cast the 6-foot-1 Beverley into the role. The other options on the roster — Troy Brown Jr. and Lonnie Walker IV — aren’t nearly as proven as Beverley. They also don’t provide the same kind of shooting or attitude.

For a team that often didn’t seem that interested in competing a year ago, Beverley should help. Yet it’s more than fair to wonder if a 34-year-old role player is enough to make that big of a difference.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham handles a microphone as he answers a question.
New Lakers coach Darvin Ham is at the helm of an NBA team for the first time with plenty of questions to resolve. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

What awaits new coach Darvin Ham?

As far as challenges facing a first-time head coach, it’d be hard to find bigger ones. There shouldn’t be much runway for learning on a team with James and Davis. That means Ham is going to have to deal with some big-time questions — Westbrook’s role and usage chief among them — with the team facing a tough early-season schedule.

Ham’s believers think he’s the perfect mix of toughness and compassion with the right kind of demeanor for the role. Yet some of Ham’s biggest allies around the NBA recognize just how tough the job in front of him actually is. Monday, he’ll say all the right things.

But starting Tuesday, you have to wonder if he’ll be able to do them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.