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The Los Angeles Lakers have been slowly rolling towards chaos since fairly early in the season but the intensity has definitely picked up. Per 538, their odds of making the playoffs have dropped to 20 percent. Russell Westbrook has been pushed out of the crunch time rotation and has been actively sniping at coach Frank Vogel over his minutes.
The Lakers opted not to trade Westbrook at the deadline for John Wall, a that was probably just as short-sighted as the original Westbrook trade but was, reportedly, what LeBron was hoping for and led to a public explanation by Rob Pelinka that may have included lies about how involved and informed Anthony Davis and LeBron were. Things were tense enough that leaked reports were necessary to affirm Pelinka’s job security.
Oh, and LeBron seemed awfully affectionate towards his former home at this weekend’s All-Star Game and his wife is on Instagram sharing suspiciously timed photos of Akron. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire and there is an awful lot of smoke coming from under the hood of the Lakers’ organization right now.
LeBron is still under contract with the Lakers for another season and the odds of him trying to force a trade this summer seem absurdly low. However, the specter of his impending free agency along with the chaos and uncertainty of this disappointing season is going to put an astronomical amount of pressure on the Lakers’ front office this offseason.
The Lakers owe LeBron, Westbrook and Davis nearly $130 million next season. They’ll have another $15 million tied up in Talen Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn (neither of whom drew any meaningful interest at the trade deadline). That gives them limited space to try and re-sign Malik Monk and presents the possibility of them trying to rebuild their depth with veteran minimum contracts again — a strategy that proved disastrous this year with Carmelo Anthony, Trevor Ariza, Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan and Kent Bazemore.
This is an organization with a stunning track record of pulling rabbits out of hats but in terms of cap space and tradable assets they may have less flexibility than any other team in the league, heading into an offseason where they have to make big changes. LeBron probably isn’t forcing his out just yet and it’s hard to imagine any other trade scenarios emerging for Westbrook. Maybe that means they have to make changes where they can, simply for the sake of change and hoping it has a ripple effect, like replacing Vogel or Pelinka. Maybe it means the Lakers need to do what would have been previously unthinkable and explore trade options for Anthony Davis.
All that is to say that something here has to give. Rolling into next season with largely the same team on paper would be waving a white flag that the Lakers just don’t have the luxury of waving.
But they’re not the only team staring at a simmering cauldron of chaos that could boil over in the second half of this NBA season.
When will the Pelicans cut their losses with Zion Williamson?
A report from SI’s Howard Beck earlier this week mentioned that teams were, “bracing (and/or plotting) for the next disenchanted star to ask out.” Zion Williamson is one of the names Beck mentioned and the writing certainly appears to be on the wall there. The Pelicans traded for CJ McCollum at the trade deadline in an effort to push for the playoffs and, presumably, help convince Zion they were a team with staying with. Instead, that turned into a PR kerfuffle when Zion never reached out to McCollum to welcome him to the team. Zion, as you may remember, has not played at all this season and has left the team to rehab from foot surgery on his own, away from team medical staff.
J.J. Redick, a former teammate of Zion’s who also happens to share an agency, an alma mater and a distaste for David Griffin, put him on blast saying his behavior was part of a troubling pattern. And then the Pelicans made the choice not to include Zion in their promotional materials to season-ticket holders for the 2022-23 season. It sure seems like this is just a matter of time.
Has the Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert pairing run its course?
Donovan Mitchell was also mentioned in the same Howard Beck article and although he and Gobert continue to say the right things, things seem to be headed in the wrong direction. The Jazz are just 10-13 since the beginning of the new year and have fallen to No. 4 in the Western Conference standings, with the Dallas Mavericks threatening to pass them as well. They trended strongly towards being an average team over the last two months and one more disappointing, early playoff exit could be enough to push things over the edge.
Is Damian Lillard really going to stick around for another season?
Damian Lillard is likely out for the season and since the Trail Blazers already cleared the deck at the trade deadline, it’s unlikely anything really changes here until we get to the offseason. But it’s possible that Lillard gets increasingly discouraged starting at how little was accomplished by trading CJ McCollum, Larry Nance Jr. and Norman Powell. The Blazers have broken up a team that underperformed but it’s not clear at all how they assemble one that’s better for next season. All it would take is some slight wavering of commitment on the part of Lillard and the Blazers might have their hand forced.
Are the Nets and 76ers delaying the inevitable?
Per 538’s odds, the Nets still have a 36 percent chance of missing the playoffs. Their chances of making it through to the Finals are just 3 percent, behind the Bucks, Celtics, Heat and 76ers. Kyrie Irving might be playing in home games by the time the playoffs begin but it’s still not clear that the Nets are ready to compete for a championship this year, even with a healthy and engaged Ben Simmons. The upside of Simmons is that his age gives them a building block for the future and if this season ends as chaotically as it’s run in the middle it might be time for the Nets to consider selling their present to try and build for tomorrow.
The 76ers, meanwhile, have gone all-in Harden. It’s a huge talent upgrade but also a huge question mark in terms of fit. If this doesn’t work, and considering the depth of possible contenders around the league, there’s a decent chance it won’t, what levers are left for them to pull? Desperation breeds desperation and, despite the ‘backs-against-the-wall’ tropes, I don’t think it’s really a positive variable.
Are the Knicks ready for more changes?
They need to make some changes, but it’s not clear if they are ready for the chaos that will follow. They signed Julius Randle when his value was highest and trading him now almost certainly means paying a dollar for 50 cents. But given the way he’s played this year and the way he’s interacted with fans, bringing him back for another season seems like asking for trouble. Tom Thibodeau, meanwhile, is actively burning every bridge in sight as the team drops to an early 2000s level of performance. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. But how long that “worse” lasts is still up in the air.
Other NBA stories:
As part of our NBA at 75 series, the Over and Back NBA history podcast is rewatching some of the most pivotal Slam Dunk Contests in NBA history. They’ve already reviewed the 1984 (inaugural) 1986 (Spud Webb goes off), 1987 (Jordan arrives), 1988 (Jordan and Dominique duel) and 1993 (Harold Miner, baby!) contests. Check these out and stay turned for more.
The 2022 Slam Dunk Contest was another absolute train wreck. But Micah Wimmer isn’t ready to give up on the dunk contest just yet.
Every NBA team has that one guy who became a fan favorite for bruising physicality and a willingness to do whatever it took to protect their teammates. That’s an NBA enforcer. And this is every NBA team’s greatest enforcer of all time.
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