Are the Lakers truly back, or did “The King” just shorten a continuing rebuild?
Much has been made of the Lakers acquisition of LeBron James, and rightfully so. He’s the best player ever. He’s (somehow) still getting better at age 33 and extending his prime to unprecedented lengths. Los Angles is one of the epicenters for basketball, and the Lakers are arguably the league’s most historic franchise.
It’s like a match made in heaven. The perfect place for one of the game’s greats to finish his career. The perfect moment for the franchise to recapture it’s winning culture.
There’s a hunger in Los Angeles. They haven’t had a winning season in five years. They haven’t had a true superstar since before Kobe tore his Achilles, and with Magic Johnson in charge, there’s a true sense of accountability.
So it’s only natural that fans jump to conclusions. The Lakers “must” be good again, right? Let’s break it down.
Any Lakers preview must start with the tremendous amount of roster turnover. Besides LeBron, There are eight new faces in the locker room. Most of them are hardworking, intelligent veterans handpicked by Johnson to reshape the roster to be more playoff ready.
The boisterous personalities of Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson, combined with JaVale McGee and Michael Beasley are the most notable free agents. Each player adds great depth and experience to the locker room. Underrated high-effort defenders like Stephenson and McGee provide great toughness, and Beasley is a veteran who can provide double-digit scoring off the bench. But managing personalities is the biggest concern for head coach Luke Walton.
On the court, Rondo’s role is clear. He’s an excellent veteran point guard who should be an outstanding influence on Lonzo Ball, while also providing insurance at the position in case of injury or just poor play. Basically, Rondo’s presence improves the odds that Lonzo will be great, but the veteran maestro also insures that the Lakers aren’t dependent on Lonzo’s development.
Moving on, an area of concern for the Lakers is outside shooting, so rookie Sviatoslav “Svi” Mykhailiuk should have a role as a floor spacer. He’s really the only pure shooter on the team, as he shot about 40% from distance in summer league. While the Lakers “lack of shooting” problem is overblown, it does remain a problem, so Svi’s contribution will be important.
Obviously, the major change is the addition of LeBron. He’ll play more off the ball this season than ever before, and with guys like Rondo, Ball, and Ingram who can all initiate the offense, he might get away with playing more as a true forward for the first time in his career. Having others create shots for LeBron every once in a while should be a welcome sight, but he won’t change his game too drastically. He’ll spend plenty of time on the ball, probing the defense and driving the lane and finding a teammate or taking signature step-back threes.
Basically, LeBron will be LeBron, but how far can the Lakers go?
This team is immediately in the conversation for the second best team in the Western Conference.
LA has a great mix of surging young talent and veteran leadership. LeBron has the potential to shift the balance of an entire conference, given that he has enough room to work with, and his arrival will take significant pressure off of Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma.
Both Ingram and Kuzma averaged 16 PPG last season, and the number could exceed 20 for one or even both this year. They’re a highly talented young offensive duo that almost rivals that of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown in Boston. They aren’t quite on that level or that big of a stage yet, but that will change quickly.
Having to be the team’s primary scorers last year was a lot for the duo to handle, but with LeBron taking significant defensive attention, they should be more effective. Also, the Lakers will play with plenty of pace, according to Walton. The Lakers have the defense to get stops, rebound, and run, so easy, efficient transition baskets won’t be hard to come by. Ingram and Kuzma should have great season as secondary and tertiary scorers for the team.
Furthermore, I might be going out on a limb, but I expect Josh Hart to take a big step forward this year (eight PPG last season). The summer league MVP should contribute significantly for the Lakers off the bench and take potential minutes away from Lance Stephenson as a double-digit scorer. He’s a solid two-way guard who will surprise a lot of people this season.
Circling back to the constant source of trepidation: the Lakers’ lack of shooting. As I said, the issue is overblown. LeBron, Hart, Ingram, Kuzma, Svi, and several other players on this team can knock down a shot from distance and keep the defense honest. There aren’t many “pure shooters” on this team, but there’s a bunch of guys who can get the job done.
Speaking of shooting woes, I don’t think any basketball analyst on the planet can predict what Lonzo’s shot will be like this season. Lonzo is a true wildcard with plenty of talent and superb court vision. He plays real defense, and he cares about that end of the court, which isn’t a given nowadays. His pass accuracy is eye-popping and his unselfishness makes you root for him.
Lonzo is the quintessential point guard of the 1980’s, but this is 2018, and he needs a shot if he’s going to have major success. If he finds his UCLA stroke, his game will begin to soar, but if he doesn’t, he’ll stay stuck in a rut and be inconsistent. He must make defenses respect his jump shot so they can’t sink and clog passing lanes, taking away his most useful attribute. However, the insurance of Rondo prevents Lonzo’s progression from affecting my prediction.
Regardless, the Lakers will have enough talent with LeBron as the leader to be a force in the West come playoff time. They might end up with something like the sixth seed as they work through the growing pains of what is largely a new team, but they’ll be ready come May. The Warriors are the clear number one, even if you ignore DeMarcus Cousins completely. In addition, squads like Houston and Oklahoma City have more all stars, but the Lakers will leapfrog them as contenders as the year progresses, since neither team has an answer for James.
LeBron has carried two of the worst Finals teams in the history of the league (2007 and 2017). I don’t care about the exaggerated inferiority of the Eastern Conference—the Cavaliers had no business in the second round, much less the Finals last year. Yet, James was an inexplicable J.R. Smith blunder away from practically single-handedly winning Game 1 in Oracle Arena and altering the complexion of the Finals. He had 51 points that game on ridiculous near-60% shooting as the only consistent offensive threat on the floor for his team. It takes a collection of talent like the Warriors to eliminate him.
The Lakers and Warriors will meet in the Western Conference Finals. There will definitely be no sweep, but the Warriors are still perhaps the biggest juggernaut of all time. The Lakers will ultimately be too reliant on youngsters with zero playoff experience.
If and when the Lakers run into “the Dubs,” they’ll be underdogs, and they’ll most likely lose an elimination game in the Oracle, either in Game 5 or 7. They’ll have enough heart to not be eliminated in the Staples Center, but that’s the ceiling. An upset is certainly not impossible, and this team can absolutely pull it off, but it can’t be my prediction. The Warriors have been far too dominant.
But that shouldn’t discourage Los Angeles fans. The new “LakeShow” is no facade. It’s a deep, well-balanced team built around a once-in-a-lifetime player. They are sneaky good defensively, and they’ll be a hot destination for a loaded 2019 free agency class. They are another All-Star away from being able to contend with Golden State, but they are only about a week away from the opening tip-off and being “Showtime” again.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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