With the signing of LeBron James, the window for Lakers’ title contention shifted from 3-5 years to right now.
While the arrival of LeBron James has shifted the Lakers’ hopes from playoff contention to title contention, the 2018-19 season should still be a “growing” season for Los Angeles. The Lakers should be a solid squad next season (even in the cutthroat Western Conference), though fans will have to be patient as the motley roster designates roles through training camp, preseason, and even into the regular season. The addition of James is certainly a boon to the Lakers, though some players will find the transition to the L.A.-Bron era easier than others.
We already know what to expect from James: at 33, he will still most likely lead the Lakers in most important statistical categories and play as an MVP candidate, barring injury. Some of the clearest winners in the Lakers’ roster reshuffling are the veterans brought in to fill out the roster for the 2018-19 season (in advance of the 2019 offseason). One-year-deal veterans like Rajon Rondo, Michael Beasley, and Lance Stephenson have the opportunity to play exclusively to their strengths, while auditioning for their next roster spots or playing their way into Los Angeles’ future.
The upcoming season would appear to be the ideal situation for Michael Beasley at this stage in his career. Following a productive season with the New York Knicks, Beasley will only be expected to fill the role he has his whole career: volume scorer. Last season, the 29-year-old forward scored 13.2 points on an above average 50.7% shooting in 22.3 minutes per game. He will not be tasked with playmaking duties, rebounding or even a real leadership role, as LeBron will cover up many of those deficiencies; the self-proclaimed “walking bucket” can focus solely on scoring in bunches off the bench. Taking some of the scoring burden off LeBron is exactly the type of role Beasley can thrive in.
Rajon Rondo finds himself in a similar position coming off a very effective stint in New Orleans. Just as Beasley will be on the floor exclusively to score, Rondo will be a designated playmaker for Los Angeles. While his assist numbers will probably be down sharing the floor with James (Rondo averaged 8.2 in 26.2 minutes with the Pelicans), sharing the playmaking responsibilities should benefit both players. After his statistical explosion in last season’s playoffs, further confirming the “Playoff Rondo” narrative, Rajon will likely compete with sophomore Lonzo Ball for the starting job. Still, expect his role to be reduced with the Lakers’ commitment to Ball and James’ propensity for ball handling.
LeBron’s arrival should prove fruitful for the Lakers’ veteran signees, but it will also be a gut check for LA’s young core. In the post-Kobe era, the reins of the franchise were seemingly handed to the youngsters Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart. These players were intended to comprise the groundwork for the next Lakers dynasty, but LeBron’s decision to go westward has completely shifted LA’s plans. What were once future starters have become possible trade pieces or roster redundancies.
Perhaps the biggest question mark amongst the Laker youth is Brandon Ingram. In his second career season, Ingram looked as though he were taking a big step toward prominence; he averaged 16.1 points on 47% shooting, while chipping in 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists. He created many of his own opportunities on the offensive end last season, giving Ingram the chance to showcase his creativity with the ball in his hands. With LeBron playing 35+ minutes per game, Ingram may be pushed onto the bench more than he has in his first two seasons. Considering he was already reportedly unhappy in Los Angeles, Ingram may no longer be the long-term building block he was thought to be.
While their struggles might not be as acute as Ingram’s, players like Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma will see their roles change this season, while no longer enjoying the benefits of slower development through an acknowledged rebuilding process. Ball will see his minutes fluctuate depending on Rondo’s effectiveness and Kuzma, while still maintaining a high-minute allotment, will split time with some of the veterans as Luke Walton trots out whatever lineup gives the Lakers the best chance to scratch out wins. Their natural development has been derailed by James’ arrival, so they will have to kick it into overdrive in order to contribute on a LeBron James team. It’s James’ team now, and they’ll have to keep up.
The biggest problem that the mishmash Laker roster will deal with all season long is bearing the weight of expectation that having LeBron James on your roster draws. LA’s ravenous fan base has sent expectations through the roof, but the team will likely struggle figuring it out early in the year. James has said that he doesn’t expect 2018-19 to be a rebuilding year, but the playoffs are not guaranteed, and there is bound to be a lot of roster turnover between this season and the next. This year will bring challenges, but Los Angeles will almost certainly up their win total from the last few seasons, and make meaningful strides toward participation in the NBA Finals.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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