LeBron’s Lakers

Earlier in the month, LeBron left Cleveland a second time, announcing he would sign with the Lakers on the first night of free agency before signing the official four-year, $154 million dollar contract on July 9th. The fourth year has a player option, but he’ll be 36 by then, and that year he’ll be making $41,002,273; hard to tell if he’ll turn that down at this point in his career. The season doesn’t officially begin until late October, but with the Kawhi Leonard trade finally out-of-the-way, it’s time to take a look at LeBron’s squad.

There’s still plenty of time for Magic to tweak the roster before the season starts, and 82 games is a lengthy schedule, so don’t be surprised if a trade is made during the season, as NBA franchises are susceptible to do. If the season started today however, the Laker’s starting five would be Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, and Javale McGee. Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and Josh Hart will come off the bench, with Luol Deng rounding out the minutes.

That’s a solid line-up and rotation; more talented overall than LeBron’s 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers squad. Magic was questioned about the lack of shooting around LeBron with the Rondo, Stephenson, and McGee signings, but his response, “Oh, we got shooting”1, shows me that he’s a much more capable manager than many will admit. Lonzo, KCP, Kuzma, Hart, and even LeBron can all hit the three, and if Ingram continues to progress as many think he will, he should be hitting the three at an above average rate, because he did attempt a significantly less amount of threes this previous season, but they actually went in, as opposed to his dreadful 29.4% from behind-the-arc his rookie season.

Analysts and fans alike aren’t afraid to call out The LeBron James System anymore, he’s been successful at playing his way and making all the personnel choices, but it hasn’t always resulted in Finals championships. A collective is always stronger than a group governed by one man. So to hear Magic tell Mark Jones that he was talking “strategy, personnel…” with LeBron, and then later broke down how he assembled the team based on what the Celtics and the Rockets did, because you can’t outshoot the Warriors, gives me hope that LeBron is willing to play within a system.

Houston had tough guys, Boston had tough guys. So what did I bring in? Tough guys.

Magic isn’t an idiot. LeBron doesn’t need more shooters, LeBron needs to lighten his workload so he can effectively lead this group of young guys on a deep playoff run. Magic also spoke about signing veterans to help these young guys, and even says at one point that it’s “not about the win total”; a point I brought up on an episode of the No Smoke podcast2. I’m unsure if this team cracks 50 wins, but I still believe they’ll be the third seed in the West this upcoming season.

There’s some good teams out West, Houston still has their dynamic duo of Harden and CP3, but they lost two solid three-and-D wings in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and may lose Clint Capela as well. If Capela walks, they could very well slip and allow the Lakers to overtake them as the second seed. However, if Capela is expected to re-sign, as was reported by E. Jay Zarett3 a week ago, then I see no reason the Rockets won’t cruise to an easy 57-win season. P.J. Tucker is one of the remaining three-and-D wings left from last season, and with James Ennis having an increased role, as well as the Michael Carter-Williams signing; leads me to believe the Rockets are willing to bet this trio can replicate the defensive effort of Ariza, Luc, and Tucker.

I’m deviating from the plot slightly, but that’s all to say I think the Rockets will be in a better position to win games in the regular season and thus earn a higher seeding than this current incarnation of the Lakers. Magic also recognized this, saying “I think we’re gonna start off slow”, and also, “It takes awhile to get to know each other”, but ended his assessment of his goals for the season by saying he thinks they’ll “… be really good towards the playoffs”; a fair, if not ambiguous, task. I think Magic and I, as well as a large majority of the community, are on the same wavelength when it comes to what this squad should achieve.

Should you choose to listen to my friend’s podcast, you’ll hear my question of if this team could even win 50 games. It’s not to knock the team, but Portland was the third seed last season, and they only won 49 games. I expect much of the same for this Lakers squad, as LeBron heading West has exponentially widened the imbalance in star power between conferences, which was already incredibly skewed to begin with. This isn’t to say LeBron and his team will be dominated by other teams who have been used to the pressures of battling tougher Western competition on a weekly basis, it’s mostly to say I think the difference in the pack will be much more balanced, with Golden State being the runaway favorite and top seed of the conference, and Houston being a distant but respectable second, essentially the reverse of the top two seeds from last season. The difference is, Golden State was still favored to beat Houston in the playoffs, and this time, with the addition of DeMarcus Cousins, the Warriors shouldn’t be coasting through the regular season again.

Julius Randle signing with the Pelicans definitely hurts the Lakers fast break, but both Magic and I know that it will still be an effective tool for them next season with LeBron, Lonzo, Rondo, and Lance all having the ability to rebound, handle, pass, and run. Randle would’ve put that fast break completely over-the-top, but you have to make sacrifices in other areas to make the team better overall, and Randle would’ve likely clogged the paint too much for LeBron’s liking, or even Lonzo, Rondo, and Lance for that matter, since that trio will be the second, third, and fourth ball-handlers for this team.

Luke Walton will have the challenge of staggering these minutes, because the game isn’t played 94′ for 48 minutes. The game slows down to a half-court setting for long stretches of the game, and a majority of the game when the playoffs come around. Walton will eventually have to sacrifice spacing by playing three of the four ball-handlers on this team together at some point. If the team operates auspiciously with a line-up of Ball, LeBron, and either Rondo or Stephenson, then I don’t see any reason this team won’t leapfrog the Jazz, Thunder, or the Pelicans in the standings.

KCP will no doubt be a discount Michael Cooper in this system, something Magic would like for this team to replicate based off his insistence that the team would be faster this next season, and they were already second in the league in pace this past season. That’s likely the best role for the 25-year-old Caldwell-Pope anyway, as his speed, ability to space the floor, defensive abilities, rebounding (for his position), and limited ball-handling abilities make him the perfect two-guard to plug into any system on any franchise in the NBA. Klay Thompson’s two-way abilities, height, and willingness to play within a system often makes it a debate on the best shooting guard in the NBA, and KCP can play a similar style to that, as the shooting guard on both the Warriors and the Lakers are not asked to carry a staggering load overall; just do your job.

The conflict that could be the catalyst to a sinking ship is the chemistry between their 6’6″ point guard and their superstar 6’8″ forward. We’ve seen CP3 take a backseat to Harden, but obviously, LeBron won’t be taking the backseat to Lonzo. It’s only going to be Ball’s sophomore season, he still has so much to learn, but under Magic and Walton’s regime, I believe LeBron can pass on his wisdom to Ball better than he could in any other environment with any other teammate from prior seasons. The pair can definitely work together, but to do so, they both need to take a step back and work without the ball, trusting the other to follow through on their end of the play.

I wrote an article on Lonzo last year where I heaped praise on the man, during a time where he was being overhyped and overly derided for his father’s statements. I stand by everything written in that article, as I never took a hyperbolic approach to Lonzo’s game. He’s a playmaker, a floor spacer, a versatile and willing defender, and a leader. No one led the way for last years’ Lakers, but they improved by nine games with Lonzo as their point guard; Brook Lopez filled in the scoring gap, but everyone, including Brook, knew it was a one-year flyer. Lonzo has the chance to work with the best player in the world right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see his individual game improve and add a few layers.

As long as LeBron becomes more committed to defense and setting picks, this team will be a fun run-and-gun team with the ability to get creative in the half-court, as well as switch on defense. McGee will protect the paint and grab rebounds better than any other center LeBron has ever partnered with, which will definitely ease his defensive responsibilities, as well as the team, but this roster is still incomplete. Remember that first year in Miami, when the Heatles ran into a solid collective led by Dirk Nowitzki? A star-powered team with significant flaws, as well as a complete meltdown by that team’s best player, often leads to victory for the smarter, well-coached, and more-balanced team. This version of the Lakers is missing one hyper-defensive wing that could change their culture with just his presence, and that’s Kawhi Leonard. I said don’t be surprised if this team makes a trade, but with Kawhi having already stated he would like to play for the Lakers, I don’t know why Magic wouldn’t just wait a season and sign him then.

If this team is gunning for a championship within the next four years, they definitely have that opportunity. The Warriors have won three of the last four championships, but dynasties last only so long. Cousins joins the squad this year, but what about next, when Durant has the option to opt out of his contract again? Once again, should you choose to listen to that podcast, you’ll discover I mentioned that the Lakers would likely retire LeBron’s jersey if he won just one championship for them; considering his age and the landscape of the NBA. Let’s say the Warriors three-peat, and then Durant leaves, and possibly Cousins as well. Let’s then say after all that happens, Kawhi signs with the Lakers, would that not give them the edge over the well-tread and depleted champions? Next season may very well be the last of the Warrior’s stranglehold over the NBA, and the beginning of a new dawn in professional basketball.

Editor’s Note

1. ESPN YouTube – 7/17/2018 – “Magic Johnson on Lakers’ lack of shooting around LeBron: I built this team based on playoffs”

2. “DON’T PUT IT IN MY ASS!!!!” – 59:25

3. Sporting News – 7/16/2018 – NBA free agency rumors: Clint Capela expected to re-sign with Rockets amid frustration over contract negotiations

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