July 1st, 2018 will be remembered as the day the King landed in Los Angeles. With LeBron James taking his talents to LA in the Decision 3.0, a seismic shift in the balance of the NBA has been made and Lakers are about to be relevant again.
After all, it is hardly a surprise that LeBron has chosen the Lakers as the next stop in his career. We all knew about the summers he spends living in Los Angeles, the houses he owns and the respect and admiration he has for Magic Johnson and the Lakers franchise.
But if the previous NBA seasons have thought us something, LeBron James might be enough to get you to the NBA Finals in the weaker Eastern Conference, he cannot beat the Golden State Warriors by himself. So, what is the Los Angeles Lakers plan to climb the mountain and dominate the Western Conference?
I have prepared a short analysis of all the moves that the Los Angeles Lakers have made so far, and how they fit into a puzzle with LeBron James. In the end, I will try to answer the questions about the Lakers immediate contender status and long-term potential.
The Decision 3.0
We might never know if there was one single thing that made LeBron James leave his home in Ohio for Los Angeles. What we do know is the fact that his relationship with the Cavaliers organization, particularly Dan Gilbert, was problematic and the team was straddled by bad contracts that offered little flexibility to reshape the Cavs into a legit contender.
The allure of Los Angeles, the Lakers and Magic Johnson have made LeBron James comfortable enough to commit his future to the Los Angeles Lakers by signing a 4-year $153 million contract. Something that James has been actively avoiding to do in Cleveland.
Basically, LeBron is here to stay and has offered the Lakers assurance to seek out ways to improve their roster and turn the team into a bonafide contender.
Lakers have hardly been sitting on their hands during the previous NBA season. Since taking over the GM job at the Lakers, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have been making moves to clear out cap space and rid the Lakers of bad contracts that were signed by the previous management.
The Lakers managed to shed the bad contract of Timofey Mozgov and trade away Jordan Clarkson’s bad deal as well. That still leaves the Luol Deng’s horrible contract on the Lakers’ books, but at least they have created some flexibility to restructure it and space to add key pieces to their championship puzzle in the future.
During the last season, LA Lakers have gone with a full youth movement in the organization, trying to realistically gauge the potential and value of their young assets such as Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle.
The Lance Stephenson Addition
As soon as LeBron James was secured, the Lakers hurried to sign and announce the signing of forward Lance Stephenson on a 1-year $4.5 million deal. The Lakers cited Stephenson’s experience and competitiveness as an asset that is badly needed on their young team.
LeBron James is quite familiar of Lance Stephenson’s style of play from their numerous matchups while Stephenson was in Indiana, but does he really fit the mold of the type of player that is successful in playing off of LeBron James?
Surrounding LeBron James by shooters has worked for a number of years, due to James’ ability to create offense for others and generate easy open shots. Still, this model seemed to fail the Cavs in the last few years, as they ran into the Golden State Warriors.
Extending Kentavius Caldwell-Pope
The Lakers followed up the Stephenson addition with the 1-year $12 million extension of the guard Kentavius Caldwell-Pope, who fits the mold of the modern 3-and-D player in the NBA. Once again, the Lakers have gone with a veteran player on a 1-year deal.
Caldwell-Pope might not offer much in the terms of his ceiling, but he is a consistent performer that fits a variety of offensive and defensive schemes and plays hard. He offers a lot of flexibility to the Lakers when it comes to the playbook and systems they intend to use.
Adding JaVale McGee
The next move was the addition of JaVale McGee on a one-year veteran minimum contract. This move makes a lot of sense, since the Lakers decided not to extend Julius Randle who went to the New Orleans Pelicans.
McGee might not offer much in terms of offensive production or versatility, but he is a good rim protector, that rebounds hard and offers athletic potential on defense. He is also coming off of his best season in years, with the Golden State Warriors.
The Arrival of Rajon Rondo
The addition of Rajon Rondo has really puzzled the league. Even though Rajon Rondo is coming off an excellent season, particularly the playoff campaign with the New Orleans Hornets, there are legitimate questions about the fit with the Lakers.
The Lakers were already one of the worst 3pt shooting teams in the NBA last season. Additions of Stephenson, Caldwell-Pope and Rajon Rondo, even LeBron James, certainly do not help that situation. Especially when we take into account that Lonzo Ball struggles shooting as well.
The game in the NBA has evolved and the 3pt shot is crucial to team success and winning. Although Rondo has a lot to offer in terms of leadership, basketball IQ and defense, he definitely does not offer a reliable outside shot.
If you take a closer look at the contracts that the Lakers have given to the four veterans so far, one thing is evident. They are motivated to maintain cap flexibility, hence the one-year deals. Basically, all four veterans come as one-year rentals, whose contracts can easily be moved at the end of the season, without sacrificing precious cap space.
This all points to the fact that the Lakers are not done dealing this summer, or when the actual season starts. They will always keep their eyes open for potential additions that might improve their squad.
Although there are a lot of questions about how all these new pieces fit on offense, there is little doubt that defensively they will be long and athletic, something that LeBron James has seriously lacked with the Cavaliers during the last few seasons.
Being able to switch across the floor with big and long athletes is something that the Golden State Warriors have utilized well in their defensive schemes. If we add Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball to James, Rondo, Caldwell-Pope, Stephenson and McGee, we can see that there is great defensive potential in this Lakers team.
In the tough Western Conference, this is something that separates good teams from the great.
Lonzo Ball’s Status
It has been just a year since the Lakers drafter Lonzo Ball as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. The 6 foot-6 guard has had a difficult rookie campaign which was marked with his inability to shoot the ball consistently or stay healthy.
If we add to that the fact that LaVar Ball seems to be a walking distraction that generates unwarranted attention and pressure on his son, Lonzo Ball’s future with the Lakers doesn’t seem so bright just a year later.
The addition of Rajon Rondo certainly doesn’t help the situation. Rondo is a savvy-veteran that prefers a hard-nosed approach to basketball, something that Lonzo Ball has been accused of lacking. He has no intention of being a bench player.
All this points to the potential trade of Lonzo Ball, for some draft picks or useful veteran additions. There have been rumors that Lonzo Ball’s inner circle has been leaking false injury information about him in order to deter teams seeking a trade for him.
The Kawhi Leonard Trade
Since the revelation of the problems between the San Antonio Spurs organization and Kawhi Leonard during the last season, the Los Angeles Lakers have been billed as the primary landing spot. After all, Kawhi Leonard is from Los Angeles, and has previously expressed the desire to play there one day.
Still, the San Antonio Spurs are one of the most well-run organizations in sports, and they have absolutely zero intention of trading Kawhi Leonard to the Los Angeles Lakers unless they can extract a King’s Ransom in the trade.
The Lakers have already refused the Spurs proposal which included Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and multiple first-round picks. They are unwilling to part with Kyle Kuzma or to mortgage their future by giving up so many first-round picks.
It seems, that Kawhi Leonard might pursue a trade with the Clippers, in the worst case just play out the last year of his contract somewhere, before coming back to LA in 2019, as a free agent.
The Damian Lillard Trade
As the uncertainty of Kawhi Leonard trade to the Lakers growing every moment, there seems to be another option for the Lakers to pursue. Damian Lillard might be available for a trade. A move for Damian Lillard would be an attempt to recreate the LeBron-Kyrie partnership from Cleveland.
Lillard excels as a ball-handler and pick’n’roll creator and scorer and would be a legitimate second offensive star on the Lakers, that would ease the load on the Lebron James to facilitate and generate all of the offense.
The Trailblazers might be interested in a forward like Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball in exchange for Lillard, as they decide to build around CJ McCollum. The move sure makes a lot of sense, but there has been little more outside of the trade rumors so far.
What Can the Lakers Do in 2018?
If the roster stays as it is, without the potential additions of star players like Kawhi Leonard and Damian Lillard, the Lakers will not be able to content for the 2018 NBA Championship. They will have a competitive and an energetic roster, but their Championship potential is quite limited.
There is no legitimate second scoring option on the roster, that could carry the offense in case that LeBron James is unable to do it himself. We have already seen this happen to LeBron and the Cavaliers in the past.
Even bigger concern is the lack of outside shooting across the roster. Outside of Kyle Kuzma and LeBron James who are mere average outside shooters in the NBA, the rest of the roster is quite challenged in this area. The importance of 3-point shooting has never been greater and this roster composition seems to be going against the established trends in the league.
The Western Conference is altogether a different beast, compared to the East. The competition is much fiercer and teams possess more quality and depth. Out of the top 20 players in the NBA, 17 of them are in the Western Conference.
All this points out that the way they are currently constructed, the Lakers should be able to make the playoffs in the Western Conference, without a realistic chance to challenge for the 2018 NBA title. Teams like the Golden State Warriors, the Houston Rockets, the Oklahoma Thunder and the Minnesota Timberwolves all seem to have more talent on their roster.
Even teams that are in the playoff hunt such as the Utah Jazz, the San Antonio Spurs, the Denver Nuggets or the Portland Trailblazers will be a tough nut to crack in the Western Conference. An exit in the second round of the NBA Playoffs seems like a reality.
One thing to keep in mind is the fact that the Lakers are not on a title-or-bust mission when it comes to the 2018 NBA Season. With LeBron James fully committed to the Lakers organization, the Lakers are more relaxed in the process of evaluating potential additions to their rosters.
Even if there are no marquee free-agent signings this summer or during the 2018 NBA season, the Lakers should not panic. They will still have a chance to make a run at the 2019 free agent class, which will most likely include Kawhi Leonard and Klay Thompson.
50-win season is a healthy goal for the Lakers to strive for this season, while constantly working on improving their roster so they can contend in the future.