2018 Preview — Los Angeles Lakers

2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers


Projected Record: 48-34 (5th in West)

Over/Under: 48.5

2016: 35-47 (11th in West)


Key Additions:

  • LeBron James (Free Agency)
  • Rajon Rondo (Free Agency)
  • JaVale McGee (Free Agency)
  • Michael Beasley (Free Agency)
  • Lance Stephenson (Free Agency)
  • Joel Berry II (Free Agency)
  • Jeffrey Carroll (Free Agency)
  • Moritz Wagner (Pick #25)
  • Isaac Bonga (Pick #39)
  • Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Pick #47)

Key Subtractions:

  • Brook Lopez
  • Julius Randle
  • Isaiah Thomas
  • Channing Frye
  • Luol Deng
  • Tyler Ennis
  • Thomas Bryant

Summary

Strengths:

  • LeBron James
  • Young upside is significant
  • Defense should be solid

Weaknesses:

  • Question marks surround other offseason signings
  • No second star at present
  • Good enough to compete in the West right now?

They actually did it.

After years upon years of endless speculation and jersey photoshops of varying quality, the Lakers managed to land the superstar they’ve been craving. LeBron James is a Los Angeles Laker and the landscape of the NBA has shifted in a borderline stunning way.

Acquiring LeBron for the long term without surrendering any of their coveted young prospects is nothing short of a coup. The Lakers know they aren’t likely to dethrone the Warriors this season, and they’re not pressing to — they’ve refused to overplay their hand to acquire stars in the last years of their contracts like Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler, opting to wait for next summer’s free agent period to make their play. It’s a bold strategy, and as Paul George showed us when he signed his surprise extension with the Thunder, it could blow up in their faces.

The Lakers are confident they will land somebody next summer, but who that could be is still very much unclear. Kawhi Leonard? He might not want to play second-fiddle to James, and the Raptors have an entire season to sell him on staying in Toronto, just like the Thunder did with George. Jimmy Butler? Playing with James may not appeal to him, either, and we already know where his favorite long-term destinations are. Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson are far from locks to break up the party over in Oakland, and Kyrie Irving certainly isn’t craving a reunion with James, and after that, the pickings suddenly become very slim. It’s admirable that the Lakers don’t want to compromise their affordable depth to bring in a star, but they may come to regret not taking their shot.

The equation changes, of course, if they already have that second star on their roster in the form of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart. The Lakers have fought tooth-and-nail to hang onto their vaunted young core, and this season, it’s going to be time for the group to show whether they were worth it. Each has significant upside, but are their drawbacks too prominent for them to reach legitimate stardom? The Lakers have to hope not.

Ball is a prodigal passer and a tenacious perimeter defender, but struggles with to score efficiently or operate in the half-court on offense. Ingram has perhaps the highest upside, as potentially a multi-positional two-way wing, but advanced stats haven’t been high on him and he hasn’t shown much ability off the ball (which he will be, often, alongside James). Kuzma was a breakthrough offensive talent as a rookie, but a turnstile defensively and is already 23 years old. Hart has perhaps the best all-around game, but figures to be more of a role player than a breakthrough star. None of these players are sure things, and if they fall more towards the “quality role player” side of the spectrum, the pressure to acquire a star in the offseason will only intensify.

Los Angeles has caught some flack for the way the remainder of the offseason played out after the James signing, but I’m not quite as pessimistic about their other signings than most. Rajon Rondo may be a flawed player, but with the Pelicans last season, he proved he can still move the needle for a playoff team as a floor general and perimeter defender, at least when he’s fully engaged. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is the kind of effective three-and-D wing you want alongside a player like James, and Michael Beasley has quietly put together a little career resurgence as a steady veteran rotation player over the past two seasons. JaVale McGee is very good at jumping and dunking, and he’s been outrageously efficient doing specifically those things en route to two championships with the Warriors the last two seasons, and Moritz Wagner should be a nice complement to him at center, stretching the floor as yet another weapon for James to find.

Really, the only objectionable signing here is Lance Stephenson, who was perhaps the worst player to receive significant minutes in the NBA last season. Apart from Wagner (a rookie), these are all one-year deals that don’t impede the Lakers’ future plans. You can argue that their money might have been better allocated in different ways — Julius Randle ultimately signed for only two years, $18 million, a price at which they should have retained him — but they didn’t do as poorly as Twitter jokes might suggest. DeMarcus Cousins wasn’t signing for $5 million with anybody other than Golden State, after all.

In the end, as I mentioned… they got LeBron. The plan may be far from complete in Los Angeles but the Lakers are officially back, and everything else about their offseason has to be graded on a curve as a result. The idea of effectively punting a season at the tail end of LeBron’s career leaves me skeptical, but the Lakers are playing the long game right now. At the moment, they’re exactly where they want to be, for better or for worse.


Most Valuable Player: LeBron James

What more can you really say about LeBron James, honestly? He’s 34 years old and he’s probably going to be a top-five MVP candidate once again. Including this section was really just a formality.

X Factor: Brandon Ingram

Brandon Ingram really is the textbook definition an X Factor, because the Lakers’ outlook could be radically different depending on how he performs in his third NBA season.

In his sophomore campaign, Ingram showcased radical growth from his underwhelming NBA debut, on both ends of the floor. Offensively, he developed into a legitimately good attacker off the dribble and in transition, showcased burgeoning playmaking vision with four assists per game, and even canned 39% of his threes (albeit in limited volume). Defensively, he still completely lacked strength, but his agility and the sheer.. gangly-ness? of his limbs presented some upside on the perimeter.

And yet, we’re still a ways away from understanding exactly what kind of wing Ingram is going to be — and his situation is about to change radically. When LeBron James is your teammate in 2018, you’re not going to be handling the ball particularly often. The best way to succeed alongside James is to move without the ball and allow his visionary playmaking ability to put you in positions to succeed. Last season, Ingram benefited from a setup that put the ball in his hands exceptionally often — about 45% of his touches lasted between two and six seconds. Can he make the adjustment?

As a side note, Ingram also has the unique ability to make me feel like I’m being gaslighted. All summer, Lakers fans on Twitter have been raving about how much bigger he looks this season… he looks exactly the same, guys! What am I missing here?

Don’t Forget About: Josh Hart

Josh Hart might have the lowest overall ceiling of the Lakers’ young core (though my pick for that honor would be Kyle Kuzma, personally), because he doesn’t necessarily have “star” upside. What he does have, unlike Ingram, is the perfect skillset to function alongside LeBron James.

I’ve written about Hart at some length in the past, so I won’t go too much deeper here. But in essence, he’s an exceptionally skilled off-ball contributor. He’s a sharpshooter from a standstill, and a smart and active cutter who is always moving and finding ways to get open. Similar to platoon-mate Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, I believe Hart will quickly become one of LeBron’s favorite half-court targets.


Second Opinion

Jacob Rude, Lonzo Wire + Lakers Outsiders (@JacobRude)

Never in a million years would I have guessed that LeBron James would be playing for my favorite team, but here we are. The circumstances he came under make it all the more stunning. No second superstar. Three guaranteed years. No trade demands. The Lakers get to keep their young core and just add the best player in the league.

Much was made about the Lakers’ subsequent free agent signings following James. In reality, the back-end of the Lakers’ bench has featured 10-day and two-way players for much of the rebuild that aren’t feasible anymore. I don’t think players like Michael Beasley or Lance Stephenson will be anything more than end of the bench guys by playoff time. Rajon Rondo is a massive upgrade as a backup and JaVale McGee gives the Lakers the vertical threat they haven’t had.

This means the focus of this season will be on the Lakers’ young core. Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart showed enough promise that James came and didn’t demand to blow it up. Now, the franchise’s ceiling will be determined by how much they can grow and adapt their games to fit around him. Given the Lakers’ cap situation for the summer of 2019, this season could serve as a tryout of sorts for that young core.

Title aspirations are distant dreams this season for the Lakers but after years of watching Byron Scott coach and Tyler Ennis play, playoff basketball with James feels like hitting the jackpot.


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