The Lakers signed LeBron James, which is good enough for a round of golf claps but not yet enough to throw a parade.
Now that’s not to say that the Lakers are immensely flawed. However, there is blind optimism and then there is jaded cynicism, and I like to ride my Bird scooter comfortably in the middle of that road.
And so we should take a look at the more glaring issues facing the Lakers well before they suit up and actually hit the floor with one another.
Let’s be honest. The Lakers made some odd moves after signing LeBron James, but they are much improved over last season. Now let’s be super-duper honest: they are nothing without LeBron.
James is an NBA iron man, averaging a shade over 76 games a season throughout his 15-year career. He is also coming off the only season in which he played all 82 games, a campaign that also saw him garner 27.5 points per game on .542 shooting.
It’s not insane to ask LeBron to have similar seasons in the next two years. However, time comes calling for everyone, even the game’s greatest.
At 33, it would make sense that the remarkable number of minutes he has logged through his career will catch up to him. Forget losing Kawhi Leonard next summer. The Lakers greatest fear has to be losing LeBron for any extended duration over the next few years.
The Lakers made it rain one-year contracts and got in return what looks like the cast of the next Farrelly brothers movie: Michael Beasley, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
While the front office is certainly sold on this ragtag group of kids and gritty vets, there are certainly legitimate reasons to be concerned moving into the fall.
Of the four new vets, only Rondo logged serious starter minutes throughout last season, starting in 63 of the 65 games he played.
Beasley started 30 of his 74 games. McGee started 17 while logging just 9.5 minutes per game. And Stephenson, while playing in all 82, started just seven of those games last season.
As I wrote previously, there is no reason to discount the newest additions to the Lakers. They will bring far more than zany antics. But it’s clear that the younger Lakers will have to step up with heavy minutes if this team is going to get the most out of its roster.
If I haven’t I bummed you out enough, there are injuries to worry about, especially those concerning the younger athletes on the team.
Brandon Ingram played in 59 games last season as he dealt with a concussion and groin issues. Lonzo Ball suited up just 52 times thanks to a nagging left knee injury that turned out to be a torn meniscus, which he had scoped this summer.
Josh Hart (fractured left hand) missed a 14-game stretch but returned to put on a show, notching four 20-plus point games to end the season.
So it’s not just the older guys. This team has to worry about its budding players being healthy enough to hit the floor every night.
At the moment, it looks like the Lakers will head into the season with a mix of the young and the old, perhaps settling on McGee at the five.
James can finally play off the ball and let this playmaking backcourt run the show.
Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball will battle it out, but I have to think Rondo has the upper hand both in health (Ball will be coming back from surgery) and in veteran presence.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope may get the nod at the two, but I like Hart to eventually win heavy minutes. That leaves Ingram as the other starter.
The most intriguing lineup has to be the one that moves James down to the five. Essentially, the Lakers, at times this season, will have upgraded their Julius Randle role to a guy who can do it all.
Presumably, this could take place with four of the younger players complementing him. If this gets deployed, you would assume that Kyle Kuzma—who is presumably the first off the bench—Hart, Ball and Ingram have all improved as shooters. That’s the only way this death lineup is more Death Star than just, well, death.
Oh boy. Luol Deng certainly deserves a column all his own. But to recap, the Lakers owe the aging forward $36 million over the next two seasons.
The going rate for Deng is rumored to be a chunk of the younger assets and picks. Roughly the world and then some.
Getting some of that money back would be a tremendous boon for the Lakers heading into next offseason. But it’s hard to see how any team would take on a player nearing the end of his career as well as that salary without demanding an astounding return.
Looking at my watch I see it’s roughly way too early to determine where Kawhi Leonard’s heart will be next summer.
He could very well fall in love with Toronto. The Raptors could dominate the east and make his staying a foregone conclusion. Rest assured that the Leonard rumors will start in earnest as early as this winter, which is when we will all look to the north and wonder whether Kawhi is frowning or smiling during timeouts.
Pull the Plug
When do you panic? Actually, when do the Lakers panic?
Last season the Cavaliers completely overhauled their roster to get LeBron another title. It didn’t quite work out so well.
The Lakers will perhaps face a similar dilemma around January when they determine if they keep this hand and ride it into the playoffs or muck it and start over with new athletes surrounding the king.
That pesky win-loss column will also be a barometer for the Lakers’ young coach, Luke Walton.
He has certainly been a measured strength for this team as it has transitioned regimes and gone through the latter stages of its rebuild.
I for one am eager to see how far Walton can take this team. But whether he can corral this eclectic group of personalities is a lingering question that will need to be addressed.
LeBron James has done some of his best work when he can play off another budding star or, in the case of Miami, already proven ones.
The Lakers lack that one legitimate, consistent threat outside James. One of the returning Lakers will have to mature in microwave time and be that player.
Kobe Bryant recently explained the having LeBron will aid that instant maturity for the younger guys: “And players like Lonzo and Kyle and the others now have that really good pressure to push them forward sooner rather than later, and I can’t wait to see them respond to it. It’s going to be terrific.”
Essentially, the Lakers need LeBron James to play a lot of games. The team also needs to sidestep injuries, play as a cohesive unit, maintain their egos and become better shooters.