It’s been five long seasons, but the Los Angeles Lakers are finally relevant in the NBA community and have realistic playoff expectations with the signing of LeBron James. With it, all the talk of the basketball world will be centered on Los Angeles once again, and they wouldn’t have it any other way because it means that expectations are somewhat high.
The roster has a different look because the front office made a flurry of moves to reshape the squad outside of their young core:
Let Walk: Brook Lopez, Julius Randle, Luol Deng, Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas
Brought In: LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, Moritz Wagner, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
Re-signed: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
With these moves, here is the Lakers’ expected depth chart, according to ESPN.
Point Guard: Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball
Shooting Guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart, Alex Caruso
Small Forward: LeBron James, Lance Stephenson, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
Power Forward: Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Michael Beasley, Travis Wear
Center: JaVale McGee, Ivica Zuba, Moritz Wagner
There is a lot of intrigue surrounding this team because of the high potential of their young core of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, and Lonzo Ball, not to mention the potential fits of rookies Mo Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk. And with the draft success of the Lakers’ Jesse Buss over the past few years, especially later in the draft, it’s fair to expect that the duo will be two more steals.
But Ingram is the one that has star potential of the bunch and took a tremendous leap forward in his second season after being labeled a bust following a disappointing rookie season. He increased his averages to 16.1 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 3.9 assists while increasing his field goal percentage by seven percent to 47% and his three-point shooting by ten points to 39.4%.
He showed tremendous flashes of being an all-around playmaker, impressing in his run as the team’s point guard, and showed the potential of an All-Star caliber two-way player. And in doing so, he started to live up to his billing as the second overall pick from the 2016 draft.
But Kuzma and Josh Hart are no slouches themselves either. Both were steals in the late first round and cemented themselves as two crucial building blocks. Lonzo Ball’s shooting was the talk of his season, but people ignored his impact everywhere else. First, he was one of just four guys, according to Basketball-Reference, to average his rookie stat line (points, assists, and rebounds). He made his teammates better whenever he was on the court and was an excellent team defender.
All four are expected to take steps forward this upcoming season and playing with LeBron James is expected to amplify that development, if all goes well. But there will be other things to keep an eye on as the season goes on, and here they are.
How Does ‘MUD’ Fit In?
Following the signing of LeBron James, everyone wondered what the Lakers’ following moves would be, and boy did they surprise. Instead of going hard after Kawhi Leonard in a trade, or trying to pry Damian Lillard or Anthony Davis away from their respective teams, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka went after four free agents that had everyone scratching their heads.
They signed veterans Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee; four players that have been viewed in less-than-spectacular fashion for different reasons. LeBron James labeled the quartet ‘MUD,’ which stands for “misunderstood, under-appreciated, and determined,” for their perception league-wide.
Rondo is known as a hot-head who is stubborn and will always speak his mind, even if his opinion can make a relationship toxic. JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson are viewed as clowns for their numerous head-scratching actions and behaviors. And Michael Beasley has had his problems off the court, in addition to never living up to his billing as the second overall pick from the 2018 draft.
The front office and James were reportedly in cahoots about the signings, and general manager Rob Pelinka’s thinking behind the additions was not wanting in to fall into the trap of trying to beat the Golden State Warriors at their own game: shooting. Other than Beasley, none of them can shoot, but they all bring length, toughness, and high IQ (although that might be surprising with some of the names).
Meshing with the rest of the team is crucial if the team wants to succeed, and the Lakers are hoping that the four make headlines for positive basketball reasons and nothing else. The entire basketball world will have their eyes on them because of the potential for a circus in Los Angeles.
How Will the Perimeter Shooting Fare?
Wherever LeBron James plays, he has always been surrounded by three-point shooters who can catch-and-shoot. The 33-year-old is still the one running the show, and long-range snipers are the best fits for him because of his all-time excellent playmaking ability. Having players camped outside opens up the paint for James who loves to attack the basket, and if the defense collapses he can use his excellent vision and passing to get the shooters involved and going.
However, he joined a Lakers team that shot 34.5% from three last season, which was the second-worst in the league, and the free agent signings were less than ideal to aid the shooting department, so many are worried about LA’s ability to space the floor. But, we may not be giving the team enough credit.
Brandon Ingram shot nearly 40% on all threes last season and 41.1% on catch-and-shoot three-pointers. Kyle Kuzma shot a solid 36% and 37.5% on catch-and-shoot opportunities. The front office is hoping he can increase those numbers to at least the high 30’s. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope shot a career-high 38.3% from distance last year and 40.3% on catch-and-shoot tries.
Josh Hart shot 39.8% from three, including 41.3% on catch-and-shoot opportunities. And free agent Michael Beasley quietly shot 39% from distance in 2018 and 40.3% on catch-and-shoot shots.
Lonzo Ball is the wild-card. His shooting struggles as a rookie are well-documented, but let’s not forget he shot 41% from distance in college, just like Brandon Ingram, and just like Ingram, he struggled shooting the long-ball as a rookie. So who knows, after one year of development, he could take a similar route as his fellow 21-year-old teammate. If he can become at least respectable, James will have at least six guys whose shot you will have to respect.
And that’s not even including rookies Mo Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk, who were absolute snipers in college and were drafted primarily because of that. It would still be ideal to grab an established floor-spacer as the Cleveland Cavaliers did with Kyle Korver two years ago, but the options available are better than people realize.
What Happens With the Center Position?
The Lakers allowed the most points in the paint last season, which proved to be their biggest Achilles heel on defense. Gone is Brook Lopez and in is JaVale McGee who brings an entirely new dynamic to the team. McGee can’t shoot like Lopez, nor does he have the refined offensive game as the former, but what he brings is what Los Angeles lacked with Lopez.
He is tall, long, and athletic, a great lob threat inside, a good rebounder, and an interior presence. But after him, they lack in depth. Ivica Zubac didn’t impress during the preseason, and like last year, it may take him a while to get back to being a serviceable backup, and Mo Wagner missed the entire preseason with an injury and was recently cleared for non-contact drills, so who knows how much longer he will be out for.
Plus, Wagner is a rookie who isn’t known for his defense, so how comfortable would anyone be with a guy like him serving as the backup. The Lakers are trying Kyle Kuzma at the five, but he is undersized and was taken to task in the preseason because of it. Los Angeles may have to look for external options to solve this problem, and the questions are who and when?
So What Would Make for a Successful Season?
Everyone is scattered on expectations for the Lakers. Some believe they will squeak into the playoffs as a lower-seed while others genuinely think they can clinch home-court for at least the first round of the playoffs and make some noise. Their ceiling, however, depends on the development of their young guns and how they mesh with LeBron James and ‘MUD.’
They won 35 games last year, including a 20-9 stretch during midseason, and this current team is better. If you take into account the expected development of the Lakers’ youth, a .500 record (41 wins) would have been plausible. But that is now the lower end of expectations. History has told us that LeBron James will make his teammates better (and could amplify the youth development) and add at least ten wins to any team he joins, so that would mean 50 wins is possible.
Somewhere between 47-50 is realistic and would make for a successful regular season, and advancing in the playoffs would be an excellent accomplishment. Even a tough first-round exit would be a good sign, considering the Lakers’ youth is inexperienced. But challenging for home-court, making some noise in the first round, and seeing significant steps forward from the likes of Ingram, Ball, Kuzma, and Hart would make for a successful season.
Team MVP: LeBron James
Team’s Most Improved: Brandon Ingram
Prediction: 49-33 record, 4th in the West, and eliminated in the Western Conference Semifinals.