30 Teams in 30 Days: At last, Los Angeles Lakers nab their long-sought superstar
LeBron James' move West could signal first phase in Lakers' revival
That’s a question many fans ask as the flurry of trades, free agent news and player movement seems to never stop during the summer. Since the Golden State Warriors claimed their third title in four years back on June 8, NBA teams have undergone a massive number of changes as they prepare for the season ahead.
With the opening of training camps just around the corner, NBA.com’s Shaun Powell will evaluate the state of each franchise as it sits today — from the team with the worst regular-season record in 2017-18 to the team with the best regular-season record — as we look at 30 teams in 30 days.
* * *
Today’s team: Los Angeles Lakers
2017-18 Record: 35-47, did not qualify for the playoffs
Who’s new: LeBron James (free agency), Rajon Rondo (free agency), Lance Stephenson (free agency), JaVale McGee (free agency), Michael Beasley (free agency), Moritz Wagner (Draft), Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Draft)
Who’s gone: Julius Randle, Isaiah Thomas, Brook Lopez, Luol Deng
The lowdown: The Lakers stuck with their plan to devote 2017-18 to developing Randle, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram, all 22 years and younger, for the sake of the future. And for the most part, the returns were positive. Kuzma and Ball made All-Rookie teams while Randle finished strong, tying for the Lakers’ lead in scoring and leading the team in rebounds. As for Ingram, he played with more efficiency. The Lakers also swung a mid-season trade that brought Thomas, although he wasn’t as important to them as the cap space they cleared by shipping Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. to Cleveland. While there was indeed interest in this developmental process all season — and Kuzma in particular became a fan favorite — the organization was clearly fixated on the summer of 2018 and the pursuit of game-changing free agents.
In what was the worst-kept secret in the NBA (but the best news the Lakers have had in a while), the franchise’s troubles in landing a superstar in free agency ended when LeBron signed a four-year deal. His arrival had a seismic reaction within and beyond the organization. Suddenly, one man made the Lakers a main attraction again.
LeBron follows a long line of one-name-only Lakers icons: Elgin, West, Wilt, Kareem, Magic, Shaq and Kobe. Except it’s very possible that he’s had a greater career than those players … and he’s still not done yet. Only a handful of stars in NBA history have been able to instantly transform average teams into title-contenders and even title-winners. LeBron demonstrated that in both his stints with the Cleveland Cavaliers. True, the Cavs only won one championship on his watch, but he reached five NBA Finals in 11 career seasons with Cleveland.
Even more impressive is that LeBron remained at the top of his game last season despite turning 33. He never missed a game in the regular season or playoffs, logging heavy minutes well into June and constantly bailing out the Cavs with hero-ball late in games. A physical marvel and all-around beast, LeBron averaged 27.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 9.1 assists per game in 36.9 minutes per game during the season. In the playoffs, he raised those numbers to 34 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 9.0 apg in 41.9 mpg.
His interest in what Los Angeles can do for him, post-career, is equal to or higher than what the Lakers can do for him. Simply put, this was a decision that goes beyond basketball.
Of course, the Lakers are mainly interested in what he can do for them. While LeBron showed no signs of slippage last season — he turns 34 in December — sometimes Father Time arrives with little to no warning. You’re great one season, and then the next season, you’re getting beaten off the dribble by lesser players.
Essentially, the Lakers are on the clock with LeBron. That’s why their blockbuster summer wasn’t truly a blockbuster. No other significant piece — besides LeBron — was added, as the Lakers struck out on their other prime targets.
Paul George re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder in what was a surprise. The San Antonio Spurs refused to accept the Lakers’ proposals for Kawhi Leonard, who was dealt to the Toronto Raptors. And free-agent center DeMarcus Cousins took a cheap deal with the Golden State Warriors. Had at least one of the above joined LeBron, the Lakers would have Golden State’s full attention.
Once those options vaporized, team president Magic Johnson chose to keep his options open for a big free agency period next summer. He then signed a handful of free agents on one-year deals to fill out the rotation and serve as a bridge to next season. However, it’s an interesting mix to say the least: Rondo, JaVale, Lance and Beasley? You won’t find a collection this loosely-wired anywhere else.
Of the four, Rondo seems best equipped to make a reasonably sizable ripple. He was vital to the New Orleans Pelicans last season, especially when they lost Cousins for the year, and sparkled in the playoffs. But for some reason, he decided to bounce to yet another team.
He’ll compete with Ball for minutes at point guard and that will be interesting. Will Rondo willfully teach a younger player who may eventually take his job? And if Rondo gets the load of the minutes, how soon and how often will we hear from LaVar Ball? And how will Rondo deal with that noise?
McGee was stuck on the Warriors’ bench for much of his time there because of matchup issues, yet thrived in the 2018 Finals. He may be good for the Lakers only in certain situations that don’t call for a stretch five, which are suddenly rare in today’s NBA.
Oh, and wait: Lance and LeBron, teammates? Will this be the first reality show for LeBron’s production company?
The Lakers managed to erase the last mistake of the previous regime when they recently bought out Deng with a stretch provision. This allows the Lakers to increase their spending ability significantly next summer and their salary cap room could be flexible enough to sign another max player. But as Johnson has said many times, the construction of a contender will take place over two summers.
The young holdovers plus LeBron make for the boldest experiment in the NBA next season. We’ll see if James can roust the Lakers into playoff form and take them beyond projections. They may not be better than the Warriors, but nobody in the league can beat the new Lakers for people-watching.
Coming next: Charlotte Hornets
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.