The Lakers started last season with an intriguing and exciting young core and ended it outside of the playoffs, which wasn’t terribly surprising. They rightly put the franchise in the hands of Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram and allowed them to grow and make mistakes. Each of the four had moments and made their mark but couldn’t overcome nights where they were simply outmatched and too inexperienced to win games. Veteran guard Isaiah Thomas arrived at midseason in a trade yet it was a short experiment, as Thomas once again suffered from hip issues. In the trade with Cleveland to get Thomas, the Lakers sent Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson as salary dumps to free up money to use in the offseason to land a transcendent star and savior to trigger a franchise turnaround.
LeBron James signed with the Lakers over the summer. Maybe you heard. Suddenly, the Lakers had another star in a long line of centerpieces that began with Baylor and West. But as much as the Lakers scored big with LeBron, the summer didn’t materialize as they imagined it … There was an obvious push to get Paul George in unrestricted free agency but George didn’t even give them an interview, electing to re-sign with Oklahoma City instead … Plus, discussions with the Spurs about disgruntled star Kawhi went nowhere partly because San Antonio didn’t want to trade him within the conference and likely asked for the moon, anyway. Therefore, the quest to align LeBron with another star or two failed and must continue next summer … To boost their spending in 2019, the Lakers let Randle leave in free agency, used the stretch provision on Luol Deng and signed four free agents to one-year deals.
1. LeBron showed no signs of slowing down last season at age 33. He played every game, burned heavy minutes deep into the postseason and delivered massive performances. Can he do that again at age 34, in a tougher conference and with a younger core? Sometimes Father Time shows up unannounced and taps you on the shoulder. Instead of a gradual decline, LeBron’s eventual sunset could come suddenly. Hopefully for the Lakers, it doesn’t happen this season.
2. The Lakers declined to trade Ingram last summer when surely the Spurs asked for him (and others) in talks for Kawhi Leonard. There are big expectations for Ingram; the Lakers believe he can be, at least, a borderline star at some point in his career. He can do himself and the club a favor by taking a significant step forward this season and relieve LeBron of the scoring load.
3. Rondo, Stephenson, Beasley and McGee on the same team? What could go wrong? Putting aside their well-documented quirks, the Lakers would like to know what’s left in the tank with these four, who are likely not long for LA. Rondo appears to be the strongest of the bunch; he was solid for the Pelicans last season, but he might not even start. Stephenson has never looked good in a uniform other than the Pacers’. Beasley remains an unrealized talent. And while McGee had moments in The Finals last summer, he’s only good for 15 minutes a night.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Luke Walton wasn’t a smash hit as a coach last season, but wasn’t the disaster that LaVar Ball claimed, either. Of course, things will heat up in a hurry now, with rising expectations and lots of decisions to be made about the rotation and lineup. There’s a lot on his plate and he must also deal with complex personalities as well. For instance: What does Walton do when confronted by Rondo, which you know will happen at some point? Juggling egos, both strong and fragile, will test the young coach, much as it did LeBron’s last coach, Ty Lue.
LeBron James | 27.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 8.6 apg
An all-time great arrives to restore the luster of a franchise gone stale; he remains on top of his game.
Brandon Ingram | 16.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.9 apg
Improved his three-point shooting to 39 percent and became a reliable stretch-four; defense and rebounding need work.
Kyle Kuzma | 16.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.8 apg
Smooth-shooting swingman doesn’t shy from taking the big shot or taking a bunch of them; must adjust in LeBron’s shadow.
Lonzo Ball| 10.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 7.2 apg
Superb court vision and underrated rebounding almost compensates for poor shooting, especially from deep (31 pct) last year.
JaVale McGee | 4.8 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 0.9 bpg
A rotational player on the two-time champion Warriors brings plenty of hop in his game but admittedly little else.
Rajon Rondo | 8.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 8.2 apg
The tread after 12 years is starting to show, yet he remains a smart player and intense competitor; will he groom Lonzo?
Josh Hart | 7.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 1.3 apg
A strong summer was needed and welcomed by an emerging rotational player in the backcourt.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope | 13.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.2 apg
He signed an extension mainly because of his 3-point work (38 pct) and it didn’t hurt to be repped by LeBron’s company.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Lakers will return to the postseason and to a degree of glory if only because of LeBron, who carried a lesser team to The Finals in Cleveland. Any significant growth from Kuzma, Ingram and/or Ball will go a long ways in pushing the Lakers up the charts in the West, which once again is unforgiving. Yet, there’s still a sense that they’re a year away from making the Golden State Warriors nervous, and only if they hit it big in free agency in 2019. Until then, expect the Lakers to go 46-36 and rattle a few contenders along the way. If LeBron is in the MVP discussion again, the season will be a success no matter what happens in the playoffs, assuming they make it that far.