The 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers were a team of extremes. They had just signed a player in LeBron James who had been to the NBA Finals eight years in a row, but they themselves had missed out on the postseason in the previous five. James traditionally thrived playing alongside shooters, but Magic Johnson tried to reimagine what a LeBron roster could look like by putting multiple ball-handlers around him at all times.
It obviously didn't work out, but in making predictions for the 2019-20 season, it's important to remember how uncertain last season was. A precious few were prescient enough to see the disaster coming, but predictions ranged all across the board. James' mere presence forced the majority of the basketball world to buy into a group that had already been dubbed "the Meme Team."
This year's group will be far more predictable. It's a story every basketball fan is familiar with: two superstars pair up with a flawed but deep group of role players to form one of the NBA's better teams. Broadly speaking, the Lakers are going to be very good this season. They are going to be in the mix for the championship when the spring rolls around.
But in making bold predictions for this year's team, those 2018-19 forecasts issue an important reminder: LeBron James changes the equation. If his mere presence was enough to convince the masses that last year's abysmal Lakers team could make the playoffs, how high should their ceiling be now that he has a strong roster around him? James' presence informed every one of these predictions, and the Lakers will go only as far as he takes them.
1. The Lakers will acquire a new starting point guard before the playoffs
No, this does not mean that the Lakers are going to acquire Chris Paul, but Paul's situation is the right place to start. A potential Paul deal is going to displace at least one current NBA starting point guard. After all, no team would acquire Paul with the idea of bringing him off of the bench, but the Oklahoma City Thunder aren't going to want a replacement for him that would challenge Shai Gilgeous-Alexander's position as the point guard of the future.
Say, for instance, Goran Dragic, who would be logical salary filler. A buyout could land him in Los Angeles. Perhaps the Milwaukee Bucks consider taking a run at Paul. Eric Bledsoe is a Klutch Sports client and a longtime favorite of LeBron James, so getting him rerouted to the Lakers wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility.. The Thunder have no use for
Constructing a deal for a starting point guard would be difficult for the Lakers from a financial perspective. Most of their salary serves a specific function on this roster, and several players, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo, can veto trades due to the structure of their deals. But DeMarcus Cousins gives them an extra $3.5 million in functionally dead salary to trade, and Kyle Kuzma would be an enticing piece for a rebuilding team. Given his redundancy with James and Anthony Davis, it's not hard to envision a scenario in which the Lakers try to package him for a more sensible veteran.
If the myriad of variables working against them prevent a trade, however, the Lakers will still have options on the buyout market. Guards like Jeff Teague and Jordan Clarkson are on expiring deals and play for potential lottery teams, so they would figure to be buyout candidates.
The Lakers have two rotation-caliber point guards in Alex Caruso and Quinn Cook, but for the time being, both are fairly specialized. Cook is a shooter, while Caruso brings mostly defense and energy. Even if Caruso shoots as well as he did last season, he isn't the sort of secondary ball-handler that the Lakers need to relieve James, who postured for more help in that arena in Cleveland even with Kyrie Irving on his roster.
Rajon Rondo was that player six or seven years ago, but last season was proof positive that he and James cannot coexist. Even if they could, Rondo's defense is no longer NBA-caliber. Eventually, the Lakers are going to have to reckon with the fact that James is their only perimeter player who can both dribble and shoot consistently. That is going to change at some point during the season, it's just a matter of when.
2. The Lakers will reverse the LeBron James trend and start fast but finish slow in the regular season
When James plays for a drastically overhauled roster, the result tends to be a slow start and a fast finish. Concerns over a potential slow start this season are grounded in the 9-8 opening to the 2010-11 season that James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh produced and the even more concerning 19-20 mark posted to kick off the 2014-15 season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Those teams were, obviously, fine. The Cavaliers went 34-9 down the stretch. The Heat went 49-16 after stumbling out of the gate. Most of the noise around a potentially slow Lakers start at least acknowledges that they will likely be fine by the end of the season, but that James' personal history indicates it will take time to get there.
The "why" is far more interesting than the "what" in this instance. James spent the first seven years of his NBA career serving as his team's lone superstar. A slow integration into a three-star ecosystem was natural, especially given Wade's struggles behind the arc. Eventually, the Heat found equilibrium, and in James' final two seasons in Miami, the Heat finished in the top five in the NBA in assist ratio. The Cleveland team that he joined, thanks in large part to Kyrie Irving, finished near the top of the league in isolations in all four of James' seasons there.
There were drastic stylistic adjustments necessary in making those teams work. That isn't the case this time around. If anything, this team is the simplest possible distillation of what makes James great. He has an elite pick-and-roll partner in Anthony Davis, and he is surrounded by shooting. No adjustments are necessary. This team will be able to fall back on its bread and butter pick-and-roll until it builds chemistry.
The schedule favors a fast start as well. The NBA typically prefers to backload the schedules of big-market teams in order to avoid conflict with the NFL, and the Lakers are an extreme example. Only five of their first 12 games are against 2018 playoff teams. That is followed by a home-and-home with the Thunder, who are likely to drop out, and then a five-game stretch featuring only one playoff team from last year. They play only four true road games in the first month of the season.
Assuming Davis is healthy, the Lakers are going to start fast. A harder schedule and lesser motivation for a high seed will slow them down later on, but the Lakers could have the NBA's best record through a month or two.
3. Anthony Davis will lead a top-five defense
Let's check in with last season's top five defenses:
- The No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks and No. 2 Utah Jazz should both be in the mix again this season.
- The No. 3 Indiana Pacers will be without former All-Defense guard Victor Oladipo for an indeterminate amount of time, and replaced two strong defensive forwards in the starting lineup (Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic) with two weak ones (T.J. Warren and Domantas Sabonis).
- The No. 4 Oklahoma City Thunder lost four-time All-Defense forward Paul George and are expected to consider trading off veterans if the season goes poorly.
- The No. 5 Toronto Raptors lost former two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard and former All-Defense guard Danny Green.
In theory, this creates at least three reasonably available slots in the top five. The Philadelphia 76ers are almost certainly going to claim one of them. The other two are up for grabs, and the Lakers should be in the running for one of them.
It starts with Davis. His New Orleans Pelicans gave up 104.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor during the 2017-18 season, which would have slotted them just below the No. 4 San Antonio Spurs in that season's overall rankings. For the 2016-17 season, the Pelicans would have been ranked No. 3 if only the minutes Davis played were considered. The problems for New Orleans came when he sat. The 2017-18 Pelicans, for example, gave up 110.6 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the bench. That would have been 28th over the full season.
The Lakers don't figure to have that same problem. In Green, Caldwell-Pope, Caruso and Avery Bradley, the Lakers have four stylistically diverse defensive-minded guards. James' defensive reputation has taken a hit in recent years, but as far as weaknesses go, having a basketball genius whose effort is inconsistent as one of your biggest issues is a good place to be. Kuzma, who is injured, and Rondo, whose role figures to decrease over the course of the season, are the only true liabilities in the rotation on that end of the floor.
But last year's Bucks created a general model for the Lakers to follow in building a top defense. They finished No. 1 in defense despite allowing the most 3-pointers in the NBA because of excellent rim-protection from Brook Lopez, an elite defensive power forward who could cover enormous amounts of ground in Giannis Antetokounmpo, and aggressive defensive guards who made handling the ball miserable for opponents. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard should provide that rim protection both with Davis on the floor and without him. Davis plays the role of Antetokounmpo in terms of covering space (which James can do as well, when he's interested). Bradley's defense, in particular, has earned rave reviews at training camp. The Lakers have a slightly lower defensive ceiling than last year's Bucks, but by following the same basic principles, they could find similar success.
4. Jason Kidd won't cause any drama on the coaching staff
As badly as Twitter may want Kidd to revolt against Frank Vogel, the odds of any serious discord among the coaching staff becoming public are relatively slim. Kidd has been out of coaching for over a year, and watching Mike Budenholzer spend most of that time turning the team he underachieved with into a contender was likely humbling.
Even if it wasn't, Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times reported in the offseason that Kidd's initial interview with the Lakers was granted only as a favor to agent Jeff Schwartz, who represents a number of important NBA players, including then-Laker Brandon Ingram and then-potential Lakers target Kemba Walker. He was not exactly a hot commodity. The Lakers may have saved his coaching career by granting him this lifeline. He is, in all likelihood, aware of that, and the thin ice it means he is standing on.
He was able to pull a power play in Brooklyn because he knew he had the Milwaukee job in hand if it failed. There is no safety job here. Kidd's coaching future depends on making it work with the Lakers. Even if Vogel were to lose his job during the season, which is a longshot for a variety of reasons, Kidd would not even be guaranteed the top job. The Lakers also hired former Memphis Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins this offseason, potentially to insulate the team from Kidd-related drama.
Kidd's past, his relationship with James, and the media's obsession with finding drama with both James and the Lakers made this a story. It won't be for much longer. It's hard for an assistant to be conspicuously quiet, but Kidd will be this season.
5. LeBron will end all debate over who is the NBA's best player
When last we saw LeBron James at full power, both in terms of health and motivation, he had arguably the greatest individual playoff run in NBA history. No other player in the current NBA is capable of averaging 34 points, nine rebounds and nine assists on nearly 54 percent shooting over a 22-game postseason. It would have taken a truly illogical devotion to winning as the only measurement of individual ability to suggest that any other player in the league, at that moment, was better at basketball than James.
A number of things happened after that, most of which were out of his control. He got hurt, first and foremost, though groin injuries are not known to recur at a higher rate than injuries to other body parts, such as knees, hamstrings or backs. He joined an ill-fitting roster that was not equipped to carry the load when he was out, and so a Lakers team he had in fourth place in the Western Conference at the time of his injury was out of the top eight by the time he returned. The season was lost not long after that. James will play his first meaningful basketball in seven months when the Lakers tip off their regular season.
In the intervening period, a number of superstars played the best basketball of their careers. James Harden did it in the regular season. Kawhi Leonard did it in the postseason. Kevin Durant did as well, prior to a devastating Achilles injury. With James out of the championship conversation, it became far easier to fixate on the players who waited in his shadow for years prior.
But ask yourself this: If James' 2018 playoff run was the platonic ideal for individual performance in the modern NBA, the absolute highest peak that any player has reached this century, then who seems likelier to either reach or come closest to that peak -- a healthy, fully rested James on a far better roster, or any other player, none of whom have ever come close to playing at that level? If only Michael Jordan has ever been as good as James was at his best, and James' best came only 16 months ago, betting on James to reach that level or come close seems safer than hoping some unnamed third player manages to join the two of them on top of the mountain.
The Lakers may or may not win the championship this season. Whether they do or don't is based on hundreds of factors, many of which are undetermined and still unknown to us. But there just isn't much evidence to suggest that James has meaningfully declined as a player. There's a reason he was , but he earned that top spot based on a tiebreaker, and the top few players were precariously close to one another.
That won't be the case this season. On a suddenly level playing field, he will stand out. Father Time is going to come for James eventually. It just won't be this season. Next year's Top 100 voting won't come down to a tiebreaker. James will hold it for himself comfortably.