When LeBron James made the decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers in July, they instantly jumped into playoff contention. After several other free agent acquisitions, I believe they jumped into title contention. The consensus among the media has been, “LeBron is taking the year off” and “Lakers are waiting for the summer of 2019”.
To these people, the free agent acquisitions (minus LeBron) were puzzling, and the Lakers are no threat to Houston, let alone Golden State. You’ll even find some who think they’ll struggle to make the playoffs. However, if you take a closer look and squint your eyes a little, you’ll see a true title contender.
Yes, I know the reigning champions just added All-Star Center, DeMarcus Cousins, making them the first team since the 60’s to field a lineup with 5 All-Stars. Yes, I understand Lebron has no other All-Stars on his team, just some young guns and old vets. And yes, I know that LeBron is now in the loaded Western Conference. But no, I don’t believe we should just hand over the Larry O’Brien trophy to Warriors just yet.
Don’t worry about a slow start
They might get off to a slow start like the Miami Heat did in 2010 or the Cavaliers in 2014, but don’t be fooled into believing they won’t be in the 2019 playoffs. And whether it’s the 2 seed or the 8 seed, it doesn’t make a difference. As LeBron mentioned right before the start of the 2018 playoffs, if he’s in there, you have a chance to go all the way.
He took a far less talented Cleveland team to the finals this year and although it was a sweep, it was competitive. James, quite literally, had to do it all for the Cavaliers last season. I hate to bash on NBA players because they are the best in the world at what they do, but that doesn’t mean they are immune from criticism. During the Finals, the “other” Cavs shot a collective 37% from the field, 28% from three, and only Kevin Love averaged double digits. There are a multitude of stats I could throw at you, but I think you get the point, they were unequivocally outmatched.
Now, why am I so high on this Lakers team? A team who last year, won 35 games. Well, If they had taken that same roster into this season, they would’ve hovered around .500 just based on the progression of their young players. Insert LeBron James into the equation, the best basketball player on the planet. Not only is he the best, but his strengths perfectly compliment the growth of this team. He loves to facilitate and will take their games to the next level. One crucial aspect that many are overlooking is he’s going to show them how to work and let them peek into the biggest basketball brain this game has ever seen.
I’ve heard this myth floating around about how James will inhibit the growth of the young players on the Lakers. Imagine a world where playing with better players stops you from being a better player. Ever heard of the expression Iron sharpens Iron? LeBron is the most unselfish superstar this game has ever seen and if you think guys like Kyle Kuzma are going to lose more than he will gain playing with him, you’re delusional.
They will be playing in more meaningful games, getting every team’s best shot, and will be held to a higher standard by LeBron himself. Just look at what playing in big games did for the development of Jayson Tatum last year. LeBron knows that he needs guys like Brandon Ingram and Kuzma to step up and he’s going to do everything in his power to make sure they are ready when the time comes.
Smart free agent arrivals
In addition to the growth of their young players, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka made a flurry of savvy free agent acquisitions. They added gritty, tough, hard-nosed playmakers who just love to ball and have plenty of playoff experience. Rajon Rondo’s ball handling, defense, and championship pedigree will be a welcome addition to this green team. Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley’s playmaking ability and swagger will give them a powerful punch off the bench. While JaVale McGee will give them rim protection and a few alley-oops here and there.
This team has all the right parts to contend for a championship. Critics have lamented the lack of shooting on the team (Lakers ranked 29th last year in 3pt %) but that’s a lazy critique. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram all shot at or above league average from 3 last year. It’s not a stretch to say that with another year of working on their shots, plus all the wide-open looks Lebron will provide, those numbers will go up.
Rajon Rondo and Lonzo Ball are both fantastic playmakers and will provide LeBron relief from making every play for his team, a luxury not afforded to him last year. Lance Stephenson, Kuzma, Ingram, and Beasley can all get their own shots as well.
Defensively, this Laker squad is leaps and bounds ahead of where the Cavs were last season. They were top 15 in defensive rating and steals, and they were the 2nd best rebounding team in the league. As Pat Riley used to say, “No boards, no rings”. With Lebron James on your team, you don’t need to have the best defense in the league, it just needs to be competent. They have the length, athleticism, toughness and talent to be a top 10 defensive team. They aren’t going to be the 2004 Pistons or the 2008 Celtics, but they will match up much better than the 2018 Cavs.
Which brings me to the biggest difference between last year’s Cavs and this year’s Lakers. When the Warriors went to their “Death lineup”, the Cavs didn’t have an answer. The Lakers have long, athletic wings (Ingram, Hart, Kuzma) and hard-nosed guards (Stephenson, Rondo) who can match up defensively and still give you something on the offensive end. They have some rim protection in McGee, depth on the bench, and players that will fight tooth and nail till the game is over. On the other hand, the 2018 Cavs had one-dimensional players who provided offense or defense, but not both. They had zero rim protection, no depth, and ultimately no fight in them. Therefore, the Lakers are much better equipped to match up against the Warriors.
LeBron finds a way
There are concerns that LeBron’s game wont mesh with Rondo or Lonzo but if you are worried about that, you haven’t been watching LeBron for the past 15 seasons. These are the same people who thought he couldn’t fit with Dwyane Wade in Miami or with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland. Both were ball dominant scorers, who needed the ball in their hands. I think both of those situations worked out just fine. It did take a year with each player to figure it out before winning championships, but there isn’t anyone on this Lakers roster like Wade or Irving. Lonzo idolised Lebron growing up and Rondo has experienced the wrath of LeBron James firsthand. It won’t happen instantaneously, but Magic, Walton and James will figure out a formula that works.
Lastly, the Warriors have gotten their fair share of injury breaks during their run. In 2015, they faced a Cavaliers team without Kevin Love or Kyrie Irving. In 2017, Kawhi Leonard was lost for the series when Spurs were up by 20 in Game 1 of the conference finals. In 2018, down 3-2 to the Houston Rockets, Chris Paul goes down and misses the last two games of the series. All while they have remained relatively healthy, at least for the most important parts of the playoffs. This isn’t to take anything away from what they have accomplished in the past 4 years, only to make the point that things may not break their way this season. DeMarcus is obviously coming off one of the worst injuries that can happen to a player, Steph’s ankles are always a risk and even their ironman (Klay Thompson) was slowed down last year because of injuries.
I’m not saying that the Lakers should be title favorites, that would be foolish. Obviously, a lot must go right for them to truly be in title contention. If “Boogie” Cousins comes back 100% and fits in seamlessly to a healthy Warriors squad, go ahead and hand them the trophy. If you look at it player by player, clearly Golden State are far more talented. However, LeBron James has a knack for taking teams to a level that far surpasses the sum of their parts. As Kevin Love so eloquently stated during the summer, it seems like LeBron is playing chess and everyone else is playing checkers.
Don’t count out the King just yet, and don’t sleep on the Los Angeles Lakers or you might have a nightmare.