The NBA season is almost upon us, but Hot Take SZN is here, and at the end of another eventful summer we will see how close to the sun we can fly and still stand the swelter of these viewpoints.
Within 24 hours of LeBron James agreeing to join the Los Angeles Lakers, the team also came to terms with JaVale McGee, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo. The reaction from folks around the NBA was a collective, “Huh?” And then they signed Michael Beasley, as if this was all part of some “Space Jam 2” reality film that would be produced by LeBron’s SpringHill Entertainment.
As months passed, we came to accept that this was all part of Magic Johnson’s master plan to bring in a bunch of misfits willing to sign one-year deals in order to maintain salary cap flexibility for next year’s crop of free agents. In the meantime, the Lakers will await improvements from a highly touted young core that returns 35 wins from last season (minus Julius Randle and Brook Lopez) and bank on James being the rising tide to lift this fleet of NBA pirates. As far as plans go, it’s not the worst.
LeBron has not missed the playoffs since his second season, and he has reached eight consecutive NBA Finals, including this past season, when he led a hapless bunch of Cleveland Cavaliers to 50 wins.
And yet … there’s a decent chance LeBron’s Lakers don’t make the playoffs this season, right?
Any self-respecting general manager would take this Lakers core over last year’s Cavaliers, because Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart have all yet to reach their 24th birthdays, but the 2017-18 Cavs featured an in-his-prime All-Star (Kevin Love), a pair of historically productive shooters (Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith) and a host of accomplished veterans with playoff experience.
This year’s Lakers might have another All-Star, if Ingram makes a sizable (and feasible) leap, and might have a couple above-average shooters, if Hart doesn’t suffer a second-year swoon and Caldwell-Pope doesn’t revert to the dreadful shooter he was prior to last season. Their playoff-tested vets are Rondo, who is six years removed from his prime, Stephenson, whose greatest skill has been getting under LeBron’s skin, and McGee, who won two rings as a seldom-used center on the Golden State Warriors.
Last year’s Cavaliers attempted three fewer 3-pointers per game than the Lakers and still managed to make two more a night — almost the exact difference between what was a top-five ranked offense in Cleveland (112 points per 100 possessions) and a bottom-eight defense in L.A. (105.9 points per 100 possessions). There’s a chance that LeBron alone creates more open looks and more easy makes for his teammates, but the spacing and shot creation normally generated by one of the game’s most gifted offensive weapons could be mitigated by the absence of threatening shooters around him.
That in turn could limit the lanes in which LeBron barrels to the basket. LeBron, Lonzo and Rondo are three of the NBA’s most talented passers, but at some point somebody has to put the ball in the basket, and relying on LeBron to do all that lifting or trust his more untested teammates is a heavy load to bear for a 33-year-old, even one coming off an 82-game season in which he led the league in minutes played and followed up with one of the most remarkable playoff performances in history.
Defensively, James has already “perfected the art of resting while playing,” an energy-conserving ploy that comes once you’ve put 55,000 minutes on your treads. That pick-your-spots effort was readily apparent throughout last season, even in the playoffs, when he dialed it up. Still capable of awe-inspiring chase-down blocks, James is also five years removed from his last All-Defensive selection.
You’re hard-pressed to find another reliable defensive stopper in the Lakers mix. Rondo has long since given up on max defensive effort. The defensive record of their other vets is beyond spotty. And the Lakers’ middling defense last year was better with all their young players on the bench, save for Ball, who is returning from mid-July knee surgery and may come off the bench behind Rondo.
The Lakers’ list of rim protectors begins and ends with McGee, who was unplayable in high-stakes playoff games with the Warriors last season. The other centers on the roster are third-year pro Ivica Zubac and first-round pick Moe Wagner, whose knee injury has cost him the entire preseason. To that end, the Lakers have tried the 6-foot-9, 220-pound Kuzma at the five in smaller lineups, a preseason experiment that seems gimmicky at best and a surefire failure against formidable centers at worst.
Only the Phoenix Suns ranked worse than LeBron’s Cavaliers last season, and Tristan Thompson might be a better interior defender than anybody the Lakers return this season. Thompson and Love also provided a rebounding dimension around LeBron that raised their threat level, and while the Lakers owned a significantly better rebounding percentage than the Cavs in 2017-18, they lost their two best rebounders from last season and count Ball as their best returning rebounder this season.
The 2017-18 Cavs were historically good on offense and historically bad on defense, and when you added the two together, it amounted to a positive net rating of one — 2.3 points per 100 possessions better than the 35-win Lakers, which doesn’t seem insurmountable, given that they added LeBron Freakin’ James this summer and could find themselves in that range by being simply average on both ends.
Except, the playoff bar out West is significantly higher. Nine Western Conference teams owned a better net rating than a Cavs team with LeBron leading the league in minutes last season. The Lakers aren’t just banking on marked improvement, they need a 12-win increase just to match the 47 wins that the eighth-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves submitted last season. For reference sake, the Heat improved by 11 wins from 2010 to 2011 by adding prime LeBron and Chris Bosh, and the Cavs improved by 20 wins from 2014 to 2015 in a watered-down Eastern Conference with the newly added LeBron and Love.
Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City and Utah seem like locks to make the West playoffs. That leaves the Lakers vying with Portland, San Antonio, New Orleans, Denver, Minnesota and the Clippers for the final four spots, with Memphis and Dallas potentially lurking. The Jimmy Butler trade saga in Minnesota and a season-ending injury to Spurs starting point guard Dejounte Murray may have made the Lakers’ path easier, but that presumes they too make it through the season healthy and drama-free (which, on a team with LeBron, Lonzo, Rondo, Stephenson, Beasley and McGee, seems unlikely).
How good do you feel about the Lakers’ guards handling All-Star (or close to it) backcourts on the Warriors, Rockets and Blazers? How about their frontcourt matching up with All-Star (or close to it) bigs on the Pelicans, Spurs, Nuggets, Jazz, Timberwolves, Grizzlies and Mavericks? That’s a nightly gauntlet that not even LeBron has had to face in his career, let alone the playoff-untested Lakers.
Is LeBron still good enough to negate all those disadvantages? He might be, but that’s a hot take, too.
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