LeBron James‘ second season with the Los Angeles Lakers, featuring Anthony Davis as his co-star, will be more like a reboot than a sequel. The cast of characters will be drastically different, and James will be in his wheelhouse with shooters and veterans supporting him in a system that allows him to direct everything. The Lakers couldn’t land Kawhi Leonard and will not necessarily be the best show in town, but even their harshest critics understand the upside that comes with giving James the best pick-and-role partner he has ever had. No one is anticipating another full-fledged flop.
If there is a fear about this version of Lakers, it is that they could leave you cold, like the photorealistic remake of “The Lion King.” Chasing Leonard limited their options in terms of filling out the roster, and DeMarcus Cousins‘ torn ACL apparently has them thinking about acquiring Dwight Howard, a move that would reek of desperation and an unwillingness to ask James and Davis to play their optimal positions. A year ago they made the massive mistake of building a team around playmaking at the expense of spacing, trying to compensate by pushing the pace. Next season they should be more efficient, but they will likely be slower and more predictable. And there are real questions about their depth and defensive versatility.
When I try to come to definitive conclusions about Los Angeles’ offseason, I find myself thinking more like a reviewer for The Wirecutter than a film critic. This new product is shiny, expensive and obviously better than the overhyped, fatally flawed one it offered last year, but I need to see how it withstands the rigors of the season. The Lakers will be under immense scrutiny, and no one knows how they will handle adversity or how they will respond to new coach Frank Vogel and his staff. I cannot say that this new team is the favorite to win the title, only that it is an upgrade. For most organizations, this wouldn’t be a problem, but Los Angeles’ bar is higher because James will turn 35 in December and it traded its future for Davis.
“For us, anything short of a championship is not success,” general manager Rob Pelinka said in mid-July.
The Lakers are one of several teams attempting to replicate the success of last season’s champs. The Toronto Raptors built a cohesive, adaptable and resilient team in one year, gradually improving even from round to round in the playoffs. Toronto, however, is the exception, not the rule. It employed a bunch of smart players who accentuated each other’s strengths, excelled on both ends of the court and got some lucky bounces. Maybe, with their emphasis on experience — Kyle Kuzma is the only returning player under 25 — the Lakers are capable of conjuring the same spirit. That kind of magic, though, is never visible in the summer. If they have it, it will reveal itself under pressure.
The glowing quote
“There is no more complete basketball player in the game. There is nothing he can’t do. He can shoot. He can make plays. He can defend 1 to 5. He can protect the rim. He can handle the ball. His dedication to his craft is unparalleled. To sit here next to him and think he’s going to be on our team and he’s going to be a pillar in this franchise for many years is just something we’re incredibly proud of.” – Pelinka on Davis
What could have been
Signing Leonard would have made the Lakers the clear favorites, and instead of the buzz about the Lakers-Clippers rivalry, we would be hearing familiar grumbling about superteams and the league’s lack of competitive balance. In this alternate reality, Los Angeles would have been even more top-heavy — but what a top!
If you’re high on Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart, then you might still think about the possibilities of them growing alongside LeBron (and competent shooters and defenders). The Lakers were never going to run it back, though, so this what-if is more about last season. No sensible person blames Pelinka’s front office for waiting on Leonard, but it’s worth wondering how it would have spent its money if it knew Leonard was going elsewhere from the start. I’m guessing Los Angeles would have wound up adding some different role players, but Kemba Walker would have been an interesting fit on a max deal.
Taking the temperature
A hypothetical conversation between someone who believes that Showtime is back, baby, and someone who doesn’t
Positive fan: Anthony Davis is a Laker! This team is a championship contender based on that alone, and I’m thrilled that they nabbed Danny Green, a perfect 3-and-D guy. The Kawhi thing was disappointing, but at least they pivoted quickly. This feels like a real team, which is impressive considering it had to be patched together late in free agency. The roster just makes so much more sense than it did last season, and I’m expecting both A.D. and a rejuvenated LeBron to be MVP candidates.
Skeptical fan: Yeah, they got Davis and some shooters, but come on. You can’t ignore the downside or the exorbitant price they paid to placate LeBron. Going all-in can be clarifying, but it’s not exactly fun. I fear that Ball, Ingram and Hart will flourish in New Orleans, and that keeping Kuzma will complicate everything because he’s a 4, LeBron is a 4 and Davis wants to be a 4 (and, to put it charitably, Kuzma has lots of room to grow on defense). Are you going to spin the Cousins injury into something positive, too?
Positive fan: Actually, yeah. As bummed as I am for Cousins, losing him might not really hurt the team — the coaching staff needed an excuse to play LeBron at 4 and Davis at 5. I was kind of worried about Cousins’ defense, too, and a healthy Howard would be better than him in that area. If the guys they sent to the Pelicans turn into stars, good for them! The Lakers did what they had to do regardless. Davis is worth it.
Skeptical fan: I agree about playing Davis at 5 and LeBron at 4, but are the Lakers supposed to rely on those guys doing all the playmaking? I don’t like that they brought Rajon Rondo back because he doesn’t complement LeBron, but hardly anyone else is accustomed to having the ball in his hands. Whenever one of the two superstars has to miss a game, the other one will have to carry a huge load. They better hope that doesn’t happen in the playoffs. (I’m going to pretend you didn’t mention Howard.)
Positive fan: You are describing regular-season problems. I admit that this isn’t the deepest roster, especially when it comes to creating offense, but I’m not convinced that matters. In the postseason, they can play LeBron and A.D. 40-plus minutes every game. Everything that happens before then is about determining who deserves to be on the court next to them (and possibly acquiring more cavalry — hello, Andre Iguodala).
Skeptical fan: Iguodala would indeed help, but it’s not like their only weakness is playmaking. Let’s assume that LeBron can still handle playing close to 48 minutes in the playoffs and can still generate great shots on just about every possession. What about the other end? I trust Green and Davis, and I guess Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is OK, but I wish they had more multi-positional defenders. This is a weird thing to say, but if Jared Dudley were quicker and Avery Bradley were taller, I’d be much more confident in Los Angeles’ title chances. Another weird thing: I am incredibly invested in Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker and think they could both be in the playoff rotation.
Keep an eye on
There is a tendency among analytics-minded types to dismiss Kuzma as a stretch 4 who doesn’t really stretch the floor and an unequivocally harmful defender. He is a skilled offensive player, though, and Kuzma believers will tell you that the praise he has received for his defensive effort with Team USA is meaningful. I’m curious to see how he fares if he makes the cut for the World Cup, as the national team and the Lakers essentially need the same stuff from him.
I do not fault Kuzma for telling ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk that. First, though, he must become a more well-rounded player. Kuzma is a big dude with some athleticism and agility, and he’s going into his third year, a time when players routinely say the game has slowed down for them. It would be unfair to say that the Lakers’ title hopes rest on his maturation, so I’ll put it this way: If he does figure it out, Vogel’s job will be significantly easier.