Of all the things LeBron James has said since landing in Los Angeles, the line he might have used the most is the one I like the best. At various points during the preseason he answered an array of questions with a variation on the same theme. Most recently, in the run-up to the regular season, James was asked how the Lakers offense might evolve over time.
“It’s, what, three weeks? Four weeks?” James asked rhetorically. “I’m just the new kid in school. I have no idea.”
The notion that James is somehow out of his element and just trying to find his way is a bit silly on the surface. The entire NBA is his school, and he’s been at the head of the class for 15 years now. And yet he is right—there are a lot of unknowns with this Lakers team. During media day—which he likened to “the start of the first day of school”—he sounded a lot like the rest of us.
“You know what to expect,” he said, “but at the same time you don’t know what to expect. With me being my first time here, part of this franchise, and this system as well, I look forward to seeing how I can work.”
Me too. LeBron and the Lakers will finally play their first regular-season game when they face the Trail Blazers in Portland on Thursday evening. The wait is over. Like James, I’m looking forward to seeing how quite a few things unfold for the Lakers this season.
LeBron vs. the West (and the World)
There have been two predominant takes surrounding LeBron since he signed with the Lakers. One is that he is still the best player in the game and will immediately supercharge a team that had a losing record in each of the last five seasons and hasn’t made the playoffs since the 2012-13 campaign. Put me in this camp. I’ve got the Lakers third in the Western Conference because they have James. Whatever you think of the King’s current men, it’s hard to argue that they’re worse than what he left behind in Cleveland.
The other take goes something like this: The East was/is hot garbage and the West is really tough. And besides, when will LeBron find the time to focus on basketball when he’s busy chopping up Kanye drama on The Shop or hopping on stage with Drake?
“Goin’ on you with the pick & roll. Young La Flame, he in sicko mode…”@Drake x @trvisXX x @KingJames pic.twitter.com/Cuv03rXGVw— UNINTERRUPTED (@uninterrupted) October 14, 2018
The man has always been a multitasker who has juggled all sorts of responsibilities, and he hasn’t dropped one yet. I wouldn’t bet against him doing it now. And it’s not like he’s only now hanging out with celebrities. While it’s fair to point out that his Hollywood business pursuits continue to expand, it should also be noted that the never-ending questions about how his side hustles might affect his day job have seemed to irritate him. More than once this preseason, I’ve watched him bat down the implication that the bright lights of show biz might blind him when it comes to basketball—usually by suggesting that the person making the assertion hasn’t paid close enough attention to him in the past.
That’s a crazy comeback when you think about it—that there are people who cover the NBA, or even people in general, who somehow have not paid enough attention to one of the most famous athletes alive. And yet LeBron is going with it. A few weeks ago a reporter asked LeBron about wearing no. 6 in practice when he wears no. 23 in games. It’s something James has done since returning to Cleveland after four years in Miami. It was an innocent enough question posed by an L.A. media member. Alas, no allowances were made for geography and distance.
“I’m starting to figure out a lot of you guys just not recognizing who I am, huh?” James said.
A practice jersey number is a minor point of contention. But right now, it feels like LeBron is perhaps happy to use any perceived slight, however small, as extra motivation. Per usual, James is among a handful of favorites to win MVP this season. But for the first time in a long time, he isn’t expected to reach the NBA Finals after doing so for eight consecutive seasons. What would a LeBron-less championship look like, and how might it affect him? Being the best player on the planet comes with outsized expectations—and not just of the external variety.
No one demands more from James than James himself. After the Warriors swept the Cavs in last season’s Finals, James said simply making it that far didn’t qualify as a success. “Not for me,” he said. So what happens now that he’s in Los Angeles playing for a Lakers team that should be considerably better than it was a season ago but probably still won’t be good enough to host a parade? What happens when he’s questioned about his commitment to basketball and his outside interests? What happens when people don’t just privately doubt him but flat-out ask him in public? Most of all, what happens if someone who has nothing to prove—a lot of you guys just not recognizing who I am, huh?—is bothered enough to prove himself all over again?
The Generation Gap
The last few seasons were historically bad for the Lakers. The goal for the organization during that time was pretty clear: develop the young guys right now and hope for a better tomorrow.
Tomorrow is right now. The young players are still in tow, but with LeBron and a host of veterans added to the roster, losing games in the service of the future is no longer an option. Depending on which oddsmaker you prefer, the Lakers over/under win total was set at 48.5. FiveThirtyEight’s model gives them an 82 percent chance to make the playoffs. The expectations have clearly shifted. It will be fascinating to see how those expectations impact head coach Luke Walton’s tactics and rotations. A season ago, five of the eight players who appeared in 50 or more games and averaged 20 or more minutes were 23 or younger: Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Julius Randle, and Josh Hart. Randle is in New Orleans now, but the remaining four guys still factor heavily into the team’s plans. Or they should, depending on performance.
Walton said that the young guys are still “a big part of our future.” But he also underlined that the “style of development” has changed.
“It’s not, let them play 35 minutes, let them learn from the mistakes, play through situations,” Walton said last week. “We got a lot of guys on this team and if you’re not doing it right, you’re going to learn by coming out and watching other people do it. It’s getting to the same point, it’s just teaching them by using different lessons.”
At present, it’s all good. You have a litter of young cats evidently eager to learn from LeBron and the big dogs. (Or something. Apologies to Rob Pelinka.) The incumbent millennials have said all the right things about watching film with the veterans, sharing the floor and the ball, and following their collective lead. But this is also still new. What happens if some of the older guys who might just be happy to be in sunny Southern California with LeBron start eating into the playing time of up-and-coming kids who are hungry for minutes—and money? Ingram, Kuzma, Ball, and Hart are all on their rookie deals, but how they perform this season will still impact their financial futures. It won’t be that long until they’re thinking about their next contracts, if they aren’t already. (Ingram will be eligible for an extension prior to next season.)
For his part, Walton hasn’t seemed too worried about potential generational tension affecting chemistry. He insisted that “winning makes it more fun”—but he also caught himself.
“We haven’t won anything yet,” he said.
Front Office Decisions
So about that: Walton is right. They haven’t won anything yet. But when Magic Johnson and Pelinka addressed the media late last month, they sounded fairly certain that was about to change. The Lakers’ president of basketball operations and their general manager seem to really like their team. It’s hard not to, considering they signed James to a four-year deal. But they also beamed about the complementary pieces they put in place during the offseason. Johnson has singled out JaVale McGee for providing the “grittiness” and “toughness” that the team needed. Maybe, but that only goes so far when trying to fill 48 minutes per game at center in a conference packed with quality bigs. Johnson doesn’t see it that way, and even if he did, he would never let on.
“We love everything that everybody brings to the table,” Johnson insisted. “[Rajon] Rondo is still a champion. You saw what he did for New Orleans last season, and we’re happy to have him. Lance [Stephenson] played excellent basketball for his team last season. Didn’t have a problem. We’re excited to have him. I want to see Lance shake it up. That’s who he is. Michael Beasley, come on, do your thing. If I was concerned, I wouldn’t have signed none of them. I’m excited to have them, each and every one.”
It was September when he said it. Will Johnson and Pelinka say the same sorts of things in February as the trade deadline approaches and the standings provide a true barometer for what this team can do and what it might need?
The Lakers are confident that Ingram can make the leap and be the 1A option to LeBron. But the Lakers will likely need more talent before they can compete for a title. James’s teams tend to look a lot different to start the season than they do after the deadline, and the Lakers haven’t exactly hid their desire to add another star (or stars) to the roster. They have the cap space and assets to do it. But which pieces the front office decides to move or keep in place could cause serious ripple effects for the franchise. Do they keep Ball, Kuzma, and Hart? Do they trade one or several of them in a package to land a top-tier talent? Do they offload some of the veterans they signed on one-year contracts to clear cap space? With the exception of an outgoing 2019 second-rounder (to either Sacramento or Atlanta), they control all their draft selections again. Are they willing to add future picks to prospective deals and hurt themselves down the line if it means improving right now? And most importantly, what if Beasley leaves for law school?
While wearing a shirt that said "Trust Me... Future Lawyer" and "USC pre-law," Michael Beasley told me "maybe" he's going to law school. pic.twitter.com/98o2RC74zm— Harrison Faigen (@hmfaigen) October 7, 2018
There are so many variables. Johnson and Pelinka are basically playing out the basketball equivalent of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.
The Point Guard Situation
History has taught us that it’s hard for other playmakers to shine in LeBron’s shadow. With the notable exception of Kyrie Irving, whose shooting and slashing skill set was a perfect complement to James, there aren’t many point guards who acquitted themselves well while playing with LeBron. (I’ve made this point before and look forward to the Mario Chalmers stans taking over my Twitter timeline again.) James, who is 11th all time in assists, has proven himself time and again to be one of the greatest passers in NBA history. More often than not, the best point guard on LeBron’s teams is LeBron himself.
It will be interesting to see how the Lakers divvy up their playmaking duties with James, Ball, and Rondo in the mix. Rondo is 23rd all time in assists, and Ball led the team in assists per game as a rookie. Ball recently said that “Rondo and LeBron gonna lead us; I’ll be on the second team trying to lead them.” But with Walton vowing to play fast again this season (the Lakers were third in pace a year ago) and shuttle players in and out—he said he could see using as many as 12 players on a given night depending on the circumstances—there should be plenty of opportunities for the Lakers to mix and match their point guards. Expect to see Ball and Rondo, Rondo and James, and James and Ball on the floor at various points this season. That last combination has exciting “Wait … what?” potential. I’d like to enter the first exhibit into evidence: In Ball’s first preseason game he was on the business end of a lob from LeBron.
LeBron to Lonzo Ball alley-oop #LeBronzo pic.twitter.com/5Ve6CRT0g3— gifdsports (@gifdsports) October 11, 2018
YES PLEASE. It looked like they were recreating the game-winner from White Men Can’t Jump with Ball playing the Billy Hoyle role and throwing in the rim pull-up for good measure. Also, tip o’ the cap to whoever came up with “LeBronzo.”
As we’re fond of saying at Ringer HQ, basketball is very good. So are sideshows. The off-court entertainment possibilities for this team are endless, and I’m here for all of it. McGee is an admitted fanny pack enthusiast. Lance and LeBron supposedly haven’t discussed the incident—yet—but Stephenson said he’s excited for it to happen. Oh man, me too. And it took Beasley no time at all to start doing Beasley things.
Michael Beasley has all the answers for @mcten. pic.twitter.com/b9GttlG4sx— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) September 25, 2018
Incredible. It was like a remix of the Spaceballs “When will then be now?” bit. Magic was spot on: Beasley, come on, do your thing.
Beyond that, Kuzma and Hart were busting each other’s chops on social media so much that the Lakers had to ask them to tone it down—during the offseason. LaVar Ball is still out there lurking somewhere. (I can’t wait until he reintroduces himself by rappelling from the Staples Center rafters, Sting-style.) And LeBron created all sorts of concerned parent content when he said he lets his sons, who are 14 and 11, drink wine. He also said he was gonna let them drive soon. It’s October. By December, the media horde that follows the team now will be reduced to an exhausted puddle of plasma.
this is going to be the single greatest nba season of all time pic.twitter.com/4Oh4iTgHC4— pat muldowney (@patmuldowney) October 11, 2018
The Meme Team is already off and running.