clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Nine Lingering Questions About the LeBron James–Era Lakers

King James has arrived in L.A. Now comes the hard part for everyone else playing with him, coaching him, and building a roster for him.

Magic Johnson, LeBron James, and Luke Walton Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Lakers’ offseason has been a roller coaster of emotions, one that’s brought the whole league along for the ride. That’s what happens when LeBron James changes teams. But L.A. isn’t done making waves this summer. With Kawhi Leonard still in limbo, the Lakers still in possession of a moderate amount of cap space, and fit questions up and down the roster, there’s still plenty to sort out over the coming weeks. Here are the nine biggest questions.

---

1. What position will LeBron play?

LeBron has spent the past few seasons in Cleveland playing an amorphous point-forward role with a usage rate that always ranked among the league’s highest. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing him orchestrate and execute everything on offense, oftentimes in spite of the players around him. The Lakers, on the other hand, are looking to take the load off. Based on a report by ESPN on Thursday, it appears that the Lakers are planning for LeBron to migrate toward the rim on offense, not away from it, in L.A. The goal is reportedly for James to become more of a post player who finishes and facilitates, rather than a primary playmaker.

As a viewer, that’s a bit disheartening; LeBron with a Sisyphean task creates the best entertainment the league has to offer. But the King, despite coming off of maybe his best season yet, will be 34 in December and will likely need to make adjustments to avoid crashing and burning from injuries like the last Lakers Hall of Famer. You can’t blame LeBron for wanting to do a little less, considering his workload last postseason. It’s fair to wonder, though, if he has the team to allow him to actually do less.

2. How will the Lakers’ style of play change?

The Lakers’ goal, it appears, is to be the antithesis of Cleveland. Instead of targeting shooters, Magic Johnson is going after playmakers and defense-first veterans. It’s a sensible strategy on paper, but it also feels a little more risky than it should. After playing at a rapid pace the past two seasons under Luke Walton, the Lakers want to slow it down to a speed of LeBron’s liking. It makes sense to cater to James, just as it made sense to go faster to play to the strengths of a younger team. But the transition process could produce some growing pains, especially for the young players on this team, should they stick around. Playing slower also means efficiency will be more of a priority—fewer possessions, etc.—and some of the additions the Lakers made don’t exactly scream that. JaVale McGee can be efficient, but he’s also erratic at times. Rajon Rondo can set up others for efficient shots. And Lance Stephenson—well, there are times when his efforts work out, I suppose, but he’s not reliable by any means.

If there’s a silver lining here it’s that Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram could outplay their elders and win those starting spots around LeBron. That would make for an inexperienced team, sure, but one that might have a much higher ceiling.

3. Can Luke Walton handle the Meme Team locker room?

Adding Lance, JaVale, and Rondo to a team with Lonzo, Ingram, and Kuzma, with LeBron lording over all of them, feels like a reality TV show. Let’s get an NBA Hard Knocks going.

The onus to coach this smorgasbord of a roster falls on the 38-year-old Walton, who was drafted the same year as LeBron and is now going into his third season as Lakers head coach. Walton, a players’ coach, is going to become a juggler on a tightrope—catering to LeBron, developing the young players, and keeping the motley crew of one-year guys engaged. According to one report, LeBron hasn’t yet met with Walton and didn’t meet with him at all throughout the recruiting process. I want to say that’s not something to read into, but we also have enough precedent to know that LeBron isn’t shy about letting his coaches know how he feels in unspoken ways.

4. Where, oh where, will the shooting come from?

As it stands, the Lakers’ best shooters on the roster are sophomore Kuzma and rookie Moe Wagner. Less than ideal. Lonzo’s shot will hopefully improve in Year 2, and Ingram has developed into a reliable shooter (47 percent from the field, 39 percent from 3 on 1.8 attempts last season), but this is a void that none of the Lakers’ other signings may be able to fill.

LeBron has improved as a 3-point threat in the back half of his career, but he’s still needed shooters around him so that he could create for himself and others. And if he becomes more of a post player in Los Angeles, he’ll need shooters to kick out to. Maybe a free-agent shooter like Wayne Ellington wasn’t willing to take a one-year deal to play with LeBron in L.A., but it sounds like the Lakers didn’t make an effort to target such a player, anyway.

5. What will happen to Lonzo?

Lonzo’s place on this team was already interesting. It gets even more fascinating with the news that LeBron will spend more time in the post. The second-year player will now be in competition with Rondo for the role of primary ball handler. I’d argue that it should be Lonzo regardless, given that he is already a good passer, rebounder, and defender, and further developing him will only help the Lakers going forward. But if the directive is to win now, he’s going to have an uphill battle. Rondo shot better than Lonzo from the field last season, and they each shot around 30 percent from 3—Rondo on only 2.3 attempts per game, Lonzo on 5.7 attempts. Lonzo brings unknown upside, while Rondo is a known commodity with a lower ceiling. It’s going to be a fun competition.

6. Are the Lakers getting Kawhi?

This is the shoe that’s still waiting to drop, one that will throw all previous analysis out the window. If the Lakers trade for Kawhi before the season begins, then winning now will feel far more plausible, LeBron at the post will be far more palatable, and all the signings that made us go “huh?” won’t feel as ill-fitting. That’s the kind of tantalizing talent Kawhi brings. He’d instantly become the best shooter on the team and maybe the no. 1 scoring option. He’s also the kind of defender who would take a load off LeBron.

This won’t happen without the Lakers and Spurs coming to an agreement and without the former giving up a combination of their assets. This is why it also makes sense to wait a season, let the one-year deals of the motley crew run out, and then sign Kawhi outright. Then again, there’s risk that with that approach, too.

7. What did the Lakers learn from the Paul George saga?

Aside from never pinning your hopes on a guy willing to do a three-part documentary to chronicle the decision he’d already made? Well, there was this interesting quote from George’s ESPN special that shed light on his thinking: “I wanted to come [to L.A.] a year ago, prior to going to OKC. Unfortunately, I wasn’t traded to the Lakers. The Lakers didn’t grab me. I was traded to Oklahoma. And that has been a beautiful thing for me.”

In theory, the Lakers were wise not to gut their roster for George when they could have signed him for only the price of his contract this offseason. Not getting him doesn’t invalidate their process. But now that they’re facing a similar situation with Kawhi, it’s tough to ignore the possibility of history repeating itself. What if Kawhi ends up in Philly, falls in love with the cheesesteaks, thrives alongside a team that fits his game, and the Sixers make the Finals in a wide-open East? Could the Lakers lose out on a second player perceived to be bound for L.A.? This time the risk might not be worth taking.

8. What move will come next?

Aside from shooters, and maybe Kawhi, the Lakers need another big, whether that means bringing back Brook Lopez (34.5 percent from 3 last season!) or trying to find a bargain replacement. They parted ways with Julius Randle and have only Ivica Zubac—who played just 9.5 minutes per game and 43 total games last season—to back up McGee. McGee starting on the Warriors is one thing; starting him on a reconfiguring Lakers team feels like a stretch. Then again, this is apparently the plan that LeBron and Magic hatched together; it’s hard to argue against their résumés.

9. Is it surprising that LeBron is OK with all of this?

Yes and no. LeBron was thinking long-term when he made this decision; the three-year deal he agreed to (plus an option for a fourth) shows that he’s willing to be patient and enjoy the lifestyle benefits that come with living in L.A. as a real contender is built around him. For the first time in his career, it feels like LeBron isn’t in a state of basketball urgency. He’s won three titles and done everything necessary to be considered one of the best players of all time. Even if Magic and the Lakers haven’t yet earned the benefit of the doubt, LeBron certainly has.