The offseason established a host of new story lines across the NBA that require closer inspection. Throughout August, we’re giving second thoughts to the most intriguing ones.
From an entertainment perspective, the Lakers are the real summer blockbuster. Not long after Magic Johnson vowed to resign if L.A. doesn’t attract top-tier free agents during the next two seasons, the team filled out a good chunk of its roster with Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley, and famed LeBron-whisperer Lance Stephenson. That’s in addition to some of the personalities already in place, including Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart—a duo that busts each other’s balls so much on social media that the team reportedly asked them to “tone it down”—and Lonzo Ball, who at last check is still related to everyone’s favorite stage dad, LaVar Ball. Forget The Meg. The Lakers should charge us $15 just to read the latest team-related push alerts.
In a headline, The Washington Post mocked the moves and called the Lakers “LeBron & the Island of Misfit Toys,” but almost everyone else has dubbed the squad the Meme Team. There are already T-shirts and everything. The Lakers could end up being a lot of things this season, but boring won’t be one of them.
The only real question is whether James can overcome the ready-made drama and once more will his team deep into the postseason. He’s done it before—most notably with last season’s less-than-stellar Cavaliers, a supporting cast that was alternately injured and awful. In a recent edition of “Are We Sure …,” my Ringer colleague Riley McAtee questioned the conventional belief that James is bound for his 14th straight playoff appearance. It’s a good piece. You should read it. Riley used a lot of research and stats to make his case.
My counterargument for why the Lakers will make the playoffs is equally reliant on advanced analytics and took countless hours to formulate: The Lakers have LeBron. I did the math. It checks out.
Having the best player in the world should make the Lakers significantly better than they were last season. That take probably isn’t spicy enough to get me on the next NBA Desktop, but I stand by it. It’s also easy to forget that LeBron’s team in the offseason tends to look a lot different than his team before the trade deadline comes and goes. It’s fair to doubt these Lakers. But recent history suggests the team LeBron is likely to have in March and beyond won’t resemble the one that’s presently in place.
Last season, the Cavaliers hit eject on Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Channing Frye, and a first-round pick (and other parts) to bring in George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance Jr. The season before that, the Cavs sent Mo Williams, Mike Dunleavy, and a first-rounder to the Hawks for Kyle Korver. In 2015-16, Cleveland brought Frye into the fold and bid adieu to Jared Cunningham and what was left of Anderson Varejão. In 2014-15, the Cavs dealt Dion Waiters and other assets for J.R. Smith and paid the Nuggets two first-round picks (!) for Timofey Mozgov (!!!). And before that season even began, Cleveland pried Kevin Love away from Minnesota while shipping away Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins, and a first-rounder.
We can debate the merits of those decisions, but roster turnover is how things go on LeBron-led teams in his post-Heat career. His teammates don’t tend to stick around all that long. Here today, gone and apologizing for it tomorrow.
If the Lakers continue that tradition, they’re set up pretty well to tinker. They don’t have any extra incoming picks, but the only outgoing selection is a 2019 second-rounder. Beyond that, they have some nice young pieces for potential trade offers. Ball, Kuzma, and Hart are all on rookie contracts. So is Brandon Ingram, easily the most attractive asset the Lakers could offer to pry away a second star to pair with James.
Ingram made great strides last season, especially when he assumed some of the ball-handling duties while Ball was injured. In just his second season, Ingram’s points, rebounds, and assists per game all went up significantly. His shooting also took a big leap. As a rookie, Ingram shot 40.2 percent from the floor, 29.4 percent from 3-point range, and 62.1 percent from the line; as a sophomore, those numbers jumped to 47 percent, 39 percent, and 68.1 percent, respectively. That worked out to a TS percentage of 53.6, up from 47.4 his first year. Ingram also improved his PER from 8.5 to 13.8 year-over-year. If the Lakers decide to add a piece (or pieces) before the deadline, Ingram could help fetch something of value.
There’s a case to be made, of course, for the Lakers to keep Ingram and wait to see whether he’ll make the big jump in his third season. The franchise is looking for a star, but what if the long, versatile two-way stud they covet is a young forward already under contract? Ingram is a budding talent, and it’s possible he just needs a little mentoring from the greatest player in the game to blossom into something special. But it’s also hard to imagine Magic, Rob Pelinka, and especially LeBron playing the long game and waiting for what Ingram might become down the line if they can get a top-tier player sooner, especially because the team is primed to reshuffle the current deck.
To clear cap room in a potential deal, the Lakers have a number of short-term deals they could dump: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (one year, $12 million), Rondo (one year, $9 million), Stephenson (one year, $4.4 million), Beasley (one year, $3.5 million), and McGee (one year, $2.4 million). This team was built to be dismantled.
The only real reservation about the Lakers’ potential in-season star search is how far it would advance them in the Western Conference pecking order. It’s unlikely that Los Angeles could do enough to challenge Golden State or Houston. But what if the rest of the West is softer than expected? What if the Blazers-Jazz-Thunder-Pelicans tier doesn’t do much to slow the Lakers’ forward progress? In that scenario, why wouldn’t L.A. try to put some distance between itself and the rest of the potential playoff pack with a deal before or around the trade deadline? And even if the Lakers aren’t assured of making the postseason, doing a midseason deal (like the Cavs did last season) might give the Lakers a head start on roster-building for next offseason.
It seems almost inevitable that the Lakers will alter their roster. And why not? Why wait? After the Warriors and Rockets, none of the other Western Conference teams inspire fear. And besides, who’s scarier than LeBron and whatever new teammates come next?