Last weekend, the scope of LeBron James’s ever-widening ambitions and responsibilities coalesced. After winning the NBA’s inaugural in-season tournament in Las Vegas, where he dreams of one day owning a team, James flew to Los Angeles to watch his son Bronny, whom he dreams of playing with in the NBA, pantomime his signature block. It was a preview of what could be an expansive future, hitched to a reminder that he remains, as ever, a main character in the present.
Weeks from turning 39, a quarter of the way through his 21st pro season, James is once again a top-10 player, on the hunt for an elusive fifth title. The Lakers are 13-5 in their past 18 games, if you include their win over the Pacers in the IST final. Anthony Davis, who has played 25 out of 26 possible games, is anchoring the NBA’s seventh-best defense. With Austin Reaves burnishing his Sixth Man of the Year candidacy off the bench, Cam Reddish has stumbled into his second act as an all-world defender on a team recommitting to length and defense. Jarred Vanderbilt is making his way back and Gabe Vincent is set to return next week, which will help the Lakers plug their only defensive liability: handling quick guards like De’Aaron Fox, Jamal Murray, and Stephen Curry.
But the Lakers offense (21st) and shooting (26th in made 3s per game) could undercut their defensive dominance, which raises a question: As the team’s offseason signings become trade eligible, can the team find the extra juice it needs on the current roster, or will it need to look elsewhere between now and the February 8 trade deadline? Cashing in on the solid play of Reddish and D’Angelo Russell to go hunting for a third star would be tempting—and on brand. But this franchise is just starting to benefit from the virtues of continuity that it extolled all training camp, tinkering its way to an intuitive, stifling defense and a rotation with near-optimal role definition. A major shakeup would carry meaningful risk.
In James and Davis’s five seasons together, this is the best-fitting roster the Lakers have constructed. The formula of surrounding James with 3-and-D role players has become obsolete because of the playmaking burden it places on an aging LeBron. The Lakers have toggled between success and disaster, pairing James with guards from Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso to Dennis Schröder and Russell Westbrook. L.A.’s makeover at last year’s trade deadline swapped Westbrook for Russell and opened the floor for Reaves, giving the Lakers two playmaking point guards with 3-point range who can toggle on and off the ball and allow James to do the same.
Nobody turns back the clock without offering a few well-considered concessions to Father Time. After a few early-season hiccups, the Lakers’ plan to limit James’s minutes and usage has worked. He’s averaging just 33.7 minutes and converting a career-low 17.2 shot attempts into a smooth 25 points per game—the most efficient he’s been since his final season in Miami a decade ago. His usage is as low as it’s been since 2004-05. His touches and time of possession are as low as they’ve been since at least 2013-14, the first season in the NBA’s database. And while he’s shooting less than ever, he’s prioritizing the juiciest spots on the court, taking 47 percent of his shots at the rim—up 5 percentage points from the past two seasons—and making 76 percent of them. On top of that, he’s shooting 40.5 percent from beyond the arc, including a blistering 47.4 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, and a career-high 62 percent on 2s.
In the IST, James wielded the cumulative wisdom he’s gained through 1,166 minutes in the death grip of elimination like a weapon. He understands, better than just about anyone, the power of performance and the burdens of pressure: the energetic transfer that results from showing your teammates you’re willing to put your body in front of Zion Williamson’s 280-pound frame and take two charges, not to mention the demoralizing effect of defending him with a foot perpetually in the paint. James’s athleticism isn’t what it once was, but his mind has allowed his nexus of control to increase. He doesn’t have unlimited punches anymore, but he can pick and choose when to throw them.
Alongside Davis, the Lakers’ nucleus of long, athletic wings can cover for James (and Russell and Reaves) defensively on the nights he can’t or won’t muster effort on both ends, and create a fearsome multiplying effect of length and deflections on the nights he can. James still takes plays off, and he has the lowest average speed on the team, but much like he has on offense, he’s optimized the efficiency of his movement, leading the Lakers in drawn charges and forcing opponents to shoot 6.5 percent worse when they’ve been guarded by him—the second-best differential on the team.
And yet, despite James’s adjustments, this is still a gargantuan workload for the oldest player in the NBA, who has missed only two games this season. Which is why every Lakers training camp since their bubble title has prompted a familiar refrain: The team talks a big game about Davis’s refined jumper, renewed commitment to staying healthy, and readiness to take the torch from LeBron—only for the big man to skid out of the gate on offense.
Try as he might, Davis doesn’t have the range, fluidity, accuracy, or balance under duress of a reliable secondary creator. His shooting efficiency dips dramatically the longer he holds the ball and the more he dribbles.
For most of his Lakers career, Davis has been discussed through the lens of his limitations because the best version of this team necessitated that he push against them. But he’s in the midst of a monster stretch right now, scoring 115 points in the past three games, including the IST final, in large part because the Lakers’ abundance of playmakers is finally letting him shine in the right context.
Davis is one of the most destructive moving targets in the NBA, at his most productive when he’s rolling, crashing the glass, or popping 10 feet from the rim and taking no-dribble floaters and jumpers. Davis has been assisted on 68 percent of his field goals—the highest figure since he’s been a Laker—allowing him to maintain the right balance between applying pressure and not feeling overpressured himself.
The Lakers have depth and versatility, but they don’t have a secondary offensive creator behind James so much as they have a cadre of overqualified third options that triangulate each other well. The starters have only a 1.9 net rating, in large part because they struggle with offensive creation and a lack of consistent shooting. That’s one reason they’ve been tied to Zach LaVine, a tough shotmaker with logo range, in trade talks.
It’s no secret that Russell, re-signed to a team-friendly deal this offseason, would likely be included in most trade scenarios. With him, the Lakers could attach the following pieces: second-year guard Max Christie, rookie Jalen Hood-Schifino, Reddish, Vincent, a 2029 or 2030 first-round pick, and four second-rounders. On January 15, Rui Hachimura and Reaves (though it’s hard to imagine the Lakers parting ways with him) will be trade eligible too.
But it’s worth asking, considering Russell’s acceptance of his role, renewed defensive effort, playmaking, and durability advantage, how much of an upgrade LaVine—on a massive long-term deal—would be.
Russell, whose early-season ambitions to emulate Derrick White could have been construed as performative, has been true to his word. He’s settled amiably into a starting role where he makes up for his defensive deficiencies by way of positioning, communication, and deflections. When Reaves—a burgeoning closer and great insurance on nights when Russell is pulling up for too many early-clock jumpers—finishes games over him, Russell cheers him on. Could LaVine, a more decorated star, be coaxed into a similar arrangement? LaVine has never been lucky enough to be on a team that warrants that level of sacrifice. Perhaps an opportunity to play with a contender could unlock new dimensions, especially as it pertains to his defensive effort. On the other end, LaVine certainly wouldn’t need help creating his own shots, but starting him in place of Russell would inevitably slot James at point guard, forcing him to handle more playmaking duties on a day-to-day basis.
The biggest risk the Lakers run with the roster as currently constructed is that too many of their role players excel on either offense or defense, and LaVine wouldn’t solve that problem. Jerami Grant would be a better fit on both ends, but he comes with a $160 million price tag. A less dramatic but fitting target could be the Pistons’ Bojan Bogdanovic. OG Anunoby would slot perfectly into the fifth starter spot, but the Lakers don’t have enough to get him. Unless the Lakers make Reaves available—which they shouldn’t, unless Steph Curry gets sick of the rotting empire in Golden State (probably not happening yet)—the Lakers’ war chest isn’t enticing enough to nab the highest-level players.
The Lakers could solve their shooting woes internally. Taurean Prince, a career 37 percent 3-point shooter, is finally starting to warm up after shooting an unsustainably low 29.3 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s in November. In Vegas, he flashed measured closeout attacks that we’d yet to see from him in a Lakers uniform, and hit five of six triples in the Lakers’ loss to Dallas on Tuesday. Maybe Hachimura, who broke his nose early in the season and has struggled to rise to the bench scoring role the Lakers envision for him, will round into form.
The Lakers entered training camp raving about the opportunity to build off their continuity, begrudgingly tipping their caps to the chemistry of the Nuggets team that handed them a sweep—and looks shakier this year than they did last.
“We could be a little more structured, and I don’t think we could have done any better, just being thrown together after the deadline,” Reaves told ESPN during training camp. “Just not being able to fully get that continuity. We were really playing off talent [last season]. That’s one thing we can clean up. Things where we know we can get something good late in games, just being able to do what Denver did to us.”
A quarter of the way through the season, they’re well on their way. Game by game, as key players have returned from injuries and Reaves has settled into his sixth man role, the Lakers have made incremental gains by mining their own potential. “We’ve just grown,” said James. “I feel like guys have felt a lot more comfortable in their roles. We’ve had a pretty good understanding of rotations.”
There is something romantic about the notion of the Lakers standing pat, having faith that Russell’s revival is sustainable, that Reaves will continue to grow, that Reddish will tap into the offensive potential that made him a top-10 pick four years ago, that James and Davis will stay healthy and dominant.
If Lakers GM Rob Pelinka feels a warm rumbling in his belly, a sense that both excites and relaxes him, it’s probably faith—an emotion that can be dangerous in team building. But it’s also what built the Nuggets, who needed time, failure, and development to tap into the kind of cohesion the Lakers are starting to experience, a symbiosis that comes about only when people learn to grow around and for each other. It’s fun to watch, but it also puts them in a tricky spot. The Lakers look like a team. Each piece of the puzzle matters.
The Lakers have been in this position, with two stars and a smorgasbord of uncertain depth. They traded it for a third star in Westbrook, in hopes of solidifying a Big Three. The Suns and Clippers are trying something similar right now. The Nets did it twice, and collapsed—a reminder that there is no certainty in basketball. Just repetition, adjustment, and prayer. The eight weeks between now and the trade deadline will provide precious, critical assessment material. All the while, the Lakers’ opening to winning a league-record 18th title, and James’s chance at a fifth ring, hang in the balance.