The Los Angeles Lakers landed the biggest fish of the summer, then proceeded in a way that baffled most of the NBA world.
After signing LeBron James to a four-year contract this summer, the Lakers then signed free agents like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley to one year-deals to add to their promising young core.
The Lakers essentially built a squad opposite of what James had with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers added ball-handling, length, and toughness, sacrificing the shooting that can make a LeBron-led team so difficult to defend. Though all of their free agents have intriguing qualities, those qualities can come-and-go during the regular season. Rondo and Stephenson, in particular, are known to have lackadaisical approaches to defense and effort during the season.
Yet, in discussions with sources around the league, including two assistant coaches, current and former, and a player, there is a common belief that despite the Lakers’ unusual offseason, they can still make the playoffs. Behind that belief is one factor: LeBron James.
One GM said James is the most “consistent” force in the NBA. He’s been to eight straight Finals and ruled the league for nearly a decade. Even with subpar talent, he’s enough to get the Lakers into the postseason.
One assistant coach joked that James could drag non-athletes like ourselves to the playoffs. The coach said James’ greatness is under-appreciated.
Only one assistant coach expressed doubt about the Lakers’ playoff chances. Indeed, there’s a giant hurdle in the way — the talent of the Western Conference.
Last year, it took the final game of the regular season between the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves to decide who would make the eighth seed. The Wolves won, making it in with a record of 47-35.
This year, the conference only stands to get better. The Lakers, who missed the playoffs, added the best player in the league. The Nuggets hope for better health from star forward Paul Millsap, which could boost their win total from last year. The Los Angeles Clippers have a deep team of solid NBA players and were in the playoff hunt last year until the final few weeks. Teams like the Portland Trail Blazers, Oklahoma City Thunder, Houston Rockets, and New Orleans Pelicans have all remained steady. And, of course, there’s the Golden State Warriors at the top.
Even teams like the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks who are unlikely to make the playoffs should be better this year. There are no easy outs in the West.
Several sources believe there could be a repeat of the 2013-14 season when the Phoenix Suns went 48-34 and still missed the playoffs.
One source with front office experience said while the Lakers’ free agent acquisitions have received most of the attention, what may be more important is the development of their young players. If players like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Josh Hart make big strides this season, the source said, the Lakers could be better than expected.
The same assistant coach that doubted the Lakers’ playoff chances, however, also expressed that there’s a danger in relying on young players. With so much inexperience, it may be tough for James to rely on anyone night-in and night-out.
This Lakers’ team figures to be short-lived. The free agents all signed one-year deals, leaving cap space for the Lakers next summer when there is a huge free agent class.
With training camp and the season just around the corner, the LeBron Lakers figure to be a must-watch show. Luckily, we’ll get to see plenty of them.
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