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Five early takeaways on LeBron James’ Lakers

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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have played just two preseason games, and preseason contests matter as much as the new basketball Yeezys. Maybe even less. If that’s possible. So take any sweeping conclusions with a full box of Morton’s Kosher salt.

That said, after LeBron James’ preseason debut at home Tuesday night, here are five takeaways about these Lakers so far.

1) LeBron is very, very good at basketball. Thanks, Capt. Obvious. We know that like we know Meryl Streep will get nominated for an Oscar.

Still, watching him take over a game — even a preseason game — reminds us of what a force of nature he can be. And why nobody wants to pick against these Lakers.

Tuesday night against Denver the Lakers got off to a slow start, with LeBron deferring (there was a concerted effort to get Brandon Ingram into a playmaking role) and the offense looking slow and stagnant. Out of an early timeout, LeBron decided it was time to flex his muscles. First, the Lakers ran a horns set with LeBron on one elbow, and he made a clever pass to the cutting JaVale McGee for a bucket. Then LeBron rebounded the ball and led the break before hitting a running jumper that has been a staple his entire career. Next play he gets the rebound and finds Josh Hart on the leak out — LeBron took over, the team got three quick buckets, and the Lakers looked fast and efficient. Plus, he did things like this.

Already you can see how much LeBron is going to have to carry for the Lakers to succeed this season. As SI’s Ben Golliver of noted the Lakers are +14 in two games with LeBron on the court and -33 when he is on the bench (he’s been on the bench for twice as many minutes as he’s played). Yes, there is a lot of noise in that stat — who LeBron is with on the court matters in the mix — but when he is out this team looks lost and when he is in, they make plays.

Bottom line, the Lakers’ playoff hopes are all about LeBron taking over stretches of games. Two preseason games in, we know he can still do this as well as anyone.

2) Does Luke Walton trust the young Lakers or veteran Lakers more? Tuesday night, Walton started second-year player Josh Hart at the two guard spot over Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. It’s just one preseason game, but that’s a very good sign.

There are a few big questions about these Lakers, but none matters more to the team’s future than this: Does Walton trust and lean on the young Lakers — Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, etc. — when the pressure is on, or does he go with the veterans such as Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and Lance Stephenson?

So far things seem split, but starting Hart over KCP is a sign which direction things are going.

“Whenever I start, I’m usually a little more aggressive on the offensive end,” Hart said after the game. “It was really good to get out and run with those guys. I didn’t have the opportunity to get out and run with those guys as much in the first game, so it was good to get out there with the ball movement.”

None of those veterans on one-year deals are part of the future in Los Angeles. For the Lakers’ long-term success with LeBron (the three seasons after this one), they need this young core to become guys who can give quality minutes on a contending team. Ingram is at the top of that list, he needs to prove to be a No. 2 or No. 3 option on a title team, which is why we saw such a concerted effort to get him the ball early. Ingram said after the game he and LeBron are developing some real chemistry.

Rondo and McGee have played well so far as starters and both certainly have key roles on this team. However, for the long-haul, it has to be the youth. Expect Walton to lean on those young stars more and more as the season goes on… if he doesn’t, that’s a troubling sign.

3) When they ran, the Lakers’ had moments of genuine promise. The Lakers’ spurts in this game came when they ran — the passing was sharp, the ball moved, and the energy was up. The Lakers looked dynamic in transition.

That should only get better when Lonzo Ball returns to the rotation.

The Lakers’ chemistry is a work in progress, but when they get out and run they have a real flow — and they’re fun. If the Lakers are going to succeed this year they will be playing at one of the faster paces in the NBA.

However…

4) To run consistently requires defense and rebounding, and the Lakers have not been dedicated to that. The best transition teams — from the Showtime Lakers through the current Warriors — know that to truly be elite in transition means getting stops. For the second game in a row, the Nikola Jokic-led Nuggets carved up the Lakers’ defense with their passing, although the Lakers thought Game 2 went better than their first preseason game. Still, the Lakers were not consistently communicating well on screens or closing out on shooters. When the Lakers did play good defense and force a miss, they too often struggled to secure the defensive rebound, and so the process restarted itself.

Denver is an elite offense that makes a lot of defenses look bad, but in a deep West the Lakers are going to run into great offenses, or at least good ones, every night. The Laker defense was solid last season, it cannot take a step back.

The Lakers’ got boards and made stops in stretches (which led to their transition game), but it wasn’t consistent. The issues were particularly noticeable when they went small. Which brings us to…

5) Los Angeles is trying to make small ball work, but they have a way to go. It’s a strange thing to type, but the Lakers really need JaVale McGee right now. After him, the Lakers are thin at center and the quality drops off fast.

Luke Walton knew that going into camp, which is why the Kyle Kuzma at center experiment continues — sliding a natural three down to the five slot is a fun preseason experiment, but defensively it can’t last. For two games in a row, Nikola Jokic has eaten Kuzma’s lunch. Granted, Jokic is a top 20-25 NBA player (and on the rise) who a lot of regular centers struggle to slow down, but even if Kuzma is matched up against a natural four he will struggle to stop them. It’s not his game.

To reiterate a theme here, Lakers’ offense looks great when they get out in transition — we’ve covered that in No. 3 above — and the small ball look is an effort to capitalize on it. However, the small ball lineups may require a superhuman LeBron (something that can happen nightly) to really work for now. The Lakers will be fun and fast when they go small, but if it’s just a shootout and they don’t get some stops it doesn’t help as much as it should.

How will Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, rest of young Lakers fit with LeBron James?

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA season preview stories, and we will post at least one a day on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, with today the young Lakers as the focus.

LeBron James changes everything.

His presence changes the trajectory of the Lakers. The team spent the past few years drafting and developing a young core of players, building a base the way most teams need to build, slowly and learning from mistakes while taking some lumps along the way.

Then the Lakers land LeBron.

It changes everything — especially for that young core.

“There’s who you expect to be and then who you are when you play with LeBron. It’s two different things,” Channing Frye said this summer about those young Lakers. “I don’t know if they truly understand what it’s like to play with him because there is no room for mistakes. Because in all actuality, he could do it himself. He could lead a team to 40 wins by himself. I think for all of them they’re going to have to have a reality check, not only them but the people around them. There’s going to say, not a growing period, but a humility.”

It’s maybe the biggest question for the Lakers this season: Will Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma be on the floor with LeBron to close games for Los Angeles this season? Or, will Luke Walton have to turn to Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley, and JaVale McGee?

How will each of the young Lakers fit and benefit from playing with LeBron? Let’s take a look at them.

Brandon Ingram

If one player from this Lakers’ youth movement is going to break out as an All-Star and top 20 NBA player it’s Ingram — which puts the most pressure on him to step up now. How good the Lakers are this season will start with how big a step forward Ingram takes. He needs to live up to being the No. 2 option on this team and show he can handle that role. He needs to establish himself — in his own mind and LeBron’s — so he remains the second or third best player on a potential contending team if/when the Lakers land another star next summer. (I think they will get someone, whether it’s the star they want is another question.)

Ingram impressed last season, growing into a role as a scorer and shot creator — in February he averaged 18.6 points per game with a 62.1 true shooting percentage (he strained his hip on March 1 and played just three games after, a reminder he needs to stay healthy, too). Last season, 53.8 percent of his used possessions (meaning he shot, passed or turned the ball over) came as the pick-and-roll ball handler or in isolation. He had the ball in his hands.

Ingram will have to adjust to having the ball less, LeBron will be the fulcrum of the offense most of the time, as he should be, plus this team is loaded with other players — Rondo, Ball, Stephenson, Beasley — who need touches. However, unlike much of last season, Ingram will no longer be the name at the top of opponent’s scouting reports. Ingram’s versatility should be on full display and make him especially dangerous next to LeBron. Ingram will need to draw defenders with plays off-the-ball — he was a very good spot-up shooter last season and hit 39 percent from three (although on less than two attempts per game, he needs to shoot it more) — but more importantly he needs to be the secondary scorer and guy attacking the rim with the ball when defenses are scrambling.

If the Lakers are going to thrive this season, Ingram will need to have a breakout season.

Lonzo Ball

Last season the Lakers learned that having him run a ton of pick-and-roll is not the best use of his talents. What is coming, with LeBron as the primary ball handler/shot creator could be a better fit — Lonzo will keep the ball moving and the pace up, he is a high IQ player who makes good cuts off the ball, and he and Kyle Kuzma can maybe get some second-unit time together to show their transition magic. Lonzo played off the ball a lot at UCLA (paired with Aaron Holiday, now of the Pacers) and his new role may be akin to that. Ball may be more comfortable in the Lakers’ new style.

However, Ball simply has to be a bigger scoring threat for this to work. Yes, that means his reworked jump shot needs to fall more, but Ball also shot just 49.4 percent in the restricted area — he has to finish better at the rim and in the paint.

He has to be a threat to score every time he touches the ball, or the impact of his brilliant passing is dampened. His defense and rebounding are good, better than expected, but it’s his offense that could hold him back. Beyond that, this season he needs to stay healthy, having played just 52 games last season. The fact he is going to training camp with his knee not yet fully healed from off-season meniscus surgery is not a good start.

Rondo is a Laker now, and Josh Hart has to get minutes and certainly can play the point. While the team will spin that as depth and insurance at the position, it’s also a message to Lonzo — “we’ve got your replacement right here if needed.” This is LeBron’s team now, and if Lonzo’s father or the circus around him becomes too big a distraction, well, the Lakers have a lot of depth at point guard and can jettison one of them. Same if the fit is not working on the court. There is no more growing into the role for Lonzo, he needs to step up this season.

Kyle Kuzma

The fit between LeBron and Kuzma seems like it could be natural. Kuzma thrived with Ball and Ingram as the creators by working off the ball, spacing the floor, finishing at the rim, and getting out in transition to the tune of 16.1 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, plus shooting 36.6 percent from three. With the passing of LeBron — and Ball, and Rondo, and most of this team — Kuzma could thrive in the role as a finisher.

It’s the other end of the floor that could hold Kuzma back — he has to defend better, well enough stay on the court. Kuzma’s defense was okay when his decision tree was small — close out on a spot up guy, switch onto and defend a big on a pick-and-roll — but he has to show more feel for the game and ability to read the play now. Experience should help with that, and LeBron can undoubtedly mentor Kuzma on the mental aspects of the game. This is where he needs to step up, if he doesn’t his role will shrink.

Josh Hart

While he can play the point, expect him to get time as a backup two guard behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. However you want to define his role, his MVP performance in Summer League showed it’s not going to be easy to keep him off the court. He can create shots for himself and finish, he shot 39.3 percent from three last season, and he’s getting better at creating some for others, too. With the plethora of ball handlers on this team roles will shift, Hart will not get to dominate the ball like in Summer League. He needs to show he can still make plays.

When Hart gets his windows, he needs to play so well it’s hard for Luke Walton to sub him out.

Svi Mykhailiuk

There are a lot of people both internally with the Lakers and around the team who think the Lakers could have a draft steal here. Maybe. He had a quality showing at Summer League — not only did he put up points, but he also showed some versatility and defense in his game — but that comes with the asterisk it’s Summer League. There is potential here, but I’m not sure how much run the rookie can really get on a win now team with a lot of veterans — vets on one-year contracts, so they want minutes and numbers — ahead of him. That said, being around the work ethic and game IQ of LeBron is going to help Mykhailiuk develop faster into whatever he will become.

Lakers ace offseason by signing LeBron James

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Lakers signed LeBron James.

Offseason grade: A+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, you want more?

The Lakers followed the summer’s biggest coup – not just signing LeBron, but locking him in for three years – with a dispiriting (or, depending on your perspective, comical) set of transactions.

Los Angeles didn’t lure Paul George or trade for Kawhi Leonard. Instead, the Lakers valued playmakers as if the best course isn’t giving LeBron the ball, talked about defense as if anyone who was once a good defender or has the physical tools will defend well and treated shooting as if floor spacing barely matters.

The good news: The Lakers are penciled into this plan for only one year.

The bad news: It’s a year of 33-year-old LeBron’s eventually ending prime.

The Lakers have essentially assembled three contingents:

They’ll have a chance to prove me wrong, but I have little faith in those veterans complementing LeBron well. And most of them didn’t come cheap – Caldwell-Pope ($12 million), Rondo ($9 million), Stephenson (room exception), Beasley ($3.5 million). If anything, Caldwell-Pope – whose shared agent with LeBron, Rich Paul, might have forced the Lakers’ hand with re-signing him to a generous salary – is probably the best fit.

That puts a lot of pressure on Lakers president Magic Johnson to assess the young players. Which will become capable of contributing to winning at the highest level before LeBron’s prime ends? Which should be traded for veterans? These are not easy questions, but it’s a much more enjoyable challenge than the one Los Angeles would have faced if LeBron didn’t come.

The Lakers went 35-47 last season, their best record in a half decade. LeBron changes everything.

But there might be a ceiling on the Lakers’ progress next season. Don’t ignore the departures of Julius Randle (to Pelicans) and Brook Lopez (to Bucks). Even Larry Nance Jr. helped the Lakers build credibility before getting shipped to the Cavaliers in a midseason trade that helped open cap space for LeBron.

This isn’t the end of the road, though. After convincing Luol Deng to relinquish $7,455,933 in a buyout, the Lakers are in line for about max cap space next summer. They also still have all those valuable young players to develop or trade. The cupboard is full of ingredients around LeBron.

Now, the Lakers must just find a winning recipe.

I don’t think this year’s plan is it, but whatever missteps the Lakers made this summer, landing LeBron overshadows everything else.

Offseason grade: A+

Lakers insist they’re trying to compete with Warriors

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The Warriors were already historically great, and then they signed DeMarcus Cousins. If all goes well, they could be the greatest team of all-time. Their floor is championship favorite.

Plenty of teams seem content to wait out Golden State.

Does that include the Lakers?

They have LeBron James locked up three more years, and he doesn’t seem to be demanding urgency. Their other signings – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee – are for one-year deals designed to maximize long-term flexibility. Los Angeles hasn’t flipped any of its top young players – Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart – or future first-round picks for immediate upgrades.

But the Lakers say they’ve designed this roster specifically to compete with the Warriors.

Lakers general manager Pelinka, via Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN:

“If your goal is to win a championship, you’ve got to look at the way the champs are assembled and how you can give yourself the best chance to take them down,” Pelinka said of one of the many reasons for the construction of the Lakers’ current roster. “It is certainly part of the equation. … [President of basketball operations] Earvin [Johnson] and I had a conversation, and LeBron echoed this sentiment: I think to try to play the Warriors at their own game is a trap. No one is going to beat them at their own game, so that is why we wanted to add these elements of defense and toughness and depth and try to look at areas where we will have an advantage.”

“We did not want to go out and just sign specialists, ‘Oh, this guy can just shoot,'” Pelinka said. “We wanted tough two-way players that can defend with a level of toughness and also make shots. Listen, the road to the NBA championship has to go through the team that won last year, and we all know the guys up north have a special group. But one of the ways to attack what they have is with defensive toughness. I think we saw that in the Houston series with some of the players that Houston has.

This is intentionally different than the approach the Cavaliers took with LeBron. They prioritized offense and surrounded him with shooters. That left Cleveland short against Golden State the last couple years, and the Lakers are trying something different.

But the Lakers will run into the same problem the Cavs did: Their players just aren’t good enough. Rondo’s best defensive days are long behind him. Stephenson and McGee are good in moments, spacy in others. Caldwell-Pope is a good perimeter defender but struggles when switching inside or against bigger wings.

It’s not as much style as ability. The Rockets had way better players, which is why they came closer than anyone to beating the Kevin Durant Warriors in the playoffs.

The Lakers shouldn’t completely give up on this season. They have LeBron, and he alone gives them a chance. More importantly now, he provides the them a chance to build a more serious contender in future years.

But it’s tough to buy the Lakers’ stated plan for this season.

LeBron James signs four-year, $153 million contract to join Lakers

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We’ve known this since LeBron James let it be known he was going to the Lakers back on July 1, rocking the NBA world.

Now it is official — LeBron has signed with the Lakers.

That is a four-year, $153 million contract with a player option in the fourth year.

“Today is a great day for the Lakers organization and Lakers fans all over the world to welcome LeBron James, a three-time NBA Champion and four-time NBA MVP,” Lakers President of Basketball Operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson said in a statement. “LeBron is special. He is the best player in the world. He loves to compete and is an awesome leader who is about winning and making sure that his teammates are successful. The Lakers players are excited to have a teammate who has been to nine NBA Finals. It’s a huge step closer to returning the Lakers to the playoffs and to the NBA Finals.”

The Lakers are closer to returning to the NBA Finals, but they are not there. Yet. LeBron’s signing further stacks the Western Conference and puts the Lakers back into the national spotlight, but the roster around him is not going to threaten Golden State or Houston as currently constructed.

The Lakers have a solid young core led by Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma. To that, Magic and GM Rob Pelinka have added Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and JaVale McGee. That’s a lot of big personalities, a lot of guys who are considered playmakers (but aren’t consistent at it), not a lot of shooting and not a lot of consistent defenders. All of which is to say, the Lakers are a good team, a playoff team, but nowhere near a contender yet.

What the Lakers have done is left themselves a lot of flexibility — Rondo, KCP, Stephenson, and McGee are one-year deals. Whether by a trade or next summer in free agency, the Lakers are poised to land another superstar or two who can pair with LeBron and turn this team into a threat to the Warriors. For all the spin about playmakers and competing, the Lakers are about being in position to add an elite player or two. That’s what matters. After that, the rest of the roster can be filled in.

LeBron gave the Lakers four years, which gives Magic/Pelinka time to get that star without overpaying (for example, sending all their good young players to San Antonio now for Kawhi Leonard). They can be smart and patient.

We’ll see if that pays off, and how patient Laker nation — and LeBron — can be.