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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.

D’Angelo Russell says Kobe Bryant is “mentally on another level”

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The big headlines involving Lakers’ rookie D’Angelo Russell and Kobe Bryant this off-season came from an innocuous comment about Tracy McGrady and Kobe’s amusing Twitter reaction.

But the Lakers drafted Russell No. 2 because they saw a little Kobe in him, in the way he approached the game. They saw the mentality that helped make Kobe a star.

Russell threw out the first pitch at Dodger Stadium recently (he threw a strike) and before he went out he talked with Serena Winters of Lakers Nation about his mentality and what he sees in Kobe (hat tip Matt Moore at Eye on Basketball).

“I always preach, I didn’t get here from being the most athletic guy, the fastest guy, the tallest guy, or the strongest, I got here from my mind.”

And, that’s also what he respects so much about Kobe Bryant.

“That’s something when I watch Kobe interviews or listen to Kobe talk, he’s mentally on another level, when I listen to him, I relate to that.”

Russell is saying the right things, although following through with a Kobe-like mentality is different from talking about it. We’ll see where Russell ultimately falls on that scale.

It’s been discussed plenty that Russell didn’t have a great Summer League, that he was trying to do too much, and he struggled to catch up with the speed of the game. It’s also almost meaningless — plenty of players who had rough Summer Leagues had good seasons, while the list of Summer League MVPs who didn’t do much in the league is long. What matters is what Russell learned and how he grows from that experience. Can he apply those lessons when the games get real in late October?

That will be the true test of his mentality, because the learning curve for point guards in the NBA is steep.

Kareem Rush on Lakers during Shaq/Kobe feud: “We had a big man alliance and a guard alliance”

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By the start of the 2003-04 season, the Los Angeles Lakers were title contenders breaking apart at the seams from the weight of the Shaquille O’Neal/Kobe Bryant feud. This isn’t new news, both Gary Payton and Karl Malone have talked about it before.

How bad was it? How about “camp Kobe” and “camp Shaq” bad.

Kareem Rush spent his first two NBA seasons in the middle of the Lakers war, for the final two seasons of the Kobe/Shaq era, and he talked about it on SiriusXM NBA Radio with Tom Byrne & Rick Mahorn (you can listen to the interview below).

“Yeah, it was like a real issue. We actually had like a separation of the team. We had a big man alliance and a guard alliance. I had to pick Kobe’s side.”

How deep was that split? For a while Shaq would not let long-time Laker trainer Gary Vitti (who had been with the team since the Showtime era, and is just now entering his final year) tape him up before games because he was allegedly a Kobe guy.

Now for the “what ifs.” As Shaq has said, could the Lakers have won three more titles if that group stayed together?

“Shaq got three Finals MVPs and I think Kobe wanted his, so it didn’t work out for us. We definitely had talent to win more than three titles.”

Of course, now everything is good between Shaq and Kobe, with both regretting their hard-headed youth. But talking about that era is a fun August diversion.

What I still wonder: Despite all the dysfunction, if Malone had been healthy for the 2004 Finals would the Lakers have won the title anyway?

Shaq tells Suzy Shuster he, Kobe Bryant could have tied Jordan’s six titles

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Kobe Bryant went on the Shaquille O’Neal podcast this week and both men admitted regret letting their egos get in the way and acting immaturely at the time, breaking up a dynasty with the Lakers that had already won three titles.

But how many could they have won if they had checked their egos at the door?

Shaq thinks six, he told Suzy Shuster, who was the guest host on The Rich Eisen Show.

“I think we could have probably tied Mike, or surpassed Mike. I guess six. Everybody talks about Bill Russell’s 11; no player will ever come along that will win 11 championships unless they reduce the league to 10 teams. So you shouldn’t even bring Bill up. So now Mike, when you talk about the pinnacles of championships you always gotta go with Mike. So Mike has six. I think we could have either tied that or got that.

“But if “if” was a fifth we’d all be drunk, Susan.”

It’s just speculation, but could a non-bickering Lakers squad have beaten the Pistons in 2004? The Spurs in 2005? Reached the Finals and defeated Dwyane Wade’s Heat (without Shaq) in 2006? We can go on and on here, but six sounds reasonable.

Then again, I’m playing around with an “if” fifth of Jefferson’s Presidential bourbon here.

LeBron James: Championship not a requirement of a great team

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LeBron James played for a 66-win team. Didn’t win a title.

LeBron and his teammates proved it wasn’t a fluke the next season, winning 61 games. Didn’t win a title.

LeBron joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to form a team many feared would destroy the NBA’s competitive balance. Didn’t win a title.

LeBron formed yet another super team with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Didn’t win a title.

But – at least in LeBron’s eyes – that doesn’t mean those teams necessarily fell short of greatness.

LeBron, via Bleacher Report:

If you don’t know the history of the game, man, you’ll forget how many great teams didn’t win championships. And that doesn’t mean they wasn’t great, though.

LeBron was referring to the 2000 Western Conference finals. The eventual-NBA-champion Lakers beat the Trail Blazers in seven games. Portland – with a starting lineup of Damon Stoudamire, Steve Smith, Scottie Pippen, Rasheed Wallace and Arvydas Sabonis – won 59 games and crushed the Jazz and Timberwolves before running into the Lakers.

I agree with LeBron’s premise. A team can be great without winning a title. Sometimes, a team just catches the wrong breaks, like playing in a season where there are multiple great teams.

Those Trail Blazers were borderline great, with both past and future success to support their consistency. They just ran into Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Nothing Portland could do about that.

But a title is an important consideration – the most important – when determining a team’s greatness. Personally, I think the 1999-00 Trail Blazers fall just short, but either argument is reasonable.

And for what it’s worth, I think all of LeBron’s title-less teams fall short of greatness for similar reasons, though last year’s Cavaliers played great between their midseason trades for Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith and the postseason injuries to Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.