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Los Angeles Lakers 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

It’s not often a team can remake itself in such dramatic fashion as the LA Lakers did this summer. The question is, is it enough to compete for anything in year one? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the LA Lakers in this 2018-19 NBA Season preview.

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The new look Los Angeles Lakers have arrived. While the team sports a number of new players, none compares to LeBron James. King James arrives with what appears to be monumental pressure on his shoulders. Like another all-time great, Wilt Chamberlin, James will be wearing purple and gold as a veteran having already accomplished much in his career. James also comes to a Lakers team that has suffered through an abnormally long postseason drought, having not made the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season. Unlike other players his age, James is playing basketball at the highest levels and is positioned to lead the team back to renewed levels of success and visibility.

To kick off this new era of Lakers basketball, the Lakers bring back a core of young and talented players along with returning head coach Luke Walton. Walton and the young core will face new levels of attention and pressure as the presence of James immediately elevates the team’s profile and expectations. After James committed to the Lakers, the front office went out and added several veterans to round out the roster. In the short term, expectations are all over the place, from championship contention down to merely fighting for one of a playoff spot in the very competitive Western Conference. Where the team actually ends up will be determined by how quickly this new group of players can come together. Regardless of this season’s results, a new era has begun in Lakers land.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

You might have heard that the Los Angeles Lakers signed LeBron James this offseason. The addition of James alone means the Lakers are a threat to make the postseason, even in the stacked Western Conference. The addition of veteran players like Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee, Michael Beasley and the re-signing of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope should also help the Lakers in the playoff hunt this season. However, I do wish the Lakers had used their cap flexibility on better shooters who could collectively space the court and don’t need the ball in their hands to be effective. Players like Wayne Ellington and Avery Bradley come to mind. Regardless, this season isn’t the main priority. The Lakers have LeBron under contract for at least three more seasons and will have cap space to add another star next offseason. Needless to say, things are looking up in L.A.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

All things considered, a pretty dull and boring offseason in Los Angeles. Not a whole lot of note to report, honestly. All jokes aside, how much more is there to say about the league’s reinvigorated epicenter? In acquiring LeBron James and turning over a huge chunk of the roster, the Lakers have reminded the league that even after a strange dry spell, the purple and gold just operates on a different plane. All the big questions for LA headed into the year revolve around chemistry and roles – this is a unique situation for a LeBron team, both in terms of the relative ages of his top supporting cast and in terms of their skill sets. Whether he can mesh with noted non-shooters like Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson remains to be seen, though the Lakers quietly do have certain lineups that could be dominant offensively (think Josh Hart-Brandon Ingram-LeBron-Kyle Kuzma-JaVale McGee, for instance). The bright lights are on and the league is watching.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

-Ben Dowsett

Have you guys heard that LeBron James is a Laker? All kidding aside, it is going to be a loud year in Hollywood. From the promising rookie seasons out of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma to the constant development of former number two overall pick Brandon Ingram, there was already excitement in the air. Bringing in The King and a ton of veterans on one-year deals who understand the league from back to front—that’s just a roster made up of a solid mixture. Knowing how first-year LeBron teams are, it’s going to be a roller coaster, but it should be fun and interesting once we get to the postseason.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Spencer Davies

Since Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka took over the Lakers’ front office, they’ve had three major wins. One, they added LeBron James. Two, they’ve expertly managed to get rid of their bad contracts so they’ll have long-term cap room. Three, they have promising young talent on rookie contracts. The Lakers should be a playoff team this season with all they added this summer, but I hesitate to call them a contender because they lack a number two and they need an upgrade at center. Still, the Lakers are back, and that’s all that matters.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

How can you not like what the Lakers did this summer? They nabbed the biggest fish in the pond in LeBron James, added proven veterans on short term deals and didn’t have to give up draft picks or youth to get out of the Luol Deng albatross of a contract; that is a solid offseason. The real question is, do the Lakers have enough to do anything meaningful in year one of LeBron? The answer is a big maybe. Keep in mind LeBron took a team with across the board less talent and got them to the Finals. That’s not necessarily happening in the West, but does LeBron have another miraculous season to get this roster to the second round, and if he is anywhere close to what he was last season? The answer is yes. It’s hard not to see the Lakers as a stock worth investing in, beyond what could be the most comical group of eccentric personalities in basketball – the Lakers got a lot better.

2nd Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LeBron James

Without question, James fits the bill here. At any given moment James is a threat to set up his teammates or score at will from nearly anywhere on the court. James has slowed down a bit as the years have gone by and is somewhat less apt to engage in high energy run and gun, fast break basketball. However, James is still capable of unleashing his athleticism when the situation or moment calls for it. His teams often feature lots of veteran players who adjust to a James-based system with specialized roles.

This new roster is filled with young players unaccustomed to winning at the pro level and an assortment of veterans on one-year deals. How minutes are distributed needs to shake out over time. Over his career, James has handled the primary ball handling, distribution and scoring load. As discussed below, things might change with this roster full of playmakers who are also used to having the ball in their hands. Should James move his game off the ball somewhat, his usage percentage may dip a bit, but his overall offensive impact will still be massive. Though, if instead James continues to dominate the ball as in years past, expect for him to continue to be the do-everything singular force on offense. One way or another, James is going to be the Lakers’ most important and effective offensive player this year and for years to come.

Top Defensive Player: Lonzo Ball

Quick shout out to James as the player with the highest defensive potential. However, in recent seasons James has decreased his defensive intensity in an effort to save energy for offense and that doesn’t figure to change this season. Beyond James, its not exactly clear who the top defender might be. If he steps up to the opportunity, second year guard Lonzo Ball is positioned to step into this role. With the possibility of playing off the ball more often (discussed below), Ball can further increase his overall effort and effectiveness with his individual defense. On defense, Ball has already shown a knack for reading passing lanes and even picking his opponent’s pocket in isolation situations. After apparently adding significant muscle in the offseason, Ball may have addressed the issue of size and strength that affected him at times last season. Should the Lakers employ a defense that emphasizes switching, Ball should have the strength and ability to defend multiple positions. Ball may not have the size or strength to impact the court like James can, but he has the tools to be a key defensive player and is better situated to make that his priority this season.

Top Playmaker: Rajon Rondo

Another mention for James, but Rajon Rondo gets the nod here. For years, any team featuring James ran most of their offensive action through him. The gravity and attention he draws opens up teammates for easy scoring opportunities consistently. However, this new Lakers team appears (operative word) to be designed to lessen James’s shot creation responsibility.

Enter Rondo. Compared to Ball, Rondo averages more assists per game, has a better assist to turnover ratio and a championship level pedigree. This assumes Rondo will win the starting point guard position as a more established veteran and won’t have chemistry issues. Compatibility with Rondo is not a guaranteed thing. Rondo comes to the Lakers having played a critical role in the New Orleans Pelican’s playoff success last season.

Ball may win the starting role at some point. In the meantime, there is an ongoing belief that as Ball improves his mechanics, he can become a reliable three-point threat. Off the ball, he can also be a valuable secondary creator who can pass or score off the dribble creator as well. Rondo and Ball are elite playmakers but Rondo is further along and more established at this point and serves as the top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: LeBron James

James gets mentioned a lot in this preview and with good reason. It’s not yet clear what the pecking order is after James. Regardless, James has been to the Finals eight straight seasons and has been the deciding factor in countless clutch moments. James will draw the other team’s attention and can make almost any play. All eyes will be on James in any game that comes down to the wire.

The Unheralded Player: Josh Hart

Lakers fans already know this one should go to guard Josh Hart. Like Ball a year before, Hart stepped up to dominate in the Las Vegas NBA Summer League. Hart led this year’s summer league Lakers squad to the championship game while earning the Summer League MVP trophy. Hart is poised to contribute should he get the minutes. Only a rookie last year, Hart stepped his game up as the season went on and his playing time increased. Unfortunately for Hart, the roster currently has as many as 11 players expecting regular rotation minutes so Hart will need to be ready to step up again and show he can earn and keep those minutes.

Best New Addition: LeBron James

James again, hands down, for obvious reasons. The addition of James sparks a new era in the Lakers’ vaunted history that had become stagnant for the last few years. After James, Rondo serves as the team’s other best new addition.

– James Blancarte

Who We Like:

1. The Lakers’ front office – Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka

Through them, the Lakers finally got the free agent superstar savior they had been craving since the tail end of the Kobe Bryant’s career. Even more, the Lakers were also able to secure a three-year contract (with a 4th year player option) from James, showing a level of commitment not previously given in Cleveland in the last few years. With a long-term commitment from James, the team assembled a roster that is a mishmash of veterans on one-year deals alongside talented, developing young players. The franchise also convinced Luol Deng to agree to give back significant money ($7.5 million) as part of a buyout that allows Deng to re-sign elsewhere. Now the franchise is fully poised to swing for the fences next offseason and sign other top tier free agents in the loaded 2019 NBA free agent class.

2. Brandon Ingram

Ingram ended last season showing new elements in his offensive game. Ball was the team’s primary ball handler but struggled with injuries and missed major portions of the season. By necessity, the team put the ball into Ingram’s hands and asked him to become more of a creator as the season ended. How good Ingram can become is yet to be seen but his potential seemed to increase with more responsibility on offense. Now Ingram will likely have to adjust again. James, Rondo and Ball are likely to dominate the ball, leaving Ingram to wait for his touches as an isolation scorer, spot up shooter or secondary ball handler. However, should Ingram adapt and continue to grow on this new team, he could answer the question of who is the second-best player on the roster after James. On the flip side, should the Lakers find the opportunity to make a deal, Ingram is a desirable trade piece and could find himself as the centerpiece in a deal for a star player. Either way, Ingram brings plenty of value to the Lakers.

3. Michael Beasley

While the additions of Rondo and Stephenson have garnered more attention, the addition of Beasley is overlooked. He has bounced around the league the last few seasons while continuing to play surprisingly good basketball. Last season he played his most games (74 games) since the 2012-13 season. With New York, Beasley served as a reliable spark plug for the offense coming off the bench and was an effective isolation scorer. With Kristaps Porzingis going down for the season, Beasley stepped up and even started 30 games for a Knicks team that fell out of the national spotlight. With his career on the upswing, Beasley has the chance to once again serve as a bench scorer who can play expanded minutes in a pinch, especially if the Lakers are willing to experiment with him at center. While Beasley’s career has never matched expectations coming out of college, now is a great chance for him to play and perhaps shine in a useful role on a good team.

4. Luke Walton

Now going into his third season as a head coach, Walton faces the biggest challenge of his career. Like many coaches before him, Walton needs to gain the respect and confidence of James, who has seen a wide range of coaching styles throughout his career. Having won multiple championships and perfected his game, James is now seen as someone who dictates the direction his team takes as much as any player in the league. Walton will need to balance his ability to lead his team while sharing authority with James. Walton is well liked around the league and unlike the last few Lakers head coaches, he has not had to deal with as much outside scrutiny, which has allowed his young core to develop effectively under his tutelage. Walton will have to establish who does and does not make it into the rotation while balancing the continued development of the younger players while keeping James happy. No easy task. Walton has reportedly already spoken to Cavaliers Head Coach Tyronn Lue about his experience coaching James and, at this point, appears to be up the task and poised to take a huge leap in his coaching career.

– James Blancarte

Strengths

Any team featuring LeBron James immediately has the ability to be competitive. With this roster, James has the opportunity to experiment with allowing other players to share on-ball shot creation responsibilities. As James continues his transition to the latter years of his career, this can serve as another means of longevity. In addition, it could serve to make the team more dynamic since the best teams in the league move the ball and have multiple creators unlike James’s team last Cavaliers team. This team also has multiple young players under contract who might develop into stars in the foreseeable future. Should the young players develop accordingly, the team has the ingredients to be successful now and into the future, and that’s before adding additional free agent talent next year. The future is bright in Los Angeles.

– James Blancarte

Weaknesses

Pressure, volatility and defense. Playing with James produces the kind of pressure that many players are ill-equipped to handle. Look at restricted free agent Rodney Hood. He came to the Cavaliers expecting to play a key role in the playoffs, which could have bolstered his profile going into free agency. Instead, he could barely get off the bench and never acclimated to playing with James. Something similar could happen in Los Angeles, especially to the various youngsters on the squad.

As mentioned above, there are numerous new veterans hoping to play well and make their mark this season, including Stephenson, Beasley and center JaVale McGee. Stephenson and Beasley are both talented offensive players with questionable personality profiles. Whether they can coexist with James and his high standards is in question. In addition, both are inconsistent defenders. McGee overcame similar concerns and showed he can be successful in a limited role on a championship squad and might do the same should he crack this rotation. Finally, it’s not clear if the Lakers have the sufficient personnel to be a good defensive team. Should the team struggle on defense, this season could go sideways quickly.

– James Blancarte

The Burning Question

Will the Lakers be able to resist making a trade should the season not begin as expected?

Teams acquiring James’ talents require time to adjust to him. Unlike his latest stint in Cleveland and Miami before that, this James led team heavily relies on young, untested talent. Should James (turning 34 in December) not mesh well with the young prospects on the team, the franchise may feel pressure to not waste one of James’s few remaining years as a top shelf, elite talent. Any trade for top-tier veteran players would requiring sacrificing some combination of young talent, cap flexibility and draft assets. Despite the pressure, the Lakers will likely not sacrifice these assets and will instead hold firm and hope that the team will work things out on their way to a likely lower end playoff berth.

– James Blancarte

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