Are the Los Angeles Lakers championship bound with LeBron James?
There was no “Not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…” party in Hollywood when LeBron James showed up this offseason as the newest member of the Los Angeles Lakers. Can you imagine LeBron and Lonzo Ball—one year after Los Angeles missed the playoffs at 12 games under .500—sitting there announcing that their Lakers are suddenly going to invoke the glory days of old and unseat the Golden State Warriors as the NBA’s current dynasty? Well, LaVar Ball joining forces with LeBron to make that kind of proclamation would not be entirely unexpected, but obviously Lonzo isn’t going to partake in those kinds of shenanigans.
Nor should he. A title or two may come to Tinseltown, but it’s not happening this year…for two rather obvious reasons. First, the Lakers just aren’t good enough. Second, and perhaps even more importantly, the competition (the Western Conference, to be more specific) is simply too strong.
That first factor certainly is no knock on LeBron. Even at 33 years old and heading into his…wait for it…sixteenth professional season, the guy is the best player in the National Basketball Association—or in any other association on the planet, for that matter. He averaged 27.5 points per game during the 2017-18 campaign (his most since 2013-14), shot 54.2 percent from the floor (the fifth best of his career), drained 36.7 percent of his attempts from three-point range (third best), and delivered career-highs in rebounds (8.6, tied with 2016-17) and assists (9.1). The four-time NBA MVP also led a maladroit assortment of teammates to the NBA Finals, beating the Boston Celtics in seven games before getting swept by the Warriors.
LeBron’s La-La Land supporting cast is not much better, and this time around LeBron and co. obviously have to go through Golden State just to reach the NBA Finals. Do-it-all forward Kyle Kuzma played like a steal of a 27th overall draft pick in his rookie year, but can he step up to be the No. 2 option for a contending team? Shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can be a nice asset for LeBron by stretching the floor with his outside shooting, but he is not all-star caliber—at least not in the West. Controversial newcomer Lance Stephenson can improve the defense, but he appears to be past his prime on the heels of various injuries. As for Lonzo, one season is not a large enough sample size to jump ship and label him a bust (city-mate and fellow high draft pick Jared Goff has proven as much on the football field as quarterback of the Los Angeles Rams). At the same time, though, the 20-year-old looks a ways away from stardom. The jury also remains out on how his similar style of play (and don’t confuse “style” with “substance”) will mesh with LeBron’s.
In the Western Conference, one superstar—even if it’s LeBron James of all people—is not going to cut it. The Lakers, who have an eye toward Kawhi Leonard or Anthony Davis in the not-too-distant future, know that as well as anyone. Golden State added DeMarcus Cousins to a stable that already featured Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. Reigning MVP James Harden of the Houston Rockets will be complimented in 2018-19 by Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Eric Gordon, and Clint Capela.
“They’ve got a chance,” Cousins said in a recent interview when asked if Los Angeles could beat the Warriors. “They got the best player in the world.”
Well, if +650 (L.A.’s odds to win the Western Conference) qualifies as “a chance,” then sure. But as that longshot number suggests, it isn’t likely. Green, one of the best defenders in the league, already has plenty of experience guarding LeBron. Cousins, who will be back from Achilles’ injury well before playoff time, is bigger and better than anything Los Angeles can put in the paint. Golden State is a nightmare matchup for just about any team in the NBA, and the Lakers are no exception. Even Houston would be a serious problem for the purple and gold, as the Rockets are more talented and deeper in the backcourt while also boasting a distinct advantage down low with Capela licking his chops against a team toying with the idea of playing someone 6’9’’ (Kuzma) at center.
Assuming the Lakers accrue no better than the No. 2 seed in the West, they will likely have to beat both Houston and Golden State in the playoffs for the Western Conference title. That is nothing short of a brutal task. Due to that kind of competition, you can be high on the Lake Show without anticipating a championship. If so, better value plays than +650 in the West or +1000 to win it all are -325 to make the playoffs and -125 to win more than 48.5 games.
Los Angeles will see a title again—and will see it courtesy of LeBron. But not yet…. not yet.