From the moment the Los Angeles Lakers landed LeBron James in free agency this summer, the discussion about where they would land in the Western Conference playoff picture commenced.
Would they, as some have predicted, find themselves facing the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference finals, giving James yet another shot at the two-time defending champions? Or would they end up facing a team like Golden State or the Houston Rockets in the first round, having sneaked into the playoffs as one of the West’s final qualifying teams?
One thing that few, if any, are saying about the Lakers is that they will miss the playoffs for a sixth straight year — and see James go from making eight straight NBA Finals appearances to whiffing on the postseason entirely.
But that is precisely what we are saying will happen — yes, even after we watched James go supernova and lift the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals again. And, as we kick off our annual 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season, with the full edition due next week, here is why we believe the Lakers will be on the outside looking in out West.
1. The unforgiving Western Conference
Of last year’s playoff teams, five — the Warriors, Rockets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs — seem like locks to return, assuming health (which we have to assume in this scenario). That leaves the Lakers as one of six teams — along with the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Clippers — fighting for the final three playoff spots in the West.
From this vantage point, the Nuggets and Pelicans should finish ahead of the Lakers, which would turn it into a four-team race for the final playoff spot. Tack on the Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies, both of whom should at least push to be around .500, and the Phoenix Suns, who have a lot of young talent and a sharp new coach in Igor Kokoskov, and that is 14 of the West’s 15 teams that will be difficult to play on a nightly basis.
In short, there will be no easy nights. And when considering the Lakers have more new pieces to fit together than any of those teams (except for perhaps the Timberwolves, assuming they trade Jimmy Butler), navigating that will be all the more difficult.
2. A lack of good big men
There are only three traditional big men on the roster: JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and rookie Moritz Wagner, who is sidelined with a knee injury. Some have posited that the Lakers can simply play small, that this doesn’t matter.
But what happens if they’re playing, say, the Warriors with a healthy DeMarcus Cousins? Or the Rockets (Clint Capela), Jazz (Rudy Gobert), Nuggets (Nikola Jokic), Timberwolves (Karl-Anthony Towns), Pelicans (Anthony Davis), Thunder (Steven Adams), Grizzlies (Marc Gasol) or Spurs (LaMarcus Aldridge)? That adds up to nine teams with a quality big that the Lakers don’t have anyone capable of guarding. And it’s awfully hard to believe Kyle Kuzma will be able to develop into any kind of reasonable option as a small-ball center against any lineup.
Perhaps McGee will discover a form he has never had. Maybe Zubac becomes a useful player. There’s always a chance the Lakers will pull someone off the scrap heap. But what’s more likely is the Lakers will be chasing a solution for this problem throughout the season.
3. Defensive issues
Look up and down the roster, and pick out every above-average defender. The list, even when considering James, arguably stops at one — Lonzo Ball, who may not even start. If we’re being charitable, we’ll expand that list to four, adding Brandon Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart.
After that? Good luck. Rajon Rondo and James are once-great defenders who no longer put forth the necessary energy consistently. McGee is a minus, and Zubac and Wagner likely will be, too. Lance Stephenson is unreliable. Michael Beasley has never been known as a defensive player. Kuzma won’t be much of one, either.
Yes, the Lakers are long and have athleticism. But those traits don’t guarantee a good defense. And it’s hard to see, based on the raw defensive talent the Lakers have, how they will develop one. Those issues will only be exacerbated by what appears to be a clear weakness in rebounding — which, at a base level, is the simplest way to create a good defensive team.
4. What happens if LeBron misses time?
Last season was the first time in James’s incredible career that he played 82 regular season games. It’s hard to see him doing so again.
And remember: James led the Cleveland Cavaliers to 50 wins — in the weaker Eastern Conference — with a roster featuring another all-star (Kevin Love) who is clearly superior to anyone else on the Lakers, along with at least a comparable overall amount of talent. If James misses, say, 12 games, is this roster good enough to get the Lakers near the 50 wins they need to ensure making the playoffs in the West?
It’s hard to make that case. The pieces simply don’t fit. The veterans they signed this summer — Rondo, McGee, Stephenson and Beasley — feel like awkward fits around James. The decision not to retain Brook Lopez in favor of signing Beasley, for example, is hard to justify. And the young players have to take a step forward developmentally, stay healthy and prove they can play next to James — which is no easy thing.
5. The potential for internal drama
Now that they’ve acquired James, the only thing the Lakers have more of than glitz and glamour is the potential for team-altering drama. And, boy, is there lots of it hanging out there on the horizon.
Let’s start with James. This is the first time in more than a decade that he’s entering a season knowing he doesn’t have a legitimate chance to win a title. How will he handle that? Will the patience he’s espousing wear thin, or will he demand changes?
Then there are those veterans. Rondo, McGee, Stephenson and Beasley all have had issues of some sort in their careers. Given that all are on one-year deals, if their playing time starts to dip, will they begin to grouse?
What about the young guys? How will they handle playing with James? Ingram is expected to become an impact player this season; is he up for it? Can Ball stay on the court — and can his family avoid turning the season into a circus? Can Kuzma become a good enough defender to merit more playing time?
And, finally, there is the coaching staff and management. What happens to Coach Luke Walton if the Lakers are, say, 20-25 in mid-January? What happens if General Manager Rob Pelinka feels pressure to make a move for a second star, trading some of the team’s young talent to do so, in the lead-up to the trade deadline?
So, will the Lakers stink? Of course not, but that’s not the question. The question is, “Will the Lakers make the playoffs?” And, to do that in the Western Conference, a team can’t just be good; it has to approach, or even surpass, 50 victories.
Last year’s Lakers won 35 games. This year’s team, simply by adding James, should be in the neighborhood of 45. Whether it can jump to around 50 will determine its fate.
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