LeBron James is a Laker

 

In a move that absolutely nobody expected, LeBron James signed a 4-year $154M deal with the Los Angeles Lakers, per Klutch Sports Group.

Despite the sarcasm in the first sentence, the move to the Western Conference is moderately surprising, as his road to the NBA Finals won’t be as easy.

We can’t wait to hear what Lavar Ball has to say.

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Lakers in position for an exciting offseason

Dominating an offseason is not uncharted territory for the Los Angeles Lakers’ franchise.

In July of 1968, the Lakers traded for 76ers superstar Wilt Chamberlain who, in 1972, led Los Angeles to their first NBA championship. He was named the Finals MVP. In June of 1975, Los Angeles acquired Kareem Abdul-Jabbar via a trade with Milwaukee. As a member of the “Showtime Lakers,” Abdul-Jabbar helped win five titles. In the summer of 1996, the Lakers made their most successful free agent signing in history when they brought in Shaquille O’Neal. He went on to win an NBA MVP award and three Finals MVPs.

This summer, the Lakers have an opportunity to add multiple franchise-changing players, in hopes of receiving results similar to past successes. Free agency begins on July 1, with unrestricted free agents being able to officially sign on July 6.

However, before they can make a run at stars like LeBron James and Paul George, they have a chance to trade for a former Finals MVP and two-time Defensive Player of the Year who is unhappy in his current situation.

Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs had a fallout last season regarding how the organization handled his quad injury. According to ESPN, Leonard would prefer to play in Los Angeles, where he is from.

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Despite Leonard being gone for most of last season, the Spurs still managed to earn a spot in the playoffs. Veteran bigs LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol are locked in for next season, but San Antonio could use guard and wing help. The Spurs will certainly not give Leonard up without substantial compensation, but the Lakers have young pieces that San Antonio may find desirable. Spurs Head Coach Gregg Popovich has always been against helping Western Conference rivals, but perhaps if Los Angeles provides the best offer for Leonard, it could force his and General Manager R.C. Buford’s hand.

The Lakers could package youngsters Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball to send to San Antonio, along with Luol Deng’s $18 million-dollar contract over the next two seasons and a draft pick for Leonard and perhaps a veteran guard like Patty Mills. The Lakers could also add restricted free agent forward Julius Randle to the mix to sweeten the deal, as long as he agrees to a sign-and-trade and the Spurs want to bring him in.

This way, the Lakers add an elite player (as long as he stays healthy) who came in third-place in the MVP voting in 2017, along with a guard who shoots well from the perimeter with a lot of playoff experience. They could also get rid of the noise that surrounds the Ball family which was a distraction last season, not to mention Deng’s lucrative salary.

Meanwhile, the Spurs get a couple of former second overall picks who could potentially blossom and lead San Antonio for years to come. Plus, it would be an improved roster from last season when Leonard was inactive for all but nine games, so they could theoretically contend for a playoff spot again.

Salary-wise, as long as the Spurs willing to take Deng’s contract, Los Angeles should come out of the trade in a very beneficial financial situation. President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and General Manager Rob Pelinka would be left with enough cap room to add two max contracts without going far into the luxury tax.

 

If this hypothetical exchange goes through, then the Lakers would head into free agency with Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Kuzma coming off of a very productive rookie season, Josh Hart who also looked good as a rookie last year, and Patty Mills to lure in available talent.

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Photo via @kylekuzma

That cast could certainly be a compelling one, especially for someone who came from a team with lackluster support as LeBron James did.

James is referred to by some to be the greatest player the NBA has ever seen, and should be the Lakers’ number one priority come free agency.

James is seemingly comfortable in LA, he even has two houses in Brentwood. Leonard is a great teammate to have help deal with the Warriors since he can defend many different positions at an elite level. Plus, the Lakers can give him his desired salary.

There is the possibility of a sign-and-trade between the Lakers and Cleveland, but that would be a better option if Leonard ends up elsewhere and the Lakers still had Ball, Ingram and Deng to give up. It still could happen even with the Spurs deal, but it isn’t likely that James would want weapons on his future team traded away when he is looking to win a title.

But, Johnson and Pelinka cannot be solely transfixed on getting James. Paul George is also available, and George-to-the-Lakers rumors have gone on for years. The timing is perfect it seems. A player who grew up rooting for the Lakers, and who has admitted that it would be fun to play for them, is a free agent in the same summer that the Lakers are looking to load up.

Cap wise, the Lakers have the space to take on James, George and Leonard, a hellacious amount of talent to add in one summer. But, they do all play the small forward primarily. Many NBA teams in recent years, though, have strayed away from traditional positions. The Golden State Warriors’ “death lineup” includes two guards, two small forwards and an undersized power forward.

With the facilitating skills of James and shooting ability of both George and Leonard, the three could mesh quite effectively. Defensively, all three have shown to be elite, with Leonard winning the Defensive Player of the Year twice and James and George earning multiple All-NBA Defensive honors each. The three can all defend different sized players as well.

Nevertheless, if Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka feel as if that is too many wing players, there are several centers on the market too. Perhaps instead of George, the Lakers could go after DeMarcus Cousins, an elite scorer with a six-foot-eleven frame. The problem with Cousins is his past of attitude issues, also the fact that he will be coming off of Achilles Tendon surgery and has been a defensive liability in the past.

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Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan are slightly cheaper alternatives at center. They both finish very well around the rim. Capela led the league in field-goal percentage last season and Jordan led the NBA in the category for several seasons before that. They both defend the rim well too, with good size and awareness to block shots. Jordan is a better rebounder, but Capela is five years younger and could be more valuable down the road.

If Johnson and Pelinka do go with the three wings, then they could sign a cheaper big to plug in at center. Perhaps Leonard’s former teammate Aron Baynes, who just had an effective year in Boston and has playoff experience with the Celtics and Spurs, or by bringing back former Laker Ed Davis after three years in Portland. Both can defend the rim well, and should be able to benefit from the passing ability of LeBron James. Baynes can also shoot threes, adding another dimension to the offense. Additionally, in small lineups, Kuzma could plug in as a five for an athletic and strong scoring rotation.

From there, the Lakers would just have to worry about developing their bench beyond Hart, Kuzma and other players still under contract in LA, like Tyler Ennis, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant. They can fill the bench with veterans who would be willing to sign for the minimum, since some players do so near the end of their careers when looking for a chance at a ring, or by drafting a couple of players since they have picks 25 and 47 (assuming they aren’t traded to San Antonio but likely one would be).

 

The #LakeShow is Back

The Lakers aren’t good, nor have they been good since injuries preemptively ended Kobe Bryant’s prime. While being 11th in the West and seven games back of the eight seed isn’t  exactly showing promise, the Lakers youth movement is growing up. Luke Walton’s ball movement offense isn’t prone to producing great individual nights, all the talent Magic Johnson has assembled is finally coming into its own. Brandon Ingram looks like a future 25-a-game scorer, though the twenty year old still has a lot of work to do in the weight room. With his incredible length, surprising burst, and a butter jump shot, Ingram has all the tools to be a perennial all-star. With Lonzo Ball out, Ingram moved to point guard and proved to be an excellent passer, as capable of initiating offense for the team as creating it for himself.

Speaking of Ball, despite all the buzz created by his dad and the hullabaloo around his unconventional shot, the rookie is quietly living up to expectations. Rookie point guards don’t just struggle in the NBA, they suffer. Night after night of being tortured by stars at the league’s deepest position is enough to shake anyone’s confidence, let alone a nineteen year old. Countless lottery picks have shattered under the pressure of being forced to run the show against insurmountable odds. Ball, though he’s had his fair share of struggles, has shown flashes of the all-star potential that caused him to be drafted second overall. He has the pure speed and athleticism to match up with any guard in the league, and his vision and passing is uncanny. He even rebounds terrifically for his position. Despite being put under the microscope the second he checked into his first game, Ball has played exceptionally well for a rookie guard. The biggest knock on Lonzo since day one has been his funky jumper. However, it would be smart to remember that nearly every rookie struggles adjusting their shot to the NBA level. Close-outs are much faster and by longer players than in college. What was an open shot less than a year ago for most rookies is now heavily contested. Plus, the three point line is flat out farther away. For example, the aforementioned Ingram shot just 29% from three as a rookie, which is actually two percent worse than Ball shoots right now. Nobody is asking Brandon Ingram to retool his jumper, because just one year later, he’s shooting 38% from beyond the arc. Instead of demanding Ball conform to a more traditional jump shot, let’s let him get comfortable playing NBA basketball first.

While Ball and Ingram get most of the spotlight as the future of the franchise, the Lakers also have a few other promising young pieces. Kyle Kuzma has proven to be the steal of the draft. Long, athletic, three-point shooting forwards have become the trend of the league, and Kuzma is all of those things. He’ll be a valuable starter at either forward spot for a long time in this league. Josh Hart, overlooked for his lack of NBA measurables, has proven to be a nice guard option off the bench, capable of knocking down open shots and driving to the rim when a lane presents itself.

Then, there’s Julius Randle, a complete enigma in the modern NBA. On one hand, he’s an undersized big that can’t protect the rim or stretch the floor. On the other hand, he’s a walking bucket with great vision, handle, strength, and athleticism. He’s shooting a whopping 56% from the field this season. To put that in perspective, LeBron’s career high shooting percentage is 54%. Randle is unstoppable going to the basket, and he uses his strength to push weaker bigs around on the boards, as shown by his three straight double-doubles the past three games. He’s too quick for fours and fives and too strong for threes. However, he’s utterly useless off the ball on offense, making it hard to use him properly. You almost have to force feed him the rock just to make it worth having him on the court, which is an issue in the movement heavy Walton offense. I see his ideal role as a sixth-man, able to completely take over against weaker reserve lineups and still able to get you a bucket when he’s mixed in with the starters. The Lakers definitely need more shooters around him though, which is a problem on a team with so much youth. He’s been involved in several trade talks, but his obvious talent for putting the ball in the basket makes him worth keeping around.

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The Lakers young stars are incredibly fun to watch, and this team has a very bright future, even if they don’t land Paul George (or LeBron) in free agency. The only thing keeping LAL from being the best league pass team is the veterans. I have basically no use for Brook Lopez or Isaiah Thomas on this team. IT is dominating the ball every chance he gets, still chasing the max deal that no one is ever going to give him. Every pick and roll or iso he calls for is a wasted opportunity to give Ball and Ingram much needed experience. I really enjoyed watching Thomas play in Boston, and it’s hard to believe he could go from scoring 28 a game to essentially an expiring contract in just one year, but honestly I think it would be best for the Lakers if he showed up to the rest of the games in a suit. Don’t even get me started on Brook Lopez. The only things more painful than watching Brook Lopez play basketball are giving birth and breaking your femur. Honestly, given the choice, I might do either one of those things rather than watch Brook freaking Lopez use the entire shot clock on a two dribble drive to the basket. Brook Lopez runs like the middle school band kids. How do you even make it to the NBA if you’re flat footed? The most irritating part about this is that somehow, someway, Brook Lopez has the best plus/minus on the Lakers. I already can’t wait until next season when he’s ruining the watchability of someone else’s favorite team. Seriously how do you run like you’re one fall away from spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair when you’re only 29?!?

The Lakers have finally turned it around from the dark, dark days of the Byron Scott era. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have done an excellent job of managing the salary cap and already have one great draft under their belt. While the Lakers don’t have their 2018 pick, LA is a booming free agent destination, and they have the cap room to add multiple all-stars either this or next offseason. In a perfect world, Los Angeles would sit on their cap space for a year, allowing Ingram and Ball to develop and getting a decent pick in the Zion Williamson lottery that is the 2019 draft. While the “win now” mentality permeates the franchise, I’m hoping wiser minds will see the value in being patient (and getting a shot at Zion. Have you seen that kid dunk?!?). Until then, I finally have a fun team to watch again, and here’s to the Clippers being irrelevant for another forty years!