LeBron James is officially a Los Angeles Laker. This is the most boring outcome of free agency, and had been the most likely one since the day season ended. The Sixers would’ve been more fun (and the Nuggets running 5/3 screens with Nikola Jokic and LBJ would’ve been the greatest ten months of my life), but alas –– life is built to disappoint. All of my usual bullcrap aside, this turns the 2018-2019 NBA season on its head.
We’ll assume two separate scenarios going forward: one where LeBron is joined by Kawhi Leonard, and the other where he’s the singular superstar. With those two things established, we’ll run through the likelihood of both making/winning the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals –– we’ll also take a look at how the rosters are composed, and what kind of things they could be planning to do.
SCENARIO A: LEBRON/KAWHI
A LeBron/Kawhi Lakers team would be no worse than a close secondary favorite to win the title. You’d be talking about three teams, realistically, to come out of the West: Golden State, Houston, and Los Angeles. You can debate the merits of the second-year Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert combo in Utah, or even the sheer talent overload of a team like the Minnesota Timberwolves. But realistically, it’s a top three-heavy conference battle.
The Warriors trot out their tried-and-true four in Steph/Klay/KD/Draymond and throw some old lawnmower parts into a pair of older sneakers to play the five. Houston has Harden and Paul and Clint Capela, a twitchy mess of arms and bearded head fakes, with players like Eric Gordon shouldering deserved big minutes in crunch time.
The Lakers (and here we’ll assume that Lonzo, Kuzma, and multiple first rounders go to San Antonio [that is in my opinion the most likely trade]) will have LeBron/Kawhi/Ingram/Lopez, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope rotating in and around at the 2-3 spots. Those three teams are intensely perimeter heavy, with Brook Lopez being the only true big in the bunch.
LeBron, once upon a time, was the best defender in the NBA; Kawhi, as recently as the 2017 playoffs, WAS the best defender in the NBA. Putting aside anybody else, those two are long-armed freaks with alien instincts; if LeBron no longer has to carry the offensive load by himself (say, take 20% of the burden away and give it to Kawhi and the rest), then the best NBA athlete of the last twenty years has been unleashed to fuck up opposing offenses. That is an NBA that nobody is really prepared for. Pippen 2.0 and Rested LeBron roaming the perimeter is some dangerous stuff.
Factoring in the usual adjustment periods for free agency super teams and the literal schematic newness that the Rockets and Warriors will have to contend with, I project the Lakers will finish second in the West, behind the Warriors. Golden State bullcrap-coasted for the entire season; with nothing to play for until near-summer, they loafed. Even the Rockets whipping ass and taking the first nameplate didn’t fire them up.
But LeBron coming West is different, for both teams: nothing in life is certain, but the 2018-2019 NBA Champion will almost certainly come out of the Western Conference. LeBron is coming back, still at near-peak powers, with a deeper, more talented roster around him. Denying him home court is essential. The reason I’m putting the Rockets third is for the same reason: the Warriors giving a crap and the Lakers being good instead of crap makes 65 wins much more difficult.
In the playoffs, I do think that the Lakers overtake the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. A healthy Kawhi can take Steph Curry (which is where I’d want him), and LeBron beating up on KD takes away the two main engines of the Warrior offense.
Forcing Klay and Draymond to open things up is a risky proposition, but Draymond has lost a half-step, and Klay’s shot creation ability is good, but not great. The Rockets will need to find another 3D wing, filling the Trevor Ariza role, as well as hoping that Chris Paul remains healthy. It’s a heavy burden for four offensive players to handle, especially in an ISO-heavy offense.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Schemes and Stuff!
Let’s assume a crunch lineup of LeBron/Kawhi/Caldwell-Pope/Ingram/Lopez. That is four wings and a big, and that gives me ideas. One of the most impactful (and most under discussed) decisions came in 2009, when Stan Van Gundy surrounded Dwight Howard with four shooters and rode that all the way to the NBA Finals.
Four shooters and top-flight rebounder is obviously a good thing but there was a moment in which this was legitimately revolutionary. It’s not a direct one-to-one correlation in LA, as there is no universe in which Brook Lopez is the focal point and also somehow even fewer universes where he is a great rebounder, but the point stands. They could do some interesting things.
Even just imagining a simple HORNS alignment (in which the 1 sets up at the top of the key, the 4 and the 5 at the high post, and the 2 and 3 at the corners) is a pretty exciting idea. HORNS allows the man running the point (in this case LeBron James) to set high screens from either direction, as the 4 and 5 are on the high post. With the entirety of the wings cleared out by the 2 and 3 spots in the corner, the point has a lot of space to drive and score or drive and kick.
This is a good alignment for any type of offense, but when the one of the corners is manned by Kawhi Leonard (a gifted shooter and scorer himself) and the 5 being a stretchy Brook Lopez, you have the recipe for open shots and a dunked basket. That doesn’t even mention Ingram or Caldwell-Pope, who are talented players in their own right.
Moving away from halfcourt sets paints an even starker picture: A fast break led by LeBron with Kawhi sprinting ahead is terrifying. Ingram is a tremendous athlete, and with those long-ass octopus arms, he could become the young rim runner that LeBron would love to find on a three on two.
A fun idea is both KCP and Lopez dipping to the corners, Ingram barreling to the basket, and Kawhi trailing LeBron as he heads for the basket; good shooters in the corners, Gumby to the basket, and the second-best shot creator and scorer at the top of the key to kick back if things so pear-shaped.
They could go small, too, shifting LeBron to the 5 (or maybe even Ingram), and swapping out Lopez for another athletic wing. Going all athlete would put them in a good position to match up with the Warriors. Lance Stephenson was just signed, and he’s been a competent shooter in the past. Even JaVale coming in at the 5 would be an athletic upgrade.
SCENARIO B: THE LOS ANGELES LEBRONS
Probably not. A lineup of Lonzo/Ingram/LeBron/Kuzma/Lopez puts a lot of stress on LeBron, though not nearly as much stress as Cleveland would’ve laid upon him. A lot of smart basketball people think that Lonzo can play off-ball, and maybe he can; but I don’t know that I agree.
I’m sure he’s willing, because for all of the stuff that surrounds his family, Lonzo is smart, and a hard worker –– but he needs to be a better shooter to be worthwhile as a shot-creating off baller. Kuzma is a talented scorer, and a pretty decent rebounder for a traditionally undersized power forward, but to get past the Warriors they’d someone with a little more skill.
I’m more of a KCP fan than most –– I think he’s been misused and underutilized at virtually every turn. He’s a good-sized shooting guard at 6’5 with a 6’8 wingspan. He’s a little thin, at around 210 lbs, but he has enough reach to reasonably guard three positions, and at least hold the fort on a fourth. He’s a good shooter, and has improved every year. He’s a fairly good rebounder for his position, grabbing around five per game. He’d be great off the bench.
In my estimation, they’d be about 30% better than the Cavs were last year, in terms of pure talent; Lonzo is probably better than George Hill, Ingram is a lot better than JR, LeBron is LeBron. Kuzma is the first real downgrade, as K-Love remains a criminally underrated star, and Lopez is a vast upgrade over Tristan Thompson.
The real downside to this lineup is on defense; though they, again, would be better than the Cavs, you’re asking a second year player in Kuzma and a defense nothing in Lopez to have LeBron’s back. LeBron would have a similar burden in LA as he did in Cleveland. I project they’d finish no high that fourth in the West, and more realistically settle in somewhere around five or six.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS
LOS ANGELES LAKERS
Schemes and Stuff!
In Scenario A, I mentioned the 2009 Orlando Magic offense, which put four shooters around one big. I still don’t think that Brook Lopez is going to become the focal point of the offense, but things will trend towards that 2009 Orlando team. KCP is a good shooter, and can rotate in at either the 2 or 3 spots. Ingram is getting better, both as a shooter and scorer.
They could go small, with Lonzo, KCP, Lebron, Ingram, and Kuzma, but that gives up Lopez’s shooting for a lot more speed and athleticism. Stephenson is another thick body wing who could come into the small lineup, as well; as mentioned above, JaVale at the 5, even if they wanted to keep everything else the same, would be a shot in the arm of pure athletic ability.
Defensively, things are going to be harder. I’m not sure they are experienced enough to switch everything, and Brook Lopez is not a rim protector at all. Kuzma was okay on defense as a rookie, but the only real wing with any history of perimeter defense is LeBron, and it’s been at least four years since he really buckled down and played up to his potential on that end of the floor. KCP has all the tools, as do Lonzo and Ingram, but they have to improve by leaps and bounds to make a difference if they want to even compete for a championship.