Championship Contenders or Pretenders: An Overview of the LA Lakers’ Offseason Moves…So Far
The Los Angeles Lakers are in the middle of their most accomplished and exciting offseason in years. After five years of unfamiliar mediocrity, the Lakers are officially back after landing this summer’s most prominent free agent. LeBron James is a Laker! The King signed a 4-year, $153.3M contract marking the longest commitment he has given any team since his six-year deal with the Miami Heat in 2010. LeBron’s commitment without assurances that another star will join him shows that he completely trusts Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka to build a championship caliber roster.
Even if LeBron’s true intention for joining the Lakers is to set himself up for life after basketball, this signing is still a complete game changer for the state of the Lakers. It was just a couple of years ago under the Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak regime that the team could not even land meetings with top free agents. Instead, they settled for Timofey Mozgov ($64M) and Luol Deng ($72M) who has since become untradeable.
LeBron will become the latest all-time great player to wear the purple and gold. James was only the first domino to fall in what has been a very active offseason for the Lakers, to say the least. Shortly after the LeBron James announcement, the Lakers agreed to re-sign Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a one-year, $12M contract. That figure was a little higher than expected, but it is safe to assume KCP was a “package deal” in bringing LeBron on board seeing as they are both represented by Rich Paul and Klutch Sports Group. KCP is coming off a solid 2017-18 campaign with the Lakers. He makes a nice 3-And-D piece in the rotation who can help contain many of the star guards in the Western Conference. He should also see plenty of good looks playing alongside facilitators such as LeBron and Lonzo Ball.
After a strong start to free agency, the Lakers went on to pull off a few unexpected and maybe even head-scratching deals. They signed Lance Stephenson to a one-year, $4.5M deal and JaVale McGee at the veteran’s minimum for one-year. McGee is synonymous with ‘Shaqtin A Fool’ because of his regular appearances on the TNT segment in the past. Of course, who could forget Lance Stephenson’s infamous blow in LeBron’s ear during Game 5 of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals?
Jokes have surfaced across the internet that the Lakers have officially formed the “Meme Team.” Some have questioned what management was thinking. However, it turns out LeBron actually called and recruited Stephenson to sign with the Lakers. Although McGee has not necessarily put up any mind-blowing numbers recently, he is coming off back-to-back championships and a winning culture in Golden State. He played a substantial role in the Warriors’ sweep of the Cavs in the 2018 NBA Finals. Both players bring the winning experience that has been lacking from the Lakers’ roster since Kobe retired.
When the Lakers renounced Julius Randle, there was speculation that the team secured another big name signing with the additional cap space. Boogie Cousins, maybe? Nope! Instead, they signed Rajon Rondo to a one-year, $9M deal. While Rondo is still one of the smartest point guards in the league, the Lakers just drafted Lonzo Ball to be the point guard of the future one year prior. Rondo will easily challenge Ball for minutes and maybe even his starting spot.
Does this mean Lonzo is now expendable in trade proposals? Will Lonzo’s confidence decline if Rondo takes his starting spot or the crunch time minutes? Will Rondo get along with Coach Luke Walton given his perceived “coach killer” reputation? Why sign another point guard with shooting woes? These questions will be answered throughout the season, but Rondo will at least provide insurance at point guard should Lonzo continue missing games from injuries. He can also be a great mentor figure to Lonzo who can potentially push him to become a better player.
In an effort to add more depth and a dose of instant offense off the bench, the Lakers also signed Michael Beasley to a one-year, $3.5M deal. Beasley is coming off his highest scoring output since 2011, averaging 13.2 points in 22 minutes per game for the New York Knicks. Nevertheless, he is another player with a shaky history that has not always had the most favorable reputation in the NBA. The Lakers will mark Beasley’s seventh team in eleven seasons, and he has had his share of issues both on and off the court. At least there won’t be a dull moment in this Lakers locker room this season. With such a combination of personalities, Luke Walton is going to have his work cut out for him and will likely be the first to receive blame if things do not go well this season.
The Lakers also made a couple of solid late-round draft picks this summer. Center Moritz Wagner from Michigan was drafted 25th overall and guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk from Kansas was drafted 47th in the second round. Both players showed impressive flashes in the Las Vegas Summer League. Wagner only appeared in three Summer League games due to injury but averaged 10 points, 8 rebounds and team-leading averages of 2.7 steals and 1.3 blocks. Mykhailiuk was second on the team in scoring with 16.6 points per game on 48 percent shooting.
Second-year guard Josh Hart led the summer squad in scoring at 22.4 points and won the Summer League MVP award (second straight Laker to do so). The Lakers also picked up undrafted guard Joel Berry II who did not appear in any Summer League games but is best known for leading the North Carolina Tar Heels to the 2017 National Championship as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four that year. Hart should have a stable role in the rotation this season, but Wagner, Svi, and Berry will have to fight their way to earn minutes.
Projected 2018-2019 Los Angeles Lakers Depth Chart
PG: Lonzo Ball/Rajon Rondo/Joel Berry II
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope/Josh Hart/Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
SF: Brandon Ingram/Lance Stephenson/Luol Deng
PF: LeBron James/Kyle Kuzma/Michael Beasley
C: JaVale McGee/Ivica Zubac/Moritz Wagner
This may or may not be the final roster come opening night as the team wants to make moves to compete with Golden State now. Center is their weakest position that they need to address. However, the Lakers could experiment with their own version of a “death lineup” with LeBron James at the center spot. The Lakers intentionally avoided signing shooters based on the unlikeliness to beat Golden State by trying to outshoot them. Instead, they opted to surround LeBron with playmakers who are not afraid to create their own shot and facilitate. LeBron may spend more time playing in the post and off the ball similar to the style of play that Jordan and Kobe transitioned to later in their careers. The change may help the soon-to-be 34-year-old James prolong his career.
There is a newfound level of toughness on this year’s Laker roster. The team blends an interesting combination of veteran winners with up-and-coming youth. It will definitely take this team time to gel given all the new components, but they should get things going around December/January. When it is all said and done, I anticipate the Lakers will finish with a record somewhere around 52 wins, a Top-4 seed in the West, and a 5th MVP award for LeBron James.