After a year of commotion, pleas, and bold predictions, NBA fans finally got the answer they’ve have been waiting for earlier this month, after LeBron James signed with the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year deal. Immediately, fans reacted with utter excitement: the King was in LA and the Lakers were a dynasty again. Though the surrounding pieces were yet to be put in place in LA, Magic Johnson and the Lakers signaled their intent to the rest of the league. Signing LeBron and adding a few marquee free-agents would surely create a contender again in LA.
The speculation that Kawhi Leonard would soon follow LeBron only added fuel to the fire. For months, Kawhi Leonard had been openly frustrated with the Spurs organization. Kawhi, who many regard as a top-five player in the NBA, seemed destined for the Lakers. He grew up in Los Angeles and played college ball in San Diego. A potential move would have made sense for both parties. Adding the LeBron James signing into the equation, and Lakers would have been well on their way to becoming a contender in the West. Who wouldn’t want to play with the best player in the world and compete for a championship? Lakers fans had a reason to be excited again!
The championship parade plans were shelved on Wednesday after Kawhi Leonard was traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poeltl, and a 2019 first-round pick. While Kawhi would have greatly improved the Lakers on the court, a trade for the ex-Spurs star would have been detrimental to the Lakers’ cause. The steep asking price from the Spurs would have included the bulk of LA’s young core and draft picks. That young core includes the highly talented Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, and Kyle Kuzma. The Lakers balked at trading away their young stars and instead will look to tempt Kawhi in 2019. As frustrating as it may be for Lakers fans, Magic Johnson and company should put the title aspirations on the back burner for one season, and focus on development.
While hardly glamorous, veterans Lance Stephenson, Javale McGee, and Rajon Rondo all signed one-year deals in LA. Johnson was quickly criticized for signing the trio, but with a deal for Kawhi no longer on the table, the veteran deals may prove to be shrewd business. Stephenson, McGee, and Rondo are not superstars, and will not make the Lakers an instant winner, but they can provide veteran leadership in a young locker room. Rondo put up solid numbers during the playoffs, averaging 10 points and 12 assists for New Orleans, and will most likely serve as a backup in LA. As a pass-first guard, Rondo will be an important mentor for Lonzo Ball, who enters his second season in the league. Javale Mcgee just won an NBA championship as the starting center for the Warriors, while Lance Stephenson was a crucial bench player for the Indiana Pacers, who were one game away from taking down LeBron and the Cavs.
Meanwhile, conference rivals and defending champions Golden State got even stronger. Demarcus Cousins joined the Warriors on a one- year, $5 million deal. Arguably the best center in the league, Cousins joined one of best teams in recent memory and should have no problem securing a ring for the third year in a row this season. Despite concerns over Cousins’ potential chemistry with his new teammates, the Warriors have made themselves nearly unbeatable next season. With that in mind, what are the chances that LeBron and the Lakers can defeat the Warriors in a seven-game series? Currently, the outcome of a series against the Warriors looks very poor for the Lakers. With Lakers not currently ready to contend for a championship, the focus should be on nurturing their young stars.
With the Warriors set to potentially win another championship, a developmental season in LA may be the best case scenario. If LA started to sign superstars, or trade them away, the young guys would not be given the opportunity to grow. If the Lakers start Lonzo, Kuzma, and Ingram alongside LeBron, this season will be ginormous for their potential. Through all the drama of his rookie year, Lonzo still averaged 10 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists, while Kuzma and Ingram each contributed 16 points a game. These are very solid numbers for a group of inexperienced players. The three young stars carried much of the workload on their backs last season, but with LeBron arriving in LA, all eyes will be on King James. Out of the spotlight, the trio can focus on improving their individual games while playing alongside one of the all-time greats. We could be looking at a year where Lonzo, Kuzma, and Ingram drastically improve their skills and mature, while the Lakers patiently build for their future, without the pressure of playing for a ring.
Considering the Laker’s slim title chances and their plethora of young guys looking to improve, managing LeBron’s playing time could be a reasonable strategy and could have long-term benefits. LeBron has rarely been rested in his career, and his remarkable durability has allowed him to play the majority of every single season. Last year, LeBron led the league in minutes played at the age of 33. During the playoffs, he averaged a grueling 42 minutes per night, and played an additional 22 games. Now that LeBron is getting older, resting will be more crucial than ever if he wants to sustain his greatness for the next four years in LA. The Lakers should reduce his playing time, games, and even give him a vacation. If the Lakers implement this strategy, James could be in great physical shape heading into the 2019-2020 season.
If the Lakers focus on developing their young core and manage LeBron this year, they could be setting themselves up for a championship run in 2020. Ball, Kuzma, and Ingram could improve immensely on and off the court, and LeBron could be healthy and rested to the point where he does not have to cover his body in ice packs after every game. Rondo, Stephenson, McGee, and Caldwell-Pope will potentially be out of LA, clearing valuable cap space for free agency, and creating a huge offseason for the Lakers.
Next summer, Kawhi Leonard could still be available for the Lakers to sign. By waiting one year for Leonard, the Lakers could keep their young guns and still have a shot at adding Kawhi to the roster. In addition to Kawhi, superstars such as Kyrie Irving, DeAndre Jordan, Jimmy Butler, and Kevin Love could all be available following the conclusion of the upcoming season. Golden State stars Klay Thompson and Demarcus Cousins will also be free agents in 2019. Acquiring one, or both, would not only drastically improve the Lakers, but importantly, weaken the Warriors. Smaller name signings such as Marc Gasol, Al Horford, Khris Middleton, Harrison Barnes, and Ricky Rubio could add essential depth to the Lakers. If LA can resist the urge to trade for another star this summer, they can set themselves up for a pivotal free agency in 2019 without having to sacrifice any of their current talents.
If LeBron is healthy and rested, if the young core improves, and the Lakers sign a few top-notch free-agents, they could be the scariest team in the NBA in one year. They could be good enough to beat the Warriors and bring a championship back to LA. The key to the Lakers future success is patience. While it may be tempting to go all-in for a ring this season, the strength of the Warriors, and the inexperience of the Lakers’ young stars will prevent this dream from becoming a reality. By keeping their young stars in LA allowing them to develop under the leadership of LeBron, the Lakers could be laying the foundations for a decade of success. I don’t know about you, but I think it is worth the one year wait to see a Lakers-Celtics finals in 2020.