When you're building a team around LeBron James, you typically want to surround the world's best player with a plethora of shooting threats who can provide requisite spacing for his incessant drives into the teeth of a defense. But the Los Angeles Lakers aren't molding a traditional squad around the crown jewel they reached an agreement with on the first day of free agency, as Klutch Sports Group announced, instead collecting a strange mix of veterans to pair with the team's incumbent youngsters.
First came Lance Stephenson on a one-year, $4.5 million deal, as reported by ESPN.com's Chris Haynes. The shooting guard hasn't always enjoyed a joyous relationship with James and has sometimes been found engaging in questionable antics (blowing in the four-time MVP's ear, anyone?), but his shot-creation skills and man defense still make him an intriguing option.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope re-signed with the Purple and Gold next, agreeing to a one-year contract worth $12 million, per Yahoo Sports' Shams Charania. JaVale McGee, as revealed by Haynes, joined the crew on a minimum deal for 2018-19, and the flood of transactions finished with Rajon Rondo coming aboard, per ESPN.com's Adrian Wojnarowski, for one season and $9 million.
This isn't exactly the star-studded roster the Lakers were supposed to place around James. That was impossible once Paul George decided to remain with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but Los Angeles hasn't been able to find a reasonable package for Kawhi Leonard. Moreover, DeMarcus Cousins agreed to join the Golden State Warriors on the mid-level exception on Monday, per Charania.
Naturally, the internet has had fun with the Lakers' moves, pointing out that the complete lack of shooting ability and...suspicious choices of this cast of characters don't seem ideal next to James. It's not like he just escaped JR Smith or anything.
SB Nation's Whitney Medworth pointed out James' old rivalries with some new teammates and that the future Hall of Famer literally had McGee blocked:
Hoop Magazine's Josh Eberley went the bricklaying route:
Denver Stiff's Adam Mares asked a simple question:
You get the point. The jokes largely write themselves.
These moves seem suspect on the surface level, and they lead to one of the stranger projected depth charts you'll find in either of the NBA's two conferences:
- Point guard: Lonzo Ball, Rajon Rondo, Malik Newman
- Shooting guard: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lance Stephenson, Josh Hart, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk
- Small forward: LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng
- Power forward: Kyle Kuzma, Travis Wear
- Center: JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac, Moritz Wagner
Granted, this could change in a heartbeat. The Lakers could package youngsters and draft picks for Leonard. The arrival of Rondo could make Lonzo Ball expendable, clearing the path for a trade that could bring in an actual floor-spacer.
Or, they could just soldier on with this current smorgasbord. It's by no means a superteam capable of challenging the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets for Western supremacy, though stranger things have happened and counting James out is always a bad idea. Question marks should litter season previews, and these moves could backfire until the man who's made eight consecutive NBA Finals wonders why he's experiencing deja vu and carrying the Cavaliers Lakers every night.
But silver linings do exist.
The Lakers made defense a priority throughout the 2017-18 campaign, counting on their many youthful talents to progress on the less glamorous end and start ramping up the difficulty level for the opposition.
Under the supervision of head coach Luke Walton, it worked.
During the 2016-17 season, they were the most porous organization in the league, allowing an eye-popping 110.6 points per 100 possessions. They struggled to contest shots and had trouble preventing second-chance opportunities while fouling and forcing turnovers at average rates.
But this past go-round, they rocketed up to No. 12 on the defensive leaderboard—by no means something to sniff at for a franchise devoting so many minutes to up-and-coming players still learning how to operate at the sport's highest level.
Behind Ball's incredible off-ball work and remarkably quick hands, Ingram's improvements as a perimeter stopper and Caldwell-Pope's willingness to assume tough nightly assignments, they finally depressed opposing shooting percentages and elected not to gamble in disadvantageous situations so they could improve on the defensive glass while minimizing their fouling habits.
Now, they're leaning into that identity.
James' defense has slipped as he moves deeper into his 30s, but he's capable of dialing it up at any time. Though Father Time has forced him to take a few more possessions off while shouldering such a monumental offensive workload, he's capable of functioning as a legit stopper when surrounded by the right pieces.
Caldwell-Pope is only getting better. Ditto for Ball and Ingram, who are still in the infancies of their professional careers. McGee immediately injects athleticism and rim-protection acumen into the frontcourt. Stephenson's stifling man defense and intensity could bleed over into the rest of the depth chart. Rondo has enjoyed a sterling defensive reputation throughout his career, and that hasn't changed in recent years, though more so in the playoffs than the regular season.
So while these moves might not make much sense in the spacing department and, on the surface level, look antithetical to the traditional roster-building methods we've seen established in recent years, they could promote the identity Walton has worked to install in Tinseltown.
With the exception of James, all the free-agent signees have one other thing in common.
No, it's not that they're limited players occupying roster spots that might otherwise have held more talented figures if the Lakers had exercised more patience and realized the money this summer was inevitably going to dry up. It's not that they've previously had beef with the new roster centerpiece. It's simpler than that.
Each of them is coming aboard on a one-year pact, which preserves cap flexibility for the summer of 2019.
Luol Deng (who could be waived or stretched at any point), Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart and Zubac are the only incumbent players with contracts that extend beyond the upcoming season. James and the rookies selected in the 2018 NBA draft will add to that collection, but none of the other free-agent snags will push the Lakers anywhere close to the salary cap. They still boast max room for big names, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale realized:
If the Lakers don't trade for Leonard, they'll have a chance to sign him once he hits unrestricted free agency next summer. Kevin Durant could hit the open market after inking a one-and-one deal to stay with the Golden State Warriors for the upcoming campaign, and we're already seeing some speculation about a potential departure. That's saying nothing of Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker and the many other players who could be available in 2019.
Maybe it's dubious to avoid shooting for the stars in the first year of James' Hollywood tenure. He is 33 years old, after all. The window of superstardom can't last forever, and squandering—or, more realistically, not maximizing—even one year of his enduring prime is a disappointing course of action.
But James departed the Cleveland Cavaliers to agree to a four-year contract with the Lakers, and thinking solely of the first crusade would be fallacious. Even if it's being used as a trial period, the organization can still glean valuable information about the fit of the rookie-scale players alongside the superstar. If they don't work out, they can easily be packaged for other assets down the road—a third star, maybe?
Stephenson is going to make a knuckleheaded play at some point. McGee might do something that makes Smith's decision-making at the end of Game 1 in the Finals look downright genius. Rondo will inevitably turn his nose up at an easy layup so he can chase another dime.
And that's all fine.
The Lakers didn't sign James for 2018-19 alone. They didn't sign him to go after a single playoff appearance and a shot at just one ring. And so long as they continue improving defensively while preserving a future filled with tantalizing possibilities, they haven't deviated from the original plan so much as adjusted after luring in other celestial players proved more difficult than originally expected.