Lakers May Not Win a Title in 2019, but That's All Part of LeBron's Plan

Tom Haberstroh@tomhaberstrohContributor IJuly 3, 2018

Cleveland Cavalier's LeBron James during Game 2 of the Eastern Conference basketball finals in Boston, Tuesday, May 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
B/R

On Sunday night, after LeBron James made his decision to join the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year, $154 million deal, a longtime Eastern Conference exec texted B/R with what many in and around the basketball world were wondering:

"Can he win there?"

Questions like these have always followed James. When he announced he was taking his talents to South Beach, there was plenty of uncertainty about his capital "d" Decision. Can Dwyane Wade, a ball-dominant superstar without three-point range, coexist with LeBron? Would Chris Bosh anchor a championship-level defense? Is Erik Spoelstra up for the task? Would LeBron crumble under the pressure?

James answered the post-Decision concerns by leading the Heat to two titles with a pair of Finals MVPs to boot.

When James went back to Cleveland, the questions followed like a shadow that wouldn't quit.

Do the Cavs have enough? Wait, who is David Blatt? Is Kyrie Irving ready to win a playoff game? Is Andrew Wiggins (and then, Kevin Love) championship material? Could LeBron do it without Pat Riley's help? Could LeBron really end the city of Cleveland's title drought that had gone back 52 heart-wrenching years?

Sure enough, James conquered those doubts, too. By toppling a 73-9 Golden State Warriors team, the 2016 championship that James won with the Cavs remains one of the most glorious championships in American pro sports. His greatness was enough to turn the mood of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert from sour grapes to grateful.

And now, after Sunday's news, the questions won't die.

Can LeBron really lead this Lakers team to a title in 2018-19? People wonder, especially now that DeMarcus Cousins has committed to the Warriors.

That people are still asking this of James is reflective of the old paradigm of "championships or bust," whereby rings are the only acceptable outcome. We haven't recalibrated ourselves from "win-now" James. By going to Hollywood, James is rewriting the script yet again. This is all about the future and the hope that the Warriors will unravel before long.

Cousins could be merely a one-year rental as he rehabilitates his Achilles, and, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe, the Knicks are gearing up to pursue Durant next summer. (Durant's agent, Rich Kleiman, hasn't shied away from declaring his Knickerbockers aspirations.)

Sure, James did join a similarly talented 33-win Cavs team in 2014 and later took them to the Finals. But his top priority may not be maximizing his title chances in 2018-19 but rather maximizing his title chances over the length of his Lakers tenure. It seems wild for a 33-year-old, but James just bleeping led the NBA in points scored for the first time in his 15-year career.

Let's start with the contract, a four-year deal (the last year is a player option). It's a decisive shift from his Cleveland days, when he put pressure on the front office to assemble a championship roster at all costs—and do so in a hurry.

When he rejoined the Cavs in 2014, he did it strategically on a "one-plus-one" deal that only guaranteed his commitment for one season. In the summer of 2015, he re-signed for another one-plus-one. After winning the title, he relented slightly with a two-plus-one. And then he left.

In agreeing to a four-year contract with the Lakers, LeBron James gave L.A. the benefit of time to build its roster around him.
In agreeing to a four-year contract with the Lakers, LeBron James gave L.A. the benefit of time to build its roster around him.Gerald Herbert/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's telling that James won't be putting the Lakers' front office through the same kind of win-now fire this time around. This might explain why he chose Los Angeles, a city that hasn't been a contender in years. "If we averaged 57 losses a year for half a decade, I doubt the best player in the world would just show up and say, 'Hey, I'm playing here,'" one rival exec lamented. "But I'm not bitter or anything."

Whereas James held Gilbert and the Cavs' brass accountable by stringing them along on short-term deals that demanded urgency, his four-year pact with the Lakers is, by its definition, a long play. It doesn't take much to see that the current Lakers roster doesn't have a championship pedigree.

In a league where bottom-feeders were seemingly trying to lose, the team won just 35 games last season. This is remarkably bad considering the Lakers didn't own their 2018 first-round pick; they had no incentive to tank.

If there was any doubt about James' willingness to kick the can down the road, glance at the Lakers' moves since his announcement.

They haven't traded Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart. The team came to terms with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (a fellow Klutch Sports client) to a one-year contract for $12 million. Lance Stephenson agreed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal. JaVale McGee agreed to the veteran's minimum.

To top it all off, the Lakers agreed to terms with Rajon Rondo on a—you guessed it—one-year deal worth $9 million. In the process, they waved goodbye to Julius Randle. Within a few hours, he had reached an agreement with the Pelicans.

Each of these moves was made with an eye toward next summer. That's when Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Irving, Kemba Walker and Jimmy Butler can become unrestricted free agents. James' fellow Banana Boater Carmelo Anthony can join up next summer too (if the Oklahoma City Thunder don't buy him out beforehand).

The Lakers will also be shedding Luol Deng's contract that calls for $18.8 million next season, freeing up even more cash to chase star free agents. I repeat: Durant and Thompson can be free agents next summer.

This roster's lack of championship readiness is even more apparent when you consider the loaded Western Conference only got tougher so far this offseason, with bottom-dwellers arming up.

Seriously, what's an easy win in the West next season? Memphis? Not if Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are healthy. Dallas? It was much better than its record suggests (ahem, tanking), and it just agreed to terms with DeAndre Jordan and tank-target Luka Doncic. Phoenix? New coach Igor Kokoskov, new addition Trevor Ariza and No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton promise brighter days ahead. Sacramento? OK, maybe you can circle Sacramento as a "W" on the schedule.

The West is so stacked that one West top executive at a team east of San Antonio joked: "Please, move us to the East."

James knows that titles are won with superstars, and the West has an abundance of them. Ten of the 15 All-NBA recipients from last season hailed from the Western Conference, and James going to LakersLand makes it 11.

That James committed to the Lakers even though they hadn't secured a superstar to play alongside him signals where his priorities are. He didn't wait for Leonard. He didn't get discouraged from going to Los Angeles when George decided to stay in OKC. 

Kawhi Leonard is just one of the Lakers' many potential star targets to add alongside James.
Kawhi Leonard is just one of the Lakers' many potential star targets to add alongside James.Jason Miller/Getty Images

That, of course, can change. Remember, when the Cavs agreed to ship Wiggins to Minnesota for Kevin Love, it wasn't agreed to until Aug. 7, about a month after James announced he was "coming home" to Northeast Ohio. 

This seems to be the thinking of the betting markets, which already appear to be pricing in another Lakers blockbuster move. Before Cousins committed to Golden State, at least one sportsbook tabbed the Lakers as the odds-on favorites to win the 2019 Finals, but the Boogie move puts James' squad firmly in third behind Boston.

That home run swing that Vegas is expecting may be Leonard, but the Spurs have even less urgency to make a deal now that James is already in Los Angeles. With Cousins off the table this summer, the Lakers could make an offer for star players on lower-tiered teams, such as Damian Lillard, Walker or John Wall, who's a Klutch Sports client.

Were the Lakers to contend for a title, they would surely have to reconcile their current identity with the one of teams James has led in the past.

Under Luke Walton, the Lakers played at the second-fastest pace in the NBA, pushing the ball and relying on their young legs to pressure defenses in transition. Only the Warriors operated in transition more than the Lakers last season, according to Cleaning The Glass data, which makes sense considering where Walton cut his teeth as a coach. When you factor in minutes played, the Lakers tied the Suns for the youngest team in the NBA, per Basketball Reference.

By contrast, the Cavs were among the oldest teams last season, with an average age of 30.6. James has never played on a team that ranked in the top 10 in pace and usually finds himself in the lower third of the category. But the Cavs also ranked sixth in frequency of transition plays last season, which suggests James might not have a problem playing uptempo when the situation calls for it.

Last season, the Cavs walked it up the court after taking the ball out of bounds, ranking 19th in fastest average possession time after a made shot, per the snazzy data at inpredictable.com. Interestingly, the Cavs placed fourth-quickest after defensive rebounds and ninth after a live-ball turnover. The Lakers, meanwhile, ran at every opportunity.

There's a pathway for James to kick it into high gear under Walton's system, but asking him to do that in his 16th season and beyond will be a lot. The Lakers will need to find easy buckets anywhere they can considering the team shot just 34.5 percent from three-point land last season, which ranked 29th in the NBA.

Presumably, James will be slotted in the starting lineup next to Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram and McGee. Only one of those supporting cast members, Caldwell-Pope, could be described as a reliable three-point threat; Ingram made one more catch-and-shoot three-pointer last season than Chandler Parsons did.

James will surely force the baby Lakers into different roles. Ball and Ingram figure to play off the ball more as James takes over primary ball-handling duties. Ingram has the potential to be a weapon off the ball as marked by his 41.1 percent shooting percentage on catch-and-shoot threes, per NBA.com, but we need to see more to be sure. As a point forward, Ingram took just 1.5 such shots per game last season.

Simply put, the Lakers' supporting cast needs to be better. No player currently on the roster not named LeBron Raymone James ranked in the Top 75 by ESPN's real plus-minus metric. Ball and Caldwell-Pope came closest at 90th and 124th, but Kuzma and Ingram lagged far behind.

The Lakers' worst two-man lineup by raw plus-minus was Kuzma-Ingram at minus-115. Another player-value metric—win sharesisn't high on the Lakers' youngsters either as both Ball and Ingram fell outside the top 300 by win shares per 48 minutes. Sure, they can grow up quickly next to James, but that's not always easy (hello, Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson!). 

Research by Tom Haberstroh

However, the baby Lakers likely won't need to fast-track their development like those young Cavs did. James has deliberately signed a four-year deal, and the pressure cooker won't be dialed up nearly as high thanks to his ending the Cleveland curse and dragging the Cavs' sorry roster to the Finals last season. Expectations—absent a blockbuster deal or two or three—figure to be tempered given that there is no Irving, Love, Wade or Bosh on this roster.

The Lakers may not win a championship in year one, but it's worth remembering that James has never done that with a new team. The Lakers franchise has more rings than James has fingers, but all the post-LeBron action suggests this team is built for the future with an eye for 2019.

Can James win with the Lakers? Yes, but it will take both the Warriors' demise and time—time that James has more than earned.

         

Tom Haberstroh has covered the NBA full time since 2010, joining B/R Mag after seven years with ESPN as an NBA insider and analytics expert. Haberstroh is also a co-founder of Count the Dings podcast network and regularly hosts the Back to Back podcast. Follow him on Twitter, @tomhaberstroh.

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