How LeBron, LA Lakers Can Claim a Top-4 Seed out West This Season

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterOctober 18, 2018

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 04: LeBron James #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers celebrates after teammate Brandon Ingram #14 stole the in bound ball from Cameron Reynolds #13 of the Sacramento Kings at end of the game at Staples Center on October 4, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Just over 100 days ago, Klutch Sports issued a simple but significant press release announcing LeBron James' agreement to join the Los Angeles Lakers on a four-year, $154 million deal.

On Thursday night, James will make his debut with the Lakers to start the 2018-19 season in Portland against the Trail Blazers.

Without James, the Lakers won 35 games last season to finish 11th overall in the Western Conference. Now, armed with the best player in the league, the Lakers will make a significant leap in the standings.

By the time the postseason begins, Los Angeles should have over 50 wins and home-court advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs.


The Battle Within to Improve

Lakers forward Brandon Ingram.
Lakers forward Brandon Ingram.Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The challenges along the way will be difficult. Of course, the Lakers need to stay healthy. Every team has that same goal, but few get through the year unscathed.

Additionally, Los Angeles will need to quickly build a rapport, blending younger players Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart with incoming veterans Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Michael Beasley and James.

The team's 3-3 preseason gave glimpses of what it hopes to be this season. James played in the first halves of just four exhibition games at 15.8 minutes per night. In his limited time, the All-Star forward averaged 13.8 points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while shooting 60 percent from the field.

He's still very, very good at basketball.

Ingram led the team in scoring at 17.4 points per night, showing an improved knack at getting to the free-throw line (eight times per game in 25.7 minutes). Ball was also more efficient, hitting 46.2 percent from the field in his two appearances after recovering from offseason knee surgery.

Ball is an effective defender and rebounder who infectiously gets his teammates to push the pace and share the ball, but his greatest weakness last season was his shooting (36.0 percent from the field, 30.5 percent from three-point range). The sample size is minuscule, but if Ball can make himself a credible scoring threat, he'll take a significant step as a sophomore.

In his ear is Rondo, who quickly embraced the role of mentor. Look for dual-point guard lineups on occasion. Neither player is known for his shooting, but the Lakers have loaded up on playmakers.

Rondo may start in the short term while Ball builds up his stamina. If the Lakers find early success with Ball off the bench, coach Luke Walton could stick with that rotation.

McGee, one of the fastest big men in the league, already looks like a better fit than last year's veteran starter Brook Lopez. Stephenson and Beasley are expected to fill in utility roles off the bench, with Stephenson operating as an individual scorer and playmaker to change games when the team hits an offensive lull.

Lakers center JaVale McGee.
Lakers center JaVale McGee.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

McGee last played over 15 minutes per game in the 2013-14 season. If he slumps or misses time, the Lakers don't have much depth behind him, with Beasley—standing at 6'9" and 235 pounds—as the team's small-ball center.

The Lakers can go big with Ivica Zubac, but he has yet to show enough consistency to be relied upon. Rookie Moritz Wagner is just starting to play again after he suffered a bone bruise in July during summer league.

Kuzma is another option at center, as is James. Walton is going to search for a viable center rotation, but if he cannot, the Lakers do have one open roster spot. They may have to pursue another center if Plan A proves untenable.

Walton wants the Lakers to be one of the top defensive teams in the league, but at least on paper, Los Angeles may be too thin at the 5 to reach that goal.

Another significant question is outside shooting, and the preseason wasn't encouraging. Kuzma led the team in attempts (4.3 per game) while hitting 34.6 percent. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was second with 4.0 attempts at a 25.0 percent conversion rate.

Ingram shot 14.3 percent, and Stephenson shot 12.5 percent, making Hart's 27.8 percent almost respectable. Even Svi Mykhailiuk, the team's rookie shooter from Kansas, could only connect on 23.5 percent of his looks, struggling to adapt to the speed and athleticism of NBA players.

To succeed in the West, the Lakers are going to have to be able to play defense and hit open shots. Even with James on the floor, that's going to take some time and could be a fatal flaw, especially in the postseason.


The Competition

OKC Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.
OKC Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook.Rick Bowmer/Associated Press/Associated Press

It's not a leap to say the Golden State Warriors are the best team in the conference. The Houston Rockets will also undoubtedly bounce back from their Wednesday night loss to the New Orleans Pelicans.

As great as James is, and as intriguing as the Lakers' youth movement may be, they're not likely to be on par with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and the Warriors. Los Angeles has a shot to catch James Harden, Chris Paul and the Rockets, but it's a remote one given how much must go right.

The margin after the top two may not be as high, but the Utah Jazz have quality depth alongside second-year star guard Donovan Mitchell and defensive anchor Rudy Gobert. The Oklahoma City Thunder will also be a fierce opponent with Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

Both teams won 48 games last season and should improve if healthy. Westbrook missed his team's opener with a knee injury but is expected to return shortly.

Outside of their two star guards in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, the Portland Trail Blazers' depth is lacking, even if they won 49 games last season.

The San Antonio Spurs lost Manu Ginobili to retirement, Tony Parker to free agency and Dejounte Murray to a knee injury. The combination of LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan will be enough to get a lot of wins, but the Spurs are as vulnerable as they've been since Tim Duncan arrived in 1997.

The Denver Nuggets are another deep club hoping to take a big step forward. The Pelicans looked tremendous with former Laker Julius Randle helping Anthony Davis blow out the Rockets on Wednesday, but last season New Orleans gave up 110.4 points per game (while scoring 111.7). Both Denver and New Orleans have a lot to prove defensively before they're considered elite.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler has demanded a trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves. That's a team facing a significant free-fall this season.

The Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks are caught between rebuilding and trying to contend. The Clippers will likely be the best of the three. The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings are still rebuilding.

Regardless of the competition, James gives the Lakers a tremendous advantage, and look for his teammates to rise to the challenge. The Lakers may need to add shooting or veteran size behind McGee at center, but James' ability to impact a game will cover up some of his team's blemishes.

Together, they'll climb ahead of the Blazers, Pelicans, Spurs and Wolves. They won't catch the Warriors, but they're going to be good enough to beat out one of the Rockets, Jazz or Thunder.

How far the Lakers get in the playoffs is a different question, but that's what the regular-season journey is for. The Lakers finally start theirs Thursday.


Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.