Can LeBron James Win a Title for Lakers Without a Superteam?

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJuly 23, 2019

Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James laughs as he waits to check in to the team's NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets during the second half Friday, March 29, 2019, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 129-115. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

"Superteam" is not an objective concept around the NBA. Its definition varies by situation and opinion.

Do two stars count as a superteam? What about one plus an absurd amount of fringe-star depth? Is three stars the minimum? Or did the Golden State Warriors numb us to the it-takes-a-trio model and make it so superteams now need four?

Three stars feels like the baseline. One-two punches are commonplace. Cobbling together four max-level players is almost impossible without capitalizing on a perfect storm of circumstances: salary-cap spikes, rookie-scale contracts, below-market deals, etc.

Superstar trios remain the conventional dream. And it is by that model LeBron James has won his three titles. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade flanked him in Miami, while Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love joined him in Cleveland.

Even the Los Angeles Lakers have subscribed to this three-star format since signing James. After giving up the moon for Anthony Davis, they jumped through the necessary hoops to pursue another big name. They swung and missed on Kawhi Leonard, but the importance of bagging that third star shone in their willingness to wait out a decision.

Somewhat lost amid the Lakers' failed coup is a sobering possibility: This was probably their last chance to build a superteam with LeBron in tow. If they're going to win a championship before he leaves or retires, they'll likely have to do so without a Big Three.

That is neither a potshot at the Lakers' offseason nor a doomsday scenario. The Toronto Raptors just hoisted the Larry O'Brien Trophy with one, maybe two superstars on the docket, depending on your view of Kyle Lowry. Amassing All-NBA cornerstones remains the most efficient path to a title, but high-end role players and overall depth can have a similar impact.

Still, the absence of a third star in Los Angeles matters, if only because the Lakers themselves have nodded to its significance.

"It gives us the ability to not only contend in the short term with the players we wanted but also add a superstar or max player in that July of 2021," general manager Rob Pelinka said of the team's offseason, per the Los Angeles Times' Tania Ganguli. "If that's something we want to look to do."

Getting that max player in 2021 will be difficult unless the Lakers are planning to move on from James, who holds a player option that summer.

They have just three guaranteed salaries on the books, but LeBron, Davis' projected cap hit if he re-signs and Luol Deng's dead money would total $83.9 million on their own. That's assuming James doesn't opt out. He'd count against the ledger for slightly more on the open market if they carry his cap hold.

Factor in empty roster charges, and they'd be looking at around $94.2 million against a $125 million cap. That $30.8 million in space wouldn't even be enough to bankroll the smallest max with a starting salary worth 25 percent of the cap ($31.3 million). A first-year max for the next tier up (aka Giannis Antetokounmpo) will run $37.5 million.

The ship may have sailed on the Lakers adding a third star to the LeBron-AD duo.
The ship may have sailed on the Lakers adding a third star to the LeBron-AD duo.Adam Pantozzi/Getty Images

This says nothing of the collateral damage it'd cost to open up that flexibility. Both Kyle Kuzma and Talen Horton-Tucker will be restricted free agents in 2021, and they wouldn't be able to sign any longer-term deals between now and then. That includes their 2020 first-round pick.

Projections can change. James will be gearing up for his age-37 season in 2021. Perhaps he'll be willing to sign at noticeably less than the max. At the same time, maybe not. He's LeBron James. Plus, by that point, the over-38 rule comes into play. It'll be difficult for him to concede short-term gains in exchange for a big-picture windfall.

Trading for a third star is pretty much off the table. The Lakers will have some interesting salary filler after Dec. 15, but their only real blockbuster anchors are Kuzma and Horton-Tucker. Short of entering the Chris Paul sweepstakes with four- or five-for-one packages at midseason, they don't have the assets to pursue a seismic splash.

Developing a star in-house is similarly out of the question. The Lakers don't have the picks or the gradual timeline to groom youngsters. Kuzma is about their only hope, and he's more than a singular leap away from exploring stardom. As Bleacher Report's Nekias Duncan wrote in his exhaustive overview of Kuzma's ceiling:

"If Kuzma doesn't re-establish himself as a plus shooter, what's the argument for playing him over [DeMarcus] Cousins in the frontcourt of a closing lineup?

"If he can't chase shooters around or contain guys off the dribble, what makes him a better closing option than Kentavious Caldwell-Pope or Avery Bradley?

"And if Kuzma doesn't showcase the ability to do either of those things early, what stops the Lakers from shopping him in a package for a win-now piece?"

Looming over everything is James' potential decline. Bet on him staying dominant into his late-30s. He's earned the benefit of the doubt. But Father Time is undefeated, and most of the Lakers' third-star scenarios won't play out before 2021. At what point is it unsafe to assume James himself will still count toward that tally?

The Lakers' timeline is now, because LeBron's timeline is now. And right now, they don't have the look of a conventional superteam or the bandwidth to forge one. They could kick the tires on CP3 in mid-December, but he'll turn 35 in May. He won't be viewed as a Big Three finishing touch for much longer, if he even qualifies now.

Can the Lakers win a title with this exact core or one that's overwhelmingly similar to it? That's the more salient question. It is also an uncomfortable one.

No one should fault them for waiting on Leonard. They were among his final three suitors. You roll the dice on a 33.3 percent(ish) chance to land one of the game's five best players every damn time. They were forced to scramble in the eleventh hour after he went to the Los Angeles Clippers, but that changed nothing. The risk the Lakers took was more than worth the prospective reward.

It helps that they rebounded nicely in the aftermath of Leonard's decision. Wild cards are spread throughout the roster, but the Lakers have enough shooting. Bradley, Quinn Cook and Danny Green are great fits on a team built around Davis-James pick-and-rolls. Caldwell-Pope has become an underrated complementary piece.

Cousins' heyday is probably behind him, but he has a much higher peak than most second big men. Maybe Kuzma will have a breakout third year. Jared Dudley can provide good defensive minutes without compromising the offense's floor balance.

Equally important, when viewed against the backdrop of the Warriors' demise, the Lakers have a definitive hold on immediate contention. No one team has supplanted that feeling of inevitability.

The Milwaukee Bucks have the reigning MVP, but they want for a typical second star, let alone a third. The Philadelphia 76ers have a Big Four, not to mention one of the most terrifying starting fives in recent memory, but the integration of Al Horford may not be seamless. Spacing could be tight when he shares the floor with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Next year's championship field is wide-open.
Next year's championship field is wide-open.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Pairing James Harden with Russell Westbrook elevated the Houston Rockets' ceiling, but the duo's offensive fit is not a given. The Utah Jazz put the league on notice by acquiring Bojan Bogdanovic and Mike Conley, but they won't incite fear among their peers.

The same shouldn't be said for the Denver Nuggets. They're adding Jerami Grant and a potentially healthy Michael Porter Jr. to a 54-win team. Much like the Bucks, though, they don't have that customary No. 2. Beside Nikola Jokic, Paul Millsap is past his prime (but still really good), and they're waiting on Jamal Murray.

Treating the Brooklyn Nets as a serious threat isn't necessary until Kevin Durant recovers from his Achilles injury. The Boston Celtics' locker room may be better off without Kyrie Irving, but losing both him and Horford will jeopardize their standing without breakout or comeback campaigns from two of Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum.

Writing the Warriors out of the playoff picture is overly cruel. Drastically lowering your expectations for a squad that lost Durant and won't have Klay Thompson for more than half the year is not. The Raptors can be good without Leonard but not great. The Indiana Pacers, Portland Trail Blazers and San Antonio Spurs are dark horses.

Many will be quick to pencil in the Clippers as the Association's next overbearing juggernaut. That is not unreasonable. But Leonard and Paul George are in their first year together. Superstar dynamics can take time to establish.

But that also goes for the Lakers. James and Davis can be a transcendent duo and take time to mesh. The Big Three-era Heat and Cavaliers needed grace periods. This year's Lakers should be no different, and they don't have a weaker Eastern Conference field to fall back on.

And if they don't have to worry about James and Davis' chemistry, they still overturned half the team. Just under 50 percent of last season's minutes are represented on the 2019-20 roster. Only five squads had a lower continuity rate last year. None of them made the playoffs.

Los Angeles' situation is hardly that dire. Overhauling the roster to make room for a second star and better role players is a good thing. So many other contenders are grappling with the same stark changes, including the title-favorite Clippers, who have fewer than 43 percent of last season's minutes on the roster.

How this Lakers core ages will matter more. It still makes sense to assume they won't win a championship in James and Davis' first year together. Every pairing of this magnitude, no matter how seamless, gets better with time. Even the Warriors needed to work out the kinks following Durant's arrival in 2016, namely between Durant and Stephen Curry, despite capping their inaugural season together with a championship.

The LeBron-AD pairing does not have a defined window.
The LeBron-AD pairing does not have a defined window.Ethan Miller/Getty Images

James' own finite window makes the Lakers' future harder to project. They have only so much room to improve as he enters his twilight.

What will he look like one year from now, entering his age-36 season? Does he plan to stick in Los Angeles for his age-37 season (player option)? How long can a James-Davis nucleus headline a contender if we assume they're both in this indefinitely?

Nearly every other contender is positioned to age better than the Lakers' star duo. That is not an insult. It's just a fact. They don't have the depth of last season's Raptors and, in all likelihood, won't have the capacity to add another star with James in town.

That doesn't mean he and Davis won't win a title together. They might.

They'll just have to overcome a less-defined window to do it.

   

Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball Insiders and RealGM.


Michael Lee of The Athletic joins The Full 48 with Howard Beck to discuss the Washington Wizards, Utah Jazz, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn, Giannis, 2019 Christmas Day matchups, and play-off predictions.

    

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