The Los Angeles Lakers are more than just Leron James.
Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James is an athletic marvel. The NBA has never seen anyone with the kind of strength, speed and agility that he possesses. Trying to defend his drives to the basket is like trying to corral a runaway freight train.
James is assuredly among the league’s best all-time players. The considerable debate about exactly how high the soon-to-be 34-year-old ranks is not relevant to the state of this year’s Lakers.
What is pertinent is that as good as he is, this Lakers team is about much more than just LeBron James. As cute as the phrase has become, these are not merely “LeBron’s Lakers”. That notion is both unfair and untrue.
Before LBJ joined them, the four members of the young core, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Jason Hart, had already put the league on notice that they were going to be an impressive force. In fact, as a group, they were part of the attraction for James to sign with LA.
Ingram and Ball were, of course, the No. 2 picks of the 2016 and 2017 drafts. It may be hard to believe, but both of them recently turned just 21 years old. They are, respectively, the third and second-youngest Lakers. Only teenage rookie Isaac Bonga, who will likely spend most of the year in the G League, is younger.
Kuzma and Hart were not only two of the biggest steals of the 2017 draft, but it appears that they are two of the best late first-round picks ever. And they are both only age 23.
All four have shown that they are outstanding players with brilliant futures. The biggest obstacle at this point in their careers, as it is for every young player, is maintaining consistency, game-to-game.
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Unfortunately, that contributes to Coach Luke Walton‘s dilemmas. The team’s top priority, of course, is to win games and qualify for the playoffs. But as Magic Johnson noted, this is year one of a two-year process to rebuild the team into contenders.
So if, as expected, each of the core four is going to be an important part of the Lakers future success, each needs to be in the game as much as possible now to fully develop his skills. And an important role for James is to help hasten that growth.
Fans tend to get too concerned about who starts. What’s more important is how many minutes a player is on the court, and who is used in crunch time to try to close out a win. That leads Walton to try to make the following determinations, which may change game to game:
• At what point in a game should Ball or Rajon Rondo play point guard, and for how long?
• How many minutes should JaVale McGee, who has far exceeded most people’s expectations so far, play at center, and who should back him up? Does Ivica Zubac deserve that opportunity? (Hopefully, the experiment using Kuzma as a small ball 5 has ended).
• Should James’ court time be reduced, and if so by how much, to preserve him for the long run?
• How should James, Ingram and Kuzma be used? All are natural forwards, but should all three play at the same time? If so, what about Hart?
• Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was an integral part of last year’s team but has gotten off to a terribly slow start this season. How much should he play?
• Like McGee, Lance Stephenson has been a most pleasant surprise and a positive contributor. How should he best be used?
• Michael Beasley has been an excellent scorer most of his career. Yet through 10 games, he’s logged a total of 10 minutes. Is he nursing an undisclosed injury, or does he not fit in with the Lakers offense? Since he isn’t likely to endure being a benchwarmer in silence, will he end up being traded, or even released?
• How and when will Luke try to fit in rookies Moritz Wagner and Svi Mykhailiuk? Svi got some playing time when Rondo and Ingram were suspended but looked like he wasn’t quite ready for prime time.
All of these decisions must balance the need to win now vs. the desire to develop the Lakers future. James has three more years on his contract. The team recently exercised its options on Ingram, Ball, Kuzma and Hart. The three rookies are all under contract for next year.
But, Rondo, McGee, Stephenson, KCP, Beasley and Zubac are all unsigned after this season. How should that factor into playing time choices?
Additionally, as great as LeBron is, and as good as his stats are this year (27.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists), he has had some unexpectedly troubling moments so far.
First, he missed two key free throws in the final seconds against San Antonio that opened the door for the Spurs to win the game. What followed was his ill-advised insistence on taking a long fade-away jump shot rather than driving to the hoop on the game’s final play.
Then, late in the recent loss to Minnesota, James dribbled the ball off his foot near midcourt, resulting in a completely careless, unforced turnover at an important point in the game.
He has also been dismal from behind the 3-point line, converting only 26.5 percent of his attempts, a sharp drop-off from the just over 36 percent he shot each of the last two seasons, and his career percentage of 34.3 percent.
In addition, one expectation of LBJ is that he will show the youngsters how to close out games. But so far the Lakers have lost five of the six games in which they’ve had a slim fourth-quarter lead.
Seven games is too small of a sample size to conclude that we are seeing the first small crack in the armor of James’ great career. But it calls for continued observation. To date, he has avoided any major injury and has always played at a high level, but inevitably even great players ultimately slow down.
For now, it’s fair to say that the 2018-19 Lakers, which are obviously still a work very much in progress, are far more than just LeBron. There is a significant amount of young still-developing talent surrounding him, and he no longer has to do it all for his team to be successful. But the Lakers are counting on his leadership, which so far has been lacking.
All statistics courtesy of www.basketball-reference.com and ESPN
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