The 2018-19 NBA regular season is mere hours away. The Los Angeles Lakers will have to wait until Thursday night to tip-off a season with high expectations.
With the combination of youth and a ton of new faces on the roster, plenty of questions surround the Lakers, even with the best player in the world on the roster and the vast majority of people expecting the team to end their five-year playoff drought.
Q: Who will be the Lakers’ most valuable player this season outside of LeBron James?
Kyle: Lonzo Ball, and I don’t think it will be close. Ball was clearly the catalyst (shouts to Marcelo Huertas) on defense last year, and I think that will remain the same. Ball was a plus defender in his rookie year in limited games and his playmaking ability will be key for the Lakers. James has always been an on-ball player, but running him off-ball and have Ball bring the ball up court will lead to some interesting offense.
Dillon: Lonzo Ball. He was the most valuable player last season and is the identity of the team. LeBron James wants to play the game the way that Ball allows the Lakers to play. His ability to rebound, create turnovers, and push the ball in transition will be imperative to the Lakers’ play style this season.
Kendrew: I’m sure other people will say it, but probably Brandon Ingram. One of my biggest question marks before preseason started was how Ingram would play off the ball alongside LeBron, and he has looked great in almost all facets of the game. He is making better decisions, utilizing screens well, making good reads when making the extra pass, and has been extremely disruptive on defense. It’s going to be important that he continues to draw fouls and convert his free throws consistently this year but I feel like a lot of this year’s success will hinge on Ingram’s production.
Gary: Lonzo Ball. I am baffled by how little credit Ball gets for his play during his rookie campaign last season. Look, I get it. His shooting efficiency was atrocious last year, which obviously limited his scoring output in a big way and that’s a big deal. But outside of his shooting, Ball was legitimately good in every major core element of the game.
He already excels defensively, on the glass and his ability to command the offense with his vision, passing and tempo is excellent and it’s probably going to be a special skill in his arsenal. Adding strength and improving his shooting were a big part of his offseason work, and I think both will help him make a big impact this season. Also, I absolutely love his fit alongside LeBron, especially with the pace this team will play at.
Also, JaVale McGee is going to be very valuable to this team because of his presence defensively, as a rebounder and as a lob target. The Lakers’ lack of depth at center is a major concern, giving McGee a lot of value with this team. If he has to miss any time, it could be a significant loss for the team. But as valuable as I think McGee will be to this team, I believe Ball is going to really turn some heads this year.
Q: Which young player will make the biggest leap for the Lakers this year?
Kyle: While some people don’t consider him young anymore, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will make the biggest leap for the Lakers this year. KCP has never played next to a prolific scorer even close to the talent that James has, and this will lighten the scoring load and pressure that he once had on this Lakers team. Instead, he can focus on what he should be best at: shooting threes and playing defense.
Last year, KCP shot a career-high 42.6 percent from the three-point line, and it looks like he can sustain that production. His turnovers were also at a career-high level, so taking the ball out of his hands will do him favors on the offensive end. Catch-and-shoot corner threes will be his bread and butter, and frankly, I can’t wait to see it. His career high for corner threes came in his last season in Detroit, shooting 46 percent on corner threes, which accounted for 17 percent of his three-point attempts. If he can get to that level of production, defenses won’t know what to do with him and James on the floor at the same time.
Dillon: For me, this has to be Brandon Ingram. The kid just seems to have put it together this summer and it showed in the preseason. His defense looked much improved, he’s exhibiting signs of turning that potential into on-court impact. On the other side of the ball, his offensive game seems to be a nice fit alongside LeBron as the second scorer as he is a smart cutter, can push the ball and make plays, and has a grasp of how to use his length to finish at the rim or get rewarded with free throws. All of those things should take some of the burden off LeBron and those two can make things easier for each other.
Kendrew: Just due to the fact that he’ll have more minutes and I think a bigger role off the bench, I’d go with Josh Hart. He showcased what he could do toward the tail end of last season, throughout summer league, and during the preseason. He could be that quintessential three-and-D player that the Lakers need, especially if he can hit his threes at a high rate or at least a consistent one. He might not be one of the better perimeter players but he honestly is one of the Lakers’ better post defenders. I’m hoping he gets more minutes and can be integrated into a starting role as the season progresses.
Gary: Lonzo Ball, for a lot of the same reasons I mentioned above. Playing next to LeBron is going to make everyone better and Ball should be no exception to that. Ball will naturally have a higher volume of easier scoring opportunities with all the attention James attracts from defenses. Ball worked on his shot this offseason and there is enough past evidence to suggest the shooting can come around.
I think his efficiency as a perimeter shooter will improve and the added strength could greatly help him finishing in the paint. Additionally, the game should continue to slow down for him and he will be able to learn a lot from James. Perhaps my expectations for a second-year player are too high, but I’m buying all the Lonzo stock that anyone is selling.
Q: Should the Lakers add another center to the rotation? If so, who would be a realistic target?
Kyle: Two words, one player: Joakim Noah. I think that cutting Ivica Zubac and picking up Noah, leaving open the 15th spot for trade potentials would be a brilliant move for the Lakers. Even though he is a fan and team favorite, Zubac hasn’t shown anything on the court that warrants keeping him around over a veteran center. Noah would be a perfect veteran for this team, and if he can play defense the way he used to do in Chicago, the Lakers would definitely appreciate his rim protection.
Dillon: Anthony Davis, please. Oh, realistic? But honestly, I may be in the minority that doesn’t believe they should, at least not right away. Once Moritz Wagner comes back from his injury, hopefully he will add another impact player at that spot and the Lakers will look to play plenty of small-ball so there might not be a ton of minutes to throw around once Wagner gets back.
Kendrew: Yes. Someone that came to mind is our old friend Tarik Black. He has shown in the past that he can play hard, finish at the rim, and be another big body in the post when going up against bigger teams. He’s in Israel right now but if Zubac and Michael Beasley continue to disappoint, I say we bring him back.
Gary: I think at some point they will have to and they should. McGee should be a solid starter for the Lakers, but behind him right now is Zubac and Wagner. One is a rookie and the other did not look promising in preseason play. The Lakers want to play small-ball, but I’m not sure it is sustainable for long stretches on a nightly basis.
Tyson Chandler could be a buyout candidate at the deadline, but another name to keep an eye on is a familiar one: Ed Davis. He signed a one-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets, who finally have their own first-round pick. If the team isn’t overly competitive at the deadline, perhaps they would simply try to get some picks for expiring contracts and free up minutes to continue development for Jarrett Allen. Davis’ defense would be a welcome addition and he would benefit from playing alongside a number of playmakers on this Lakers team.
Q: Where will the Lakers finish in the Western Conference standings and why? Regular season record prediction?
Kyle: Fourth in the Western Conference with a 52-30 record. There will be adjusting pains early in the season, but this team is special, and adding LeBron James, the greatest player of all time, automatically makes this team a contender.
Dillon: I think they will finish fourth for a few reasons. First, of course, is LeBron James. Second, is also LeBron James. Third, is that the Western Conference will likely be so crowded after Golden State that they have a good chance to surprise some people assuming they are relatively healthy. The teams slotted to finish in this same range have question marks just like the Lakers. We saw last year this team had many games they were in against top level teams but lost due to the lack of a closer, so with the natural progression of the core and the best player in the game some of those should flip.
Record prediction: 50-32
Kendrew: I think the 5th seed is reasonable, with around 46 wins. I think Golden State, Oklahoma City, Houston and Utah finish above them. This is a newer team so it will take a while to acclimate themselves to playing with each other. Sure they have James, but he might have to get accustomed to more traveling (which takes a toll on the recovery process) and take more rest days to keep him fresh. I also think Luke Walton will have to tinker more as he stated he doesn’t want to just trot out a starting five and a bench five and start to stagger minutes. Also, we don’t know who stays and if any trades will be made. There are a lot of question marks going into the season but the Lakers have a good, young core and the best player in basketball history, so I’m fine with saying 46 wins.
Gary: Assuming the team stays healthy, I have them at sixth in the West for a couple different reasons. Ahead of them I have Golden State, Houston, Oklahoma City, Utah and Denver. The roster continuity of those teams should help them throughout the year, especially to start the season, where I think the Lakers will struggle.
For reference, LeBron’s first year with the Miami Heat, they started 9-8. Not terrible, but with the team Miami assembled in 2010, it was surprising. In James’ first year back in Cleveland in the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers started 5-7. Adding James is obviously going to be a tremendous help to the Lakers, but there will be an adjustment period with all the roster turnover from last year’s squad. Additionally, the Lakers will be relying pretty heavily on production from their young players, so some ups and downs from those guys should still be expected.
With that being said, I still think the Lakers have a great year and finally get back into the playoffs in a very good Western Conference with a record of 48-34.
For years, everyone has said that you could put LeBron on any team in the league and they would at least go to the playoffs. I think that holds true for the Lakers and trust me, nobody would want to see No. 23 in the postseason.
You can follow this author on Twitter at @garykester.