Before he made his way to Los Angeles, one of the safest bets in sports was that LeBron James would lead his team out of the Eastern Conference. Now that James plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, however, people are wondering whether he’ll even make it to the playoffs.
This isn’t even a straw man argument, either. According to Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, the sentiment is out there around the league:
“I don’t think the Lakers make the playoffs,” said a Western Conference rival executive who questioned the experience of their talent outside James.
”James has been steadily coasting on defense in recent years. Now he’s going to close games as the Lakers’ 5?” another skeptical executive asked. “Draymond [Green] is why that works for the Warriors.”
LeBron James has made it to the NBA Finals for eight straight years. The last time a finals series occurred without him in it, Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to a game seven win over the Boston Celtics, Game of Thrones hasn’t aired yet and I still had discernible muscle mass. Miss me with this idea that he somehow won’t play past game 82.
Let’s take a quick look at the west.
Only Golden State feels like a legitimate lock to make the playoffs next year. I could be convinced that the Houston Rockets have one of these spots, but trading Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute for James Ennis and (reportedly) Carmelo Anthony combined with Chris Paul’s injury history and James Harden’s distaste for staying in shape and regression wouldn’t surprise me.
If the claim is that spots two or three through eight are so cluttered then anything can happen, fine. But using that analysis to keep the Lakers out assumes best-case scenarios for other teams and worst-case for the Lakers.
Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets should be better next season, but Michael Malone is still their head coach.
The San Antonio Spurs turned Kawhi Leonard’s absence, Danny Green, Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson into DeMar DeRozan. I just don’t see enough spacing coming from Dejounte Murray, DeRozan, Rudy Gay, LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol to confidently put them in ahead of the Lakers.
Everything went perfectly for the Portland Trail Blazers last year and we saw what that regression might look like this year in their series against the New Orleans Pelicans — a four game sweep in New Orleans’ favor.
The aforementioned Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, and while Julius Randle feels like the perfect fit alongside Anthony Davis, Rondo (now a Laker) was really good for them last year —especially in the postseason — and his absence will be felt.
The Memphis Grizzlies made a couple additions and might get a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol back, but “a healthy Mike Conley” feels like an oxymoron at this point.
Yes, the Lakers have quite a bit to prove, and the point about LeBron on defense is a good one. Are the Lakers gambling on the development of their young core? Absolutely. Might Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma or Josh Hart not be up to the task of performing at the level LeBron demands of teammates? Yup! But acting as if there aren’t question marks all over the conference and with teams that would be slated ahead of Los Angeles is bordering on intellectual dishonesty.
Los Angeles won 35 games last year. Lonzo missed 30 of those. Ingram missed 23. Let’s just say their health alone (not accounting for development) accounts for, say, three to five more wins, getting them to 38-40 total.
Let’s also say each young player who played a key role last year develops enough to account for an average of one win each. There’s another four wins.
Not having Tyler Ennis as the primary backup point guard should be worth 82 wins, but I’d have to check the math on that.
That month of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s legal issues legitimately affected his level of play and, given, how shallow the roster was last year, impacted what the Lakers were capable of during that time. If he plays the way he did after that was behind him, that might account for another win or two.
And all of this is before we take into account how much better LeBron James makes just about everyone he plays with, something that almost can’t be overstated.
Look, the Western Conference is (once again) going to be an absolute dogfight from opening night to game 82. It would shock no one if the difference between home court advantage in the first round and not making it at all was only a game or two. With the margin for error being that small, though, who better to increase that margin than LeBron?
That rival executive can bet against James if he wants, but man has that been a great way to lose money over the extent of his career.