It’s that time of the year, when every member of the Lakers is in the best shape of his life, they’ve all added numerous skills to their game, and they’re ready to prove the doubters wrong and have the best seasons of their careers.
Take Kyle Kuzma, for example. He’s been doing three-a-day workouts (seriously, who does that?), in addition to watching film on his own and with Rajon Rondo, and texting head coach Luke Walton clips of where he struggled on defense last season. Kuzma has been in the weight room, so of course he is stronger than ever; he is preparing to expand his role to not only play on the wing, but also moonlight as a backup center; and he isn’t content with his All-Rookie honors — this sophomore is shooting for MVP someday.
As you look down the roster, Josh Hart is getting stronger, Brandon Ingram has been employing creative workouts (not on Dame Lillard’s level, but still) in order to improve “everything” about his game, and Ivica Zubac has slimmed down as he enters a potential make-or-break season.
With everyone on the Lakers coming into the year as the new-and-improved version of themselves, it seems like a good time to start thinking about how the players all fit together. Here are some of the lineups I’m most interested in seeing the Lakers trot out in 2018-19.
1. The Klutch Death Lineup
LeBron James, Kuzma, Ingram, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Lonzo Ball
The Lakers’ so-called “Death Lineup” with James at center is easily number one on this list. James has been reluctant to even play power forward for long stretches throughout his career (he hilariously identified himself as a small forward in the new Space Jam announcement Wednesday), but the most fascinating combination of Lakers most assuredly involves James at the 5, where he could credibly match up with opposing small-ball centers.
All of the returning Lakers in this lineup love to play fast. There are three excellent playmakers and plenty of shooting. Kuzma and Ingram’s improvement comes into play here, allowing the Lakers to be defensively versatile enough to trot out this alignment. Hart could substitute for KCP at some point in the future, but KCP’s superior play in 2017-18 earns LeBron’s Klutch teammate the nod for now.
2. The can’t yet rent a car lineup
Ball, Hart, Ingram, Kuzma, and Moe Wagner (or Zubac)
It pains me that Julius Randle isn’t the center here, but the youth movement lineup is still one of my favorite combinations. The players the Lakers have drafted in the last three seasons neatly fit into traditional positional roles, but the four returnees plus Randle or Larry Nance, Jr. had disastrous numbers last year (small sample caveat: only 84 possessions together, per Cleaning the Glass).
Logically, there’s no reason that this lineup couldn’t score efficiently, with above-average playmaking from Ball and the wings, as well as good shooting from at least three positions. The backcourt is stout defensively, and again, Kuzma and Ingram’s gains should shore up the interior. Hopefully, Luke Walton gives some time for these kids to stretch their wings so we can get a glimpse of what the future holds for the Lakers.
3. Diet Cavs
LeBron, Svi Mykhailiuk, Kuzma, Wagner, and KCP/Hart
The LeBron plus shooters lineup is a battle-tested fan favorite. In Cleveland, Ty Lue loved going all offense (just ask the Toronto Raptors) to break open games in the early second and fourth quarters. He’d surround James with Deron Williams, J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, and Channing Frye, run a few high pick-and-rolls, and the Cavaliers would bludgeon their opponents.
The Lakers, of course, didn’t exactly heed this playbook when they made their free agent signings, but there is still enough shooting on the roster to attempt an approximation of those Cleveland lineups. Mykhailiuk has been lighting it up for the Ukrainian national team, and along with Wagner, was ostensibly drafted for his shooting ability. Kuzma and the shooting guards are also more than capable spot-up shooters.
Although the Lakers front office has not expressed an interest in having James do the majority of playmaking, it would be quite fun to see the team be an offensive juggernaut for a few minutes here and there, something that was sorely lacking last year.
4. The possibly-too-modern lineup
LeBron, Ingram, Kuzma, Michael Beasley, and Isaac Bonga
Back in 2010, my brother and I were enamored with the idea of seeing Kobe Bryant, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol, and Andrew Bynum share the floor together. They were the Lakers’ five best players, and each of them had tremendous basketball IQ. But even if with our primitive understanding of floor spacing at the time, we knew that it was a long shot that we would ever see that five-man lineup. There was no way Artest and Odom could realistically slide down a position and still make the triangle work. Nevertheless, for one glorious moment against Oklahoma City, Phil Jackson made it happen, and it was an immediate disaster, just as we had feared.
I have similar concerns about this lineup, an all 6-foot-8/9 switch-everything group. I love the idea of having almost equally-sized players manning all five spots on the floor, a true ode to positionless basketball. There is definitely playmaking and shooting, but I think the theory of this group is more exciting than the reality of actually having them play together. Even the idea of being the “same size” is a bit of a stretch—we’ve all seen Brandon Ingram and LeBron James stand next to each other.
Plus, it’s probably a pipe dream that we’ll even see Bonga on the big-league roster this year outside of garbage time anyway.
5. The Meme Team
Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson, LeBron, Beasley, and JaVale McGee
Many jokes have been made about the Lakers’ “Meme Team” of offseason signings, but there is a real 1 to 5 here, and I can’t help but wonder what these players would look like on the floor together. I have a feeling it wouldn’t be too pretty, with Stephenson and Beasley likely to hold on to the ball for far too long, and Rondo unable to draw his defender out of the lane.
Any lineup that includes James should be able to conjure some magic, even if it would probably be of the one-on-one variety. Regardless, I am so curious to see these five players at the same time. They occupy so much of the narrative of the last decade in the NBA, and they’re all on the same team. It’s incredible. (Side note: the Lakers should absolutely televise a scrimmage of this group versus lineup #2.)
However, even as the NBA offseason continues to delight us, there is no substitute for the on-court product. Whatever combinations the Lakers throw at us, September 30 cannot come soon enough. At least it’s finally almost here.