The 2017-2018 Lakers exceeded expectations, winning 35 games with a makeshift lineup that included two rookies, two players on one-year deals, and an injury that forced Brandon Ingram to miss 23 games.
Toss in one of those rookies, Lonzo Ball, missing 30 games, a mid-season trade that gutted two key rotation players – Larry Nance and Jordan Clarkson – and it’s actually a shocker the Lakers topped their Vegas win total to finish 11th in the West.
Reminder: Three Lakers tied for the scoring at 16.1 ppg, and one of them was the 27th pick in the 2017 draft, Kyle Kuzma.
All of this is why I think the Lakers will win 50+ games next season with LeBron leading the way. Now, let’s get this out of the way first: LeBron cannot play 82 games like he did last year; LeBron cannot lead the NBA in minutes per game like he did last season. He turns 34 in December.
LeBron should go into the season with the mindset he plays the fewest minutes per game of his career (31-32 would be ideal) and he’s going to have to probably miss a dozen games to rest, as well.
The Lakers roster of role players, as presently constituted, is similar to what the Rockets had last year: Flexible 2-way wings who are in the 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-9 range and can defend multiple positions. As of now, Josh Hart, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram, and Lance Stephenson all fit that description.
Obviously the big weakness there is the 3-point shooting of Ball (30 percent) and Stephenson (29 percent). It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where they are on the court together.
Adding Rajon Rondo is a defensive play; he still can’t shoot, but let’s remember, he can be a big postseason factor. In the surprising sweep of Portland, he played 35 minutes per game, averaged 11.3 ppg, 13.3 apg, and 7.5 rpg. Nobody get excited, but he also made 8-of-19 three’s. Two years ago, he led 8th seeded Chicago to a stunning 2-0 lead over Boston. Then he got hurt, and the Bulls didn’t win another game.
I’d envision a lineup like this:
The Lakers probably spend the first month tinkering with lineups – can’t play Lonzo and Rondo; can’t play Rondo and Lance; hey Kuzma, how do you like defending the 5 in a small ball lineup? – but while having LeBron on your team automatically makes you a contender, nobody really thinks they can take down the Warriors in the playoffs.
LA’s depth chart, on paper, is not tremendous, but let’s remember – Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah, New Orleans, San Antonio and Minnesota each won between 49-47 games.
How will Portland react after a first round sweep? After OKC dumps Melo, will Westbrook change his style of play? The Jazz are the team to watch if Rudy Gobert stays healthy and Donovan Mitchell doesn’t have a sophomore slump. The Pelicans lost 25-13 from DeMarcus Cousins, and replaced him with Julius Randle, who is in a prove-it season, if he wants to get paid. The Spurs are very old, and nobody knows what will happen with Kawhi Leonard. The Timberwolves have internal issues that must be ironed out.
Point is, after the Warriors and Rockets, it’s a logjam, as everyone has lingering questions. The Nuggets will be in the mix again, and the Mavericks and Suns will be improved.
If the Lakers get Kawhi, and don’t have to gut their roster to do so, 60 wins will be within reach.