LOS ANGELES (CBSLA/AP) — It isn’t often Hollywood gets star-struck but the Los Angeles Lakers’ big offseason move to acquire LeBron James had Tinseltown in a tizzy. James is sure to grab the spotlight as he begins his quest for another NBA championship in a purple and gold jersey.
The Los Angeles Clippers went in the opposite direction — losing stars Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. However, the lack of star power on the Clippers could be short-lived with an A-list class of free agents in the market next year.
When LeBron James chose the Los Angeles Lakers, the burgeoning entertainment mogul realized many people would think he joined a mediocre team with a five-year playoff drought because he wanted to be in Hollywood.
James simply scoffs at the notion he’s thinking about anything but his day job as he begins the next chapter in one of the greatest careers in NBA history.
“My decision was based solely on my family and the Lakers,” James explained before his first full practice in purple and gold. “I’m a basketball player. I play ball. That’s what I do. When I do it at the level I do, everything else will take care of itself. As far as my business, those things have been taking care of themselves way before I even came out here.”
After winning three championship rings while leading — and sometimes carrying — his last eight consecutive teams in Miami and Cleveland to the NBA Finals, the 33-year-old James’ new business is restoring a fraction of the Lakers’ traditional glory following the longest postseason absence in franchise history.
Two years after Kobe Bryant’s retirement tour mercifully ended, the Lakers are relevant again. The courtside celebrities and worldwide fans whose interested waned during this dour half-decade are back in force to see what LeBron can do in this unusual, intriguing situation.
The four-time league MVP brought along a contingent of NBA veterans: Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley. They’re joining a young Lakers core with undeniable talent — Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and rookie Moe Wagner — but zero NBA success.
James’ teammates and coaches say he has arrived with the gravity of a champion, but with none of the imperious attitude that could accompany a player of his accomplishments. He accepts his role as a leader, but he’s focused on making sure the Lakers feel like a team, not a bunch of players in orbit around him.
James also realizes this particular Hollywood project is even bigger than him: The Lakers have made no secret of their plan to entice a second superstar, likely younger than James, to join them in free agency or by other means. The upcoming season is a showcase of this team’s long-term potential with the right addition next summer.
“Winning makes it more fun, but we haven’t won anything yet,” coach Luke Walton said. “We come into practice and it isn’t loosey-goosey because we’re expecting to win games. We’re coming into practice knowing that if we want to win games, we have to do things a certain way. Hopefully when we get to games, that leads to us winning, and that would be fun. But we’re not there yet.”
More things to watch during an eventful season in LA:
RONDO AND LONZO
Rondo is eager to be a mentor to Ball, the Lakers’ gifted second-year point guard. They’re watching film and studying together as Rondo attempts to share the roots of his tenacity and the fruit of his experience. Ball hasn’t participated much in camp while he recovers from knee surgery, but once the youngster is fully healthy, their partnership will be fascinating to watch.
Speaking of point guard skills, the Lakers have a wealth of ball-handlers at nearly every position. After James was often forced to do it all on offense in Cleveland, almost anybody on the floor for these Lakers could bring the ball up, run the break or create offense off the dribble. Walton envisions an up-tempo, free-flowing offense mixing concepts from Golden State and Boston. At the very least, James should be spared some of the heavy work after 15 mostly lengthy NBA seasons.
WORK HARD PLAY HARD
The Lakers’ transition from a full-scale rebuilding project to a potential playoff contender has changed the tone of the franchise, particularly in practice. Walton still spends ample time educating his younger players on the fundamental aspects of his scheme, but the Lakers’ veteran leadership is accelerating the youngsters’ growth, Walton said. “(The young players) are a big part of our future here, so it’s important that we still develop them,” Walton said. “It’s just a different style of developing now. It’s not letting them play 35 minutes and letting them learn from their mistakes, play through situations. Now it’s, ‘Look, this is what we’re doing,’ and if we’re not doing it right, we’ve got a lot of guys on this team where you can come out and watch other people do it. We’re getting to the same point, just teaching it with different lessons.”
After the Lakers open the season in Portland on Oct. 18, James will make his Lakers home debut against the mighty Rockets on Saturday, Oct. 20. Staples Center courtside tickets are going for five-figure markups on secondary reselling sites, and no seat in the building is available for under $200. The Lakers’ vast popularity in LA waned only slightly during their recent struggles, and the Lakers are once again the hottest sports ticket in LA, even with the Dodgers in the playoffs and the NFL’s Rams rolling through a perfect start to the season.
The Los Angeles Clippers are entering a new era without the Big Three of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. For the first time in years, they lack star power in a city that thrives on high-wattage talent. But it may be a short-term problem.
While the Clippers seek to be competitive this season, the franchise already has an eye on next year. That’s when a blockbuster list of potential free agents comes on the market and the Clippers could go shopping for a big name or two.
They might not even wait that long.
In order to attract talent, the Clippers would need some of it to lure a big name. It could be that the team will be active in the trade market this winter, especially with multiple players heading into the final year of their contracts.
Another playoff appearance would make the Clippers more attractive to potential free agents, too. They finished with a winning record of 42-40 last season, but their streak of consecutive postseason appearances ended at six.
Coach Doc Rivers started an NBA-leading 37 different lineups because of a succession of injuries. Things got so dire that the Clippers were forced to dip into the G League for starters.
Rivers signed a multi-year contract extension in the spring, so he’s locked in for the team rebuild.
The Clippers open the season hosting Denver on Oct. 17.
Here are some things to watch for this season:
STAY HEALTHY: Injuries sidelined several of the team’s most experienced players throughout last season, although Rivers kept the Clippers in the hunt for a playoff berth until the final week of the season. Staying healthy will be critical, especially for guards Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley and Milos Teodosic, and forward Danilo Gallinari. Each of them was out for long stretches last season. Gallinari, the highest-paid player on the team at $21.6 million, has much to prove. His shooting needs to improve from averages of 40 percent from the field and 32 percent from 3-point range to help the team.
BACKCOURT TANDEM: Beverley has tagged the Clippers as “Clamp City,” in a nod to their defensive mindset. He’s one of the league’s top defenders while Bradley is aggressive, too. Rivers has the option of going with those two as his starting backcourt. If he wants an offensive tandem, Rivers could pair Teodosic and Lou Williams, last year’s Sixth Man of the Year who averaged a career-high 22.6 points and 5.3 assists as the team’s most prolific scorer. Depending on the opponent, Rivers could employ a mix of defense and offense while drawing from the quartet.
GRIFFIN EFFECT: Tobias Harris came over from Detroit as part of the Griffin trade and had an immediate effect. He averaged 19.3 points and six rebounds in 32 games while shooting 41 percent from 3-point range. The 26-year-old forward reportedly turned down an $80 million, four-year extension from the team. Harris is likely expecting a big year to set him up for next summer when he will be an unrestricted free agent and the Clippers can offer him bigger money if he re-signs.
MAN IN THE MIDDLE: Jordan left as a free agent over the summer, so the Clippers brought in 6-foot-11 Marcin Gortat from Washington in a trade for Austin Rivers. Gortat could be a short-term rental since he’s in the last year of his contract. He prides himself as a screen setter rather than the offensive-minded big man. Backing up Gortat will be Montrezl Harrell, who brings energy off the bench and an offensive mindset. The Clippers can rotate in 7-foot-3 Boban Marjanovic for short spurts.
ROOKIE GUARDS: The Clippers have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of Kentucky and Jerome Robinson of Boston College, who could both make an impact after sufficient time to adjust to the rigors of the league. Gilgeous-Alexander was acquired from Charlotte in the June draft as the 11th overall pick. He averaged 14.4 points and 5.1 assists for the Wildcats. Robinson averaged 20.7 points in college last season, but he may be hard-pressed to find as many minutes as Gilgeous-Alexander while playing behind Bradley and Williams. How well the two rookies develop could have an impact on next season when the Clippers look to lure at least one star player.
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