(CBSLA) — The Los Angeles Lakers haven’t sniffed the NBA Playoffs since the 2012-2013 season. That was also their last winning season, with four seasons of fewer than 30 wins since. It’s been a rough stretch in Laker-land, where winning used to be second nature. The rebuild was well underway, though with somewhat mixed results.
Last year brought real hope, however, in the person of LeBron James, the one player in today’s NBA who has proven capable of carrying a team on his back… of willing a team to a championship. But that proved to be too tall of a task for the veteran when stretched out over an entire season. Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma are perfectly serviceable NBA players — each averaged over 18 points per game last season. But neither could consistently rise to LeBron’s level for an extended period.
James missed significant time with a groin injury. The Lakers, at 37-45, missed the playoffs again.
So the team brought in Anthony Davis, a player who could run with LeBron, blowing up the roster to win now. The Lakers traded Lonzo Ball, Ingram, Josh Hart and three first-round picks for the New Orleans Pelicans star power forward. New Lakers arrivals also include Danny Green, Avery Bradley and Jared Dudley. DeMarcus Cousins was signed, but is out indefinitely with a torn ACL. Dwight Howard was also brought in too, maybe as a reclamation project. Kuzma remains.
This season’s Lakers looks far different from last year’s, and that should be a positive.
The new-look Lakers are projected to win 47 games this season, according to FiveThirtyEight’s model. That’s quite a turnaround in a Western Conference that’s only grown stronger since last season. That record would certainly put them the playoff hunt as well, but could also position them for a low seed and an early exit. But the West is wide open. So who knows?
The Western Conference features plenty of dominant tag teams, including James Harden and Russell Westbrook for the Houston Rockets and Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray for the Denver Nuggets. Possibly the most formidable pair will play for that other Los Angeles team. The Clippers roll out the dynamic duo of 2019 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. There are plenty of others pairs across the conference and the League. With the rise of the Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans, there are probably more playoff-caliber teams in the West than there are playoff spots.
The 2018-19 Golden State Warriors may have been the last of the star-studded dream teams the NBA sees for awhile. The news that Klay Thompson will likely miss the season for Golden State muddies the water even more and leaves them to rely on Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. The prevalence of star duos makes for more parity than the NBA has seen in a long time, which leads to more excitement. It also means that the Lakers, led by LeBron and Davis, should be right there come May and maybe June.
The Lakers have the second-best odds (4/1) to win the NBA Finals, according to SportsLine. Only the Clippers (7/2) have a better chance. FiveThirtyEight gives the Lakers only a 3% chance, a much smaller chance than the Rockets or the Clippers.
What To Watch For
The Lakers mortgaged the future to win now. And behind what could be a historically great duo, they certainly can make a run this season. James has stated that he’d like to make Davis an MVP. And given that LeBron will lead this offense, he will certainly factor into making that happen. (Bradley is technically the starting point guard, for what it’s worth.) Chemistry between these two stars will matter. Both of these players have the potential to average close to 30 points per game. But they probably can’t do it at the same time. How will one react when the other is getting more touches?
Beyond LeBron, Davis and a small supporting cast, this team is a little thin. Should one of the two stars miss significant time with an injury, this team will struggle. The Lakers had problems at times last season with LeBron as the focal point. And multiple Pelicans seasons during Davis’s tenure ended below .500. Look out for injuries.
Kyle Kuzma is one of the few remaining holdovers from last season. And part of the reason is that the team believes he can turn a dominant duo into a terrifying trio. He’s not there yet. Kuzma showed some growth from his first two second season, increasing his average from 16.1 to 18.7 points per game. However, his three-point percentage dropped from 36.6% to 30.3%. Kuzma will miss Tuesday’s game with a foot injury, but how will he react once healthy and playing significant minutes?