The Los Angeles Lakers have long been synonymous with Showtime. Unfortunately, in recent memory, Showtime has been more of a reference to off-court antics and drama than on-court performance.
A melting pot of over-inflated expectations and beliefs are whisked together with an aggressively impatient fan base and media presence to create a hostile basketball market, second only to New York.
Now, with the addition of Anthony Davis to be paired alongside LeBron James, and irrespective of the cast that surrounds them, those lofty expectations are as high as they have ever been. The city has it’s Angels, and the pressure is on them to not fall.
Last summer’s arrival of LeBron James raised heartbeats across and beyond La La Land. Some were aggressively opposed to “The King” entering the Mamba’s nest, the vast majority realized that the arrival represented the reinvigoration of the franchise and a renewal of hope.
On the surface, the season was a failure.
Their 37-45 record – despite being their best since 2012/13 – was only good enough for 10th in the Western Conference. James suffered the first significant injury of his career. Off-court distractions and public flirtations with wantaway New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis created disenchantment among the seemingly expendable players on the roster.
As the Lakers season closed, so too did the tumultuous tenure of Magic Johnson as their President of Basketball Operations. The Lakers remained a laughing stock.
But dig a little deeper and there was a glimmer of hope. At the time of LeBron’s Christmas Day injury, the Lakers were (dare I say) good. Their 20-14 (.588) record projected to be the seventh seed in the loaded Western Conference. But ultimately, a team with only an injured LeBron as a marquee talent wouldn’t survive in the Eastern Conference, let alone the wild West.
On June 17th, the Lakers finally got their (other) man, executing a three-team trade for Anthony Davis that sent Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, De’Andre Hunter and three first round picks to the Pelicans, as well as shipping Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Moritz Wagner and a second round pick to the Washington Wizards. The trade wouldn’t officially take place until July 6th in order to maximise the Lakers much-needed cap flexibility. Davis also waived a $4m trade bonus to aid his new team.
Quickly, they began assembling a roster to surround their new tandem. Two time NBA champion Danny Green came aboard, alongside former Warrior feel-good story Quinn Cook as well as DeMarcus Cousins, Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels and – in a move predictive of their 2021 summer intentions – LA’s most storied franchise claimed Kostas Antetokounmpo off the waivers.
The Lakers weren’t done big-game hunting either, allegedly remaining in the race for Kawhi Leonard’s services until the last minute. Perhaps their lusting after Leonard for so long cost them the ability to pick up other serviceable free agents, but truth be told, you gamble for the star every time you can.
With Leonard setting up camp in the white, red and blue side of Staples, the Lakers were left to scramble to pull together their extended roster, re-signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Javale McGee, Rajon Rondo and Alex Caruso to round out an interesting mishmash of talent.
Things changed again on August 12th, when DeMarcus Cousins suffered another devastating setback, tearing his ACL during an offseason workout in Las Vegas. Having suffered a number of significant injuries in the last 18 months, the former All-Star’s downfall paints a tragic story of how a body’s limitations and poor timing can derail on-court success and financial security. Cousins summer went from bad to worse soon after with off-court, domestic issues bubbling into the public eye.
All of a sudden, the Lakers needed to pivot again. With Anthony Davis’ happiness a paramount concern and his unwillingness to roll at the five for significant minutes, the front office called upon a former Laker who’s career never recovered from the one season he spent there in 2012-13 – the drama magnet known as Dwight David Howard.
Once an MVP candidate and a dominant defensive force, Howard’s ceiling, as he approaches 34, is little more than that of a functional role player. A body able to handle the physicality that still exists around the hoop, snaring rebounds, changing shots and finishing high percentage shots (free throws excluded). But if Howard can surpass expectations, he could prove to be a valuable asset for the Lakers.
If that wasn’t enough of a roster overhaul, Luke Walton was dismissed as head coach and replaced by Frank Vogel. Vogel – a defensive minded coach – can try to help some of this team’s key deficiencies. However, a more important area for improvement will be the Lakers’ 24th ranked offense.
Expectations are super high for the 2019-2020 Lakers – for the general populace, at least, it’s a Finals or bust situation. With some luck and small miracles, that’s a possibility. A second round appearance in the playoffs will give them the building blocks needed to reassure AD that LA should be his home for the long term. A lot rides on this season and the primary focus should be securing Davis’ services for a further five years, rather than a do-or-die date with the Larry O’Brien.
1. Continuity and consistency
When it comes to building successful rosters, a significant amount of weight is placed on consistency and continuity of key contributors. Toronto flew in the face of that notion last year and the Lakers, carrying over just six players, will be hoping that the Raptors’ success is an indicator that times are changing, versus being a random outlier.
2. The Battle of Los Angeles
For the first time ever, both LA franchises have potential title contenders at the same time. Expect the Staples Center to be Calm Like a Bomb when the Clippers face off with the Lakers multiple times this season, imagine a playoff series between these two.
3. LeBron’s final chapter
Year 17 of the King’s career. Turning 35 in December, have we witnessed the end of LeBron James as the most dominant player on his team? As noted, James suffered the first significant injury of his career last Christmas. Across the season, he averaged a career low (but still ridiculous) 35.2 minutes per game, while putting up equally impressive stats of 27, 8 and 8. With the arrival of AD to shoulder the load, could this be the beginning of the end for LeBron as we know him?
LeBron James | 27.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 8.3 apg
After sitting out his highest number of games in a season (27) and missing the Playoffs for the first time since 2004, LeBron has had a long summer break to rest, recover and repair ahead of the new season. Expect him to be raring to go, as he rapidly approaches 35, and keep an eye out for any proverbial torches being passed to Davis.
Anthony Davis | 25.9 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 3.9 apg
Bear in mind that AD’s stats last year (which included career highs in assists and rebounds), were achieved while averaging his lowest minutes since his rookie year and more than 3 minutes fewer per game than 2017-18. The manner in which Davis exited New Orleans may be held against him, but don’t expect too much fall out given the number of people who actually kept tabs on the Pelicans during his tenure.
Still only 25, The Brow was putting up huge numbers last year, ahead of the very public trade request and now, alongside the most talented player he’s ever had as a teammate, he’s going to get some of the easiest looks of his career. Health remains a concern, with Davis playing less than 70 games in five of his seven seasons. A healthy AD, in a prominent market will likely result in serious MVP campaign noise.
Dwight Howard | 12.8 ppg, 9.8 rpg, 0.4 apg
No, I didn’t just wake up from a seven-year coma. Let’s get this straight, Dwight will not be an elite-level player on this team. But what he can do – if he can adjust to his role – is unlock LA’s offense. There’s a lot of talk about how the presence of Dwight will neutralize the effectiveness of the James-Davis pick-and-roll game. While that observation makes sense, is there a more imposing three-through-five line-up in the NBA?
LeBron and Dwight could run the P&R, with Dwight still being an effective dive man. LeBron, one of the league’s premier passers, will have no problem hitting the open man if defensive help is sent. Davis shot 33.1% from three last season (and 34% in 2017-18), his looks this year will be much more open, unless opposing teams decide facing LeBron and Dwight from 2 feet out is the preferable shot to give up… and that’s before we even get to the defensive end. Simply put, the presence of an effective Dwight, in a limited role, could magnify and expose Davis’s talent.
Kyle Kuzma | 18.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.5 apg
Kuzma is a divisive player. Considered “off limits” in the AD trade negotiations, but yet to fully prove himself on the court. Despite upping his points per game last season, his outside shooting performance took a nosedive.
His potential was on display with Team USA in the build-up to the recent World Cup, before an ankle injury culminated in Kuzma being the final cut from the roster. At 6’9 with a versatile skill-set, if used correctly, Kuz could see time at the 2,3 and 4 spots, cementing himself as the atypical swingman craved across the league who enables his team to experiment all kinds of switchable line-ups.