LeBron James’ glorious introduction to the City of Angels didn’t proceed exactly as planned. As things stand, instead of partnering up with a superstar or two, he will enter the season as the leader of a pack of misfits and unproven young players brimming with potential.
In order to protect his legacy and justify a warm welcome at the start of his reign in Los Angeles, LeBron will have to overcome some large obstacles.
1. New system
Setting up a team around James was a pretty straightforward task so far; give him another all-star caliber player, surround him with a bunch of shooters, and he will gladly sign a guarantee of at least an NBA Finals appearance.
This time around, there is a vastly different environment with a diverse set of personalities and playing styles waiting for him in the locker room.
Magic Johnson decided to go against the grain this season, and abandon the proven schemes regarding LeBron’s supporting cast. Instead of working with sharpshooting mercenaries whose effectiveness depends on his elite playmaking skills, James will now be accompanied by players who compensate for their lack of shooting with tough-mindedness and grit.
On the surface, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee might not seem like ideal complements to James’ style of play. However, he has reportedly been deeply involved in the Lakers free-agency decisions, making it clear that he wants to try a different approach after coming up short in four out of last five NBA finals.
James is already pretty vocal about the changes he wants to implement into his game. In a similar fashion to what Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan did once they started to feel the burden of the wear-and-tear of deep playoff runs, James wants to focus more on playing in the post. That should allow him to slow down the game and rely more on his strength and basketball IQ, rather than waste his stamina by constantly running the floor.
How well he adapts to his new desired role will depend greatly on his new playmaking tandem featuring Rondo and Lonzo Ball. While their subpar shooting might pose a huge problem (they combined for an atrocious 41/31/49 shooting split last season), their elite passing skills should help LeBron thrive playing off the ball and inside the paint. After all, James has never enjoyed the services of a player averaging more than seven assists in his entire career, and now he will have two such players ready and willing to find him in all the right spots.
Whether James’ introduction into a system run by his peer Luke Walton goes effortlessly or results in chaos will be one of the main talking points as the next season unfolds.
2. Advancing age
Even with all the wonders of modern medicine and technology, father time remains undefeated. While James has successfully evaded its relentless hand with the ridiculous amount of time, money and effort he invests into that battle, he is wise enough to consider age as one of his increasingly influential opponents.
James just finished one of the most productive seasons of his career, and arguably the best 15th season in NBA history. However, all of the success leading up to the Finals came at a considerable cost. With 36.9 minutes per contest he led the league in time spent on the court, and he eventually brought his tally up to 108 games played in a span of just 235 days.
While he generally did look superhuman on his path to the eighth consecutive NBA Finals, James occasionally showed signs of exhaustion, especially in the Conference Finals against the Celtics. Those hints of fatigue weren’t particularly noticeable on offense, where he’s still a tank able to overpower anyone at any stage of the game, but rather on defense where he settled on taking some plays off to preserve his energy.
Again, the supporting cast waiting for him in Los Angeles is quite different. With eager and gritty defenders that were absent in Cleveland he will be able to take on a more reserved role on defense without necessarily having to guard the best opposing wing. With Rondo and Ball, he will also have a lot more help in the creation department, and Kyle Kuzma and Brandon Ingram have both shown heaps of scoring potential. Factor in his intention to let the game come to him in the post, and the stage is set for James to minimize the risks that come with his advancing age.
The success of that plan will, of course, depend on how successfully the Lakers enter the season. If things start going south, which is not out of the question considering the roster turnover, Lakers could easily fall into the trap of taking the path of least resistance and collectively jumping on James’ back.
James, who will turn 35 this winter, simply might not be able to pull all the strings for yet another season. While his decline definitely falls into the “I’ll believe it when I see it” domain, his workload will be the main factor Walton and James himself will have to carefully monitor and manage.
3. Golden State Warriors
Once James relatively quietly announced his decision to join the Lakers, the public was convinced he has a promise of at least another superstar in his pocket. None of those rumors came to fruition thus far, so it’s becoming more likely by the day that James will enter his first season in the West in a role unknown to him since his first stint with the Cavs – the conference underdog.
Not long after, the Warriors announced the completion of an All-Star quintet that will, barring any major injuries, trample the rest of the league. With DeMarcus Cousins filling their most deficient position, Warriors winning their third consecutive NBA title has become one of the safest bets in the world of sports.
Even if LeBron James effortlessly adapts to the new system and takes it to an entirely new level, and simultaneously manages to have another insanely productive season at the far end of his prime, there will be a demoralizing boss fight waiting for him at the end of the road. While the memories of the 2016 miracle might provide a slither of hope, the circumstances surrounding his potential path to the Finals were never this grim.
Surpassing the first two obstacles might be a realistic target; bringing down the Monstar team put together in the Bay Area not so much. However, if James puts his mind to reestablishing a winning culture within the Lakers organization, helps the prospects reach their full potential and continues to take good care of his body during this season, the ultimate goal of putting an end to the Warriors spell of dominance might be attainable in the long run.
If James succeeds in overcoming the two challenges that are within his reach, he will be able to lure even more firepower next year via free agency loaded with All-Star caliber players. After all, in both instances he switched teams over the course of his career, James brought the championship home in the second year of his tenure.