Days after the trade deadline passed, the Los Angeles Lakers look basically the same as when they started the 2018-19 season with a few minor changes. Gone are Michael Beasley, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, and Ivica Zubac after the Lakers shipped them off to their new teams at the last minute. The deadline may have passed, but the team is not done tweaking its roster. As soon as they are, fans will watch with baited breath what the team and the season will end up looking like after they inked LeBron James to a four-year contract in the summer.
With less than half the season left to be played, so many things can go right or wrong for L.A. and since this is Hollywood, every little thing will seem like a bigger deal than usual.
Here are five bold predictions for the rest of the Lakers’ season.
5. LeBron will play like an MVP the next two months
James is way past looking to win another Most Valuable Player trophy, especially with James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo way ahead already, but that doesn’t mean he can’t make it interesting. With the Lakers failing to land another superstar to complement his talents via a trade, LeBron will have to be in beast mode to carry his team to the playoffs.
Once he’s 100 percent healed from the groin injury he suffered on Christmas Day, expect James to average close to 35 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per ballgame. More than that, he will be scoring 40 points at least three times and 50 once before the postseason. He understands that his team, with most of its key players less than three years in the league, can only do so much and it will be up to him to determine the Lakers’ fate.
He won’t win the MVP Award (it’s too late for him anyway), but don’t be surprised to find out that he will garner some support for the honor when the results of the voting are announced.
4. They’ll sign Carmelo Anthony and Markieff Morris from the buyout market
Clutch Points recently wrote that the Lakers should sign Carmelo Anthony. He’s a proven scorer regardless of his shortcomings and general manager Rob Pelinka would do well to sign him up fast to help acclimate him to the team as soon as possible.
Melo is the bigger name but Markieff Morris (11.5 points and 5.1 rebounds per game) might be the more important signing of the two. Morris is out with a neck injury that may not have completely healed yet. But as soon as he’s cleared to play, the Lakers will come knocking on his door. He can play both front-court positions and will provide toughness to a team that has lacked it down low. His shooting from the perimeter and beyond the arc will be a plus for a team that needs more versatility from its big men.
The Lakers shouldn’t choose Morris over Melo or vice versa. They should get them both and create a roster spot as necessary to sign them up. After losing out on the Davis sweepstakes, the Lakers can at least try to get some veteran help elsewhere.
3. The Mike Muscala trade will work out fine…in the short term
As much of a head-scratcher as the trade that went down between the Lakers and their crosstown rival Los Angeles Clippers was, it actually made sense that they went after Mike Muscala. The fact that it cost them rising young talent Ivica Zubac, who had been playing the best season of his career, didn’t. The Lakers, it seemed, paid too much of a price to acquire Muscala.
Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and Pelinka finally submitted to the league-wide trend of needing a stretch four or five on the roster to compete with the best teams. Muscala is their way of showing that they have humbled themselves enough to admit that they were wrong to go against the tide. He can draw big men away from the paint, freeing up James, Ingram, and Kuzma to attack the rim with authority.
The downside to this trade, however, is it cost them a player who was a restricted free agent but might come cheaper than they think in the offseason. Zubac has a tremendous upside and may end up being a special player down the line or at least a very good rotational player. The Lakers will never know. All they know is that they addressed a need for spacing underneath and the opportunity to win more games at the present time.
2. They’ll end up with the No. 6 seed in the West
It’s a steep climb back to playoff contention, but the Lakers can do it. In fact, they can go up to as high as the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
In order to get there, they will have to beat a couple of teams who are hellbent on making it to the postseason no matter what. The Clippers, based on their trade of Tobias Harris last week, are no longer one of those teams. They currently occupy the eighth spot, but will head down to the bottom seven in the coming months.
That means their competitors, for now, are the Utah Jazz, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves, and the surprising Sacramento Kings. That’s a lot of teams vying for the playoffs, but that’s how it is for the West, something that James wasn’t too familiar with while playing in the East.
Now that the Lakers’ young guns are no longer worried about being traded, they should find comfort in knowing that they’ll be riding out the rest of the season in L.A. That alone ought to provide the team with some semblance of stability after a rollercoaster ride during the last two weeks. You’ll see the Lakers take the season more seriously now that the storm has passed and as soon as LeBron gets his legs underneath him, they will be a threat to any and all who stand in their way.
But there is one thing that can get in the way of their future success…
1. If the Lakers win only half of their next 10 games, Luke Walton will be fired
Poor Luke Walton. It’s not that the Lakers’ coach isn’t fit for the NBA. His problem is, just like his young stars, Walton is being forced to grow up to become a championship coach. While that may be too much pressure riding on someone who’s relatively new to leading the sidelines (he only started his head coaching job with the Lakers two seasons ago), the burden comes with working for a high-profile team that stars one of the best players in league history.
Since James started playing again since his injury, the team has been playing 50-50 basketball at 2-2. The game against the Golden State Warriors doesn’t count since he didn’t play in that game due to “load management.” Two of those losses were by more than 20 points, including a 42-point drubbing against the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers.
Five of their next 10 games are against non-playoff teams and one of the playoff-bound teams is the de-powered Clippers. Should the Lakers fail to find significant traction in the coming weeks, don’t be surprised to hear about Walton being called to the front office for a meeting with Johnson and it won’t be because he’s getting a raise.
It’s a tough job coaching a player of LeBron’s stature where it’s basically win now rather than later. The pressure was on the young players to produce earlier. This time, it’s squarely on Walton’s shoulders if he doesn’t get this Lakers team to start winning consistently.