There was a buzz around the air in L.A. this past weekend when a certain NBA player showed up to play at Staples Center for two nights. LeBron James led his Cleveland Cavaliers to battle against the L.A. Clippers and the Los Angeles Lakers; he fell short in both contests on his final trip to L.A. on the season.
The Lakers, in particular, are hoping their 127-113 win over the Cavs translates to a win in the offseason as well. They are one of the few NBA teams that will have the salary cap space to lure James away from Cleveland this summer when he is expected to opt-out of his current three-year $100 million contract.
James wants to join a championship contender, whether that’s the Cavs, Lakers, Sixers or Rockets will be determined soon enough.
In a sense, the Sunday game was an audition of sorts for the Lakers who want to convince James that they are good enough for him to consider joining them next season.
“Since Luke took over, they’ve improved every single season, I think,” James said after the game. “They just try to implement that ball movement, that body movement that he got when he was in Golden State.”
But the 4-time MVP isn’t the only player the Lakers are hoping to acquire. In order for them to truly compete for a championship, he would need another co-star, one who has been through grueling playoff battles as well—Paul George.
George will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason as well and the California-born All-Star is one of the prime targets by the Lakers to team with James to form a super team in L.A.
This season, James is averaging 26.9 points, 8.4 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game while George is racking up 22.0 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 2.0 steals a night. Their games complement one another making this a partnership that could gel very quickly on the court.
ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne tweeted an interesting insight into the relationship between these two during last year’s offseason.
This past summer, when Cleveland was trying to trade for him, Paul George said he and LeBron had lunch because they were in the same place on the same day, but "it wasn't about teaming up." Just strengthening their bond. 😎
— Ramona Shelburne (@ramonashelburne) February 17, 2018
Could James and George plus the Lakers core of Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle equal a championship?
Randle is a free agent after this season and squeezing him into the lineup will require plenty of financial maneuvering by the Lakers front office to meet his demands. But it is still possible.
The Lakers have been playing well since the start of the year with a 31-19 record. Walton has been coaching them into one of the league’s best young teams who are capable of beating anybody on any given night. Just ask the Cavaliers.
If we were to add James (10.7 win shares this season) and George (7.7) into that mix, with some changes to the supporting cast, the league could be looking at a new title contender to battle the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets.
Here’s how their projected lineup looks like:
Power Forward: Julius Randle
Small Forward: LeBron James
Shooting Guard: Paul George
Point Guard: Lonzo Ball
Reserves: Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram
That starting center position looks bothersome, doesn’t it? The Lakers could re-sign Lopez depending on whether he prioritizes winning or securing himself financially. If they get Lopez to stay, that lineup looks much better.
The bench is thin right now but the Lakers will be able to round out that group later with some good veterans in the free agent market. A couple of quality big men and some shooters would be the best fit for this ballclub.
Hart, Ingram and Kuzma are a tough match-up for any second stringers the other teams can throw at them when they enter the game. It will be interesting to see how much better they’ll be individually after this season.
What about Ball? James needs shooters around him more than a playmaker since he can facilitate the offense himself. Ball needs to work on his three-point shooting this summer if he wants to be a premier point guard in this league. If his shot falls consistently enough, he’ll remain a starter. But if he falters, Walton may replace him with Hart instead who is a much better shooter.
With Walton at the helm, James will have a coach with championship experience both as a player and as an assistant coach with the Warriors. He has an opportunity to reach the Western Conference Finals with this team next year. Once there, James should be able to carry this team to the next step as he has been known to perform better when the lights are brightest.
Remember James’ first year back with the Cavaliers in the 2014-15 season? They were supposed to be at least a year away from being a championship contender. Kevin Love was injured in the first round of the playoffs. Then, Kyrie Irving went down in the first game of the Finals. They came within two games of winning a championship on his first year with a new team.
He can do the same with George alongside him. James has never had a teammate with the length and athleticism that George has. His three-point shooting (career-high 40.9 percent this year) is a weapon that fits in well with a playmaker like James. Plus, George’s defense is a must when facing the Warriors’ Kevin Durant. That’s a luxury for a team with championship aspirations to have someone who is a big-time scorer and a defensive stopper as well.
James and George are exceptional talents and some of the best the league has ever seen. But if they wear the purple and gold next season, they will be playing in the Western Conference where the best teams reside and it will be a more difficult grind just to reach the playoffs.
George is getting the experience of playing in the West for the first time in his career and he is thriving. But he nearly did not make it to an All-Star team until an injury to Love made him a replacement. That’s how good the West is.
While there’s no question that James can succeed and he has a reputation for bringing out the best in his teammates, playing against the beasts in the West would be the biggest challenge of his career.
What of the (very) young Lakers? Will they be able to keep up with their new leaders and complement them all the way to a championship?
This lineup can win a championship but it won’t be next season. There are too many factors and variables in play for them to win a title in their first year together.
But one more year of seasoning from the youngsters and a few key roster moves (another All-Star would be nice) can do wonders for this franchise’s hopes of returning to its former glory.
In short, a Lakers team with James, George, and these Lakers can win a championship. Just don’t expect a parade in June of 2019.