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Why the Lakers Could Win the West This Season

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The Los Angeles Lakers will be the unquestioned underdog team in the West with the best chance to dethrone the Warriors, and should be treated like so.

The reasoning behind this prediction is pretty simple really – never count out LeBron James.

He’s proven time and time again that it’s foolish to bet against him. He flat out knows how to win come May, and he’s surrounded now by an unprecedented amount of young talent. Both on the floor, and on the sideline, LeBron may have his best supporting cast since he left Miami.

The 2017 Cavs probably disprove that last line. Kyrie Irving was already an elite talent, and that team doesn’t win a ring without him. But I truly believe this Lakers team will be better; and if not already this year, then soon.

Maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit; at least I understand if you think that. Many believe the Lakers will be a force to be reckoned with in the West for years to come; but they aren’t expected to be legitimate title contenders this season. And to that I say – remember when the Cavs weren’t supposed to make the Finals last season?

If you remove LeBron from the equation, the 2018-19 Lakers are already better than the 2017-18 Cavs. That much I can be sure of.

Yes, the Cavs had an All Star in Kevin Love. And yes, now they have to beat the Warriors in order to even make it to the Finals. But the Lakers have a plethora of players tailored to fit the modern age of position-less basketball. They have a budding young coach with a brilliant offensive mind.

The burden on LeBron to do everything won’t be there this year like it was all of last season. With more players able to create for themselves, and a system designed to elevate the entire team, LeBron will be free to focus more on the little things that separate winning from losing.

My supporting evidence for this bold prediction boils down to three main factors – Playoff LeBron is a beast unlike any in the league right now, the Lakers will be playing with a very different set of expectations this season, and the personnel they have around LeBron put them in perfect position to shock the world.

PLAYOFF LEBRON – Father Time Isn’t Slowing Him Down, Yet

LeBron’s performances in “must-win” games last postseason was remarkable. With little regard to seeding, LeBron has proven that he just knows what it takes to win a series.

After dropping Game 1 to Indiana, he responded with 46 points and 12 rebounds, on 70% shooting. With the series tied 2-2, he posted a 44 point, 12 rebound, 8 assist performance in a pivotal Game 5. And then, in Game 7, he dominated from the tip with a monstrous 45 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals to avoid a first round defeat.

With the series tied 2-2, he posted a 44 point, 12 rebound, 8 assist performance in a pivotal Game 5.

And then, in Game 7, he dominated from the tip with a monstrous 45 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals to avoid a first round defeat.

In the second round last postseason, LeBron faced a Toronto team that had completely retooled the way they play in an attempt to beat him. The Raptors found unprecedented regular season success following this new offensive formula. But it was ultimately in vain; the King came out on a mission and absolutely steamrolled the 1 seeded Raptors.

I have not seen a player simply assert his dominance over an entire team like that in some time. I was in the camp last year that that Cavs team wasn’t going to be good enough to once again reach the Finals. LeBron James reminded me that HE was good enough, regardless.

James again came up clutch against Boston; scoring 40+ three times in the series, and turning in one of the best Game 7 performances in history as he scored 35 points to go along with 15 rebounds and 9 assists, and most impressively, he played every single minute of that game.

Very few people expected the Cavs to even get a game on Golden State in the Finals last year. But as per usual, the King placed higher expectations on himself – and came within a JR Smith mental lapse of stealing Game 1. LeBron’s 51 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists was very nearly enough to almost single-handedly overpower the defending champs. At age 33, he defied everyone’s expectations and showed that his greatness knows no limits.

EXPECTATIONS – External vs. Internal

Last season, we saw what LeBron James is capable of in the playoffs even when those on the outside looking in don’t expect his team to win. We learned that the expectations he places on himself hold him and his performance to the highest of standards.

This season, the external expectations placed on LeBron will be at their lowest perhaps in his entire career. For the first time since before 2007, people will not be pointing fingers and calling the King a failure if he doesn’t reach the Finals. What can the King do with this kind of freedom? We don’t really know, but I can’t wait to find out. I think he just may shock the world one more time, because why not.

Alternately, the rest of this Lakers roster will be playing with a new level of pressure and scrutiny. Last season, the young core players were expected to grow, but not to win. Now, they have role playing veterans pushing them to either perform well enough to win or potentially lose their playing time. And, most significantly, they have the King to please. If Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope underachieve and underwhelm this season, they could find themselves out of the Lakers’ long-term plans.

I believe these young players will thrive, not wilt, under the increased expectations of playing alongside LeBron. Much has been reported, already in their young careers, about the exceptional work ethics of Ingram, Kuzma, Lonzo and Josh Hart – among others. These young guys are already driven to succeed; that much is evident. Bringing LeBron into the mix not only raises the bar for what we will expect from them, it gives them a bonafide leader.

LeBron brings a championship level work ethic wherever he goes. That’s just who he is. For young players who want to be great, they now have a guy in their organization who will show them, every single day, what it takes to be great. A guy who doesn’t believe that being good is enough. LeBron will set the standard for these young players to follow. I expect them each to make significant leaps this season, and every season, with LeBron James leading the way.

NON-LEBRON PERSONNEL – Young Talent, and some New Faces

The Lakers have not made the playoffs in a franchise-record five consecutive seasons. The front office has used that team to accrue an impressive roster of young, talented prospects. Last season, through a pick-swap, they wounded up drafting 25th. Prior to that, the Lakers had four straight lottery picks; but only the most recent two of the four remain with the franchise. D’Angelo Russell was traded two summers ago as part of the salary cap relief that allowed them to sign LeBron. Julius Randle signed as a restricted free agent this summer with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Image via Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports

The draft picks they have retained quite objectively have the most potential. I do think they’ll regret letting Randle walk, to some extent. He would fit well alongside LeBron as a small-ball center. That role will now be filled by Kyle Kuzma. Kuz is a prolific scorer and has the drive to try and be great; LeBron will help that. But his defensive struggles could limit his effectiveness as a small-ball five. Brandon Ingram is a budding playmaker and scorer, with a potential ceiling that no one really knows how to define. What he lacks in strength, he makes up for with length and instincts. Eventually, we’ll have to stop describing his skill set as “raw”; and he may well prove to have grown past that label by the end of his first season alongside the King.

Lonzo came into the league as heavily scrutinized as any prospect I can remember. Thank his daddy for that. But LaVar has stayed out of the spotlight for some time now as he manages his own basketball league and the career of his youngest son, LaMelo. This is best case for Lonzo, who has quietly been putting in work to improve his game and make his own name in the NBA. His natural passing IQ is unparalleled in a player this young. The jumpshot struggles are well-documented. Until he shows consistently improved form in games, that will remain a work-in-progress. But playing with LeBron will, in my opinion, unleash his potential as a playmaker, a defender, and a leader. Lonzo is the future of the Lakers, and he’ll remind us all of that this season.

In addition to the budding young stars they have in Lonzo, Kuzma, and B.I., Los Angeles has a slew of talented veterans and role players.

JaVale McGee is fresh off back to back rings with the Golden State Warriors. His knowledge of their defensive schemes will allow him to fit seamlessly into the similar style of the Lakers. With LeBron, Lonzo, and Rondo all ready to dish out assists or alley-oops any moment, McGee could be a sneakily valuable addition to this roster. Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley will likely each see a small role on the court for this team, but a larger role in the locker room and practice helping LeBron establish a winning culture. Sure, Lance and B-Eazy haven’t won a ton in their careers, but they are veterans who desperately want to win a ring before they’re done – and they know they have a chance here in L.A.

Image via Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Two of the most important role players on this Lakers team will be Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Both are primed to make significant improvements from last season, and both will be key to this team’s success. With the amount of playmakers and creators that will have on the floor at any given moment, the outside shooting and perimeter defense of the wings/guards will be huge. Head Coach Luke Walton needs Hart and KCP to knock down shots and lock down opposing guards for the Lakers to reach their potential this season.

REALISTIC GOALS FOR 2018-19

Even though I’m writing this, I still expect to be sitting here in June watching the Warriors complete their 3-peat. It feels inevitable. Steph and KD are two of the best to ever play the game and are both still in their peak prime. Draymond and Klay are absolutely elite in their roles. Steve Kerr is one of the brightest basketball minds in the game. They’ve lost some reserves, but most of the bench mob returns. And that’s not even mentioning the addition of Boogie.

Realistically, if the Lakers get homecourt in the first round of the playoffs, this season will be deemed a success. Even making the playoffs will be a positive step for a group of young players who have never been there. The West is, as usual, loaded with talent. The Warriors and Rockets are locks for the playoffs. Utah and Oklahoma City are probably locks. That leaves room for only four teams out of the Lakers, Pelicans, Blazers, Nuggets, Spurs, Grizzlies, and Timberwolves. (I think it will be the first four listed there, but a lot can happen between now and April.)

Ideally, the Lakers should aim to win at least one playoff series. A loss to Houston or Golden State in the second round would be acceptable, given they put up a fight.

I’ll go out on a limb though and predict that LeBron James and the 2018-19 Los Angeles Lakers pull off the impossible – and end Golden State’s bid for a third straight title. It’s a tall order, no doubt. But I’ll ride and die with the new King of L.A.

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About Preston Dubey

Lifelong basketball fanatic and Bucks' supporter I coach basketball; but I eat, sleep, and breathe the game.

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