For better or worse, the NBA is forging ahead with its plan to restart the 2019-20 season at the end of the month in Orlando, Florida. Over the next two weeks, as teams report to Walt Disney World for training camp, we will dive deep into the big-picture basketball questions left to be answered between now and October.
The Los Angeles Lakers exceeded expectations through the first 63 games of the regular season. It did not hurt that journeyman coach Frank Vogel wrested production and chemistry from first-time general manager Rob Pelinka’s ragtag collection of supporting cast members, but as it turns out all they really needed was LeBron James and Anthony Davis playing like superstars to be a championship contender.
It seems obvious in retrospect that the Lakers would enter the playoffs as the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed, but there were no guarantees any of this would work so seamlessly. All of which puts enormous pressure on them to maximize this campaign, because it may well be LeBron’s last best chance at a title.
James will turn 36 years old later this year, two years older than Michael Jordan was at the start of his “Last Dance” season. Including the playoffs, James is approaching 60,000 career minutes, a figure only eclipsed by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Karl Malone in NBA history. Granted, James is still playing at an MVP level, but each new season carries with it less assurance of his sustained performance and health.
James was one of 27 players who exceeded 2,000 minutes through the first three quarters of this season. Given how much exertion it took to lift the Lakers into the top seed, it was already going to take a historic effort to maintain that pace through four playoff rounds. What are the odds he can carry that forward throughout another season, especially one that is slated to start so soon after this one ends?
One of the few benefits from the NBA’s extended break is the opportunity to see a fully rested LeBron James in the playoffs. Barring major injury, there is little chance James ever gets another five months free from high-pressure basketball to revitalize his body in preparation for the playoffs. (Never mind the fact James was coming off his first playoff-less summer in 15 years.) If ever an aging superstar were to beat Father Time in the Finals, it would be him now, so long as the NBA keeps the health threat of COVID-19 at bay.
The best argument that the Lakers can continue contending to this degree next season, when James will be in the third of a four-year contract that features a player option for 2021-22, is that they also boast a 27-year old Anthony Davis. The seven-time All-Star is a transcendent star who should be capable of headlining a title team, even if he only had one playoff series win to his name before joining James in L.A.
There has been no indication Davis plans to leave in free agency, even if he batted eyes at his hometown Chicago Bulls earlier this season, so L.A. should have another legendary big man locked up longterm once his max contract offer hits the bargaining table in mid-October. Whether Davis will be as durable as Lakers predecessors Shaquille O’Neal and Abdul-Jabbar were in L.A. before him is another question.
This was only the third time in his eight-year career Davis played more than 85 percent of his team’s games, and even this season he has missed time with shoulder, ankle, back and knee ailments. He too is presumably rested and healthy entering the stretch run. If you are banking on the Lakers enjoying similar championship chances next year, you are also banking on both James and Davis being 100 percent.
Even assuming good health, there is also no guarantee this works so seamlessly again. Half of the Lakers’ expected playoff roster can leave after this season, including veteran rotation players Dwight Howard, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee and Markieff Morris. We will see how much the Lakers miss Avery Bradley, a starter who opted out of the season’s restart and will also be a free agent at season’s end.
Sure, Pelinka can piece together another hodgepodge of players wanting to play with James on a title contender, but who knows if Vogel can replicate this chemistry experiment. There is no question this year’s Lakers developed a deep bond in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death and their experience in China.
Almost the entirety of the Lakers’ salary cap next season will be tied up in James, Davis, Danny Green and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the latter two of whom Pelinka signed into cap space when his bid to lure Kawhi Leonard failed. That means the second-year front-office shot-caller will fill out his roster with salary cap exceptions and minimum contracts in a barren free-agent market. Even if they run the same roster back, Green, Caldwell-Pope and Bradley — the team’s three most prolific 3-point shooters not named LeBron — are high-variance players who all hit at high marks from distance together this year.
The Lakers have no trade assets and almost no opportunity for development. Established veterans, many of whom are in decline, make up much of the rotation. Counting on a leap from Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and/or Talen Horton-Tucker significant enough to improve their title chances is a fool’s errand.
Kuzma had little value on the trade market this season, and should have even less next year, when he can command a raise in 2021 restricted free agency. He is the only Lakers first-round pick on the roster, and he came in a trade that cost them former No. 2 overall pick and 2019 All-Star D’Angelo Russell. Their four first-round picks since were all dealt in the Davis trade, and they cannot deal another first-round pick until 2026. They do have the 29th pick in this year’s draft. Horton-Tucker is the only other Lakers draft pick of any kind on the roster, and they do not have a second-rounder to trade until 2023.
In essence, the Lakers need James and Davis to repeat as First Team All-NBA forces next season, while everyone around them performs at the same high level that set them on a 64-win pace this season, all without serious injury, to enter the playoffs with a comparable shot at the 2021 title. And if they fail on their championship quest in Orlando, their best chance to upgrade comes with a mid-level exception.
In other words, yes, this is LeBron James’ last best chance to win a fourth ring in his prime.
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