Back in July 2018, the Los Angeles Lakers finally struck gold in the free agency market as they were able to sign LeBron James, a four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player (MVP) awardee, to a four-year contract worth over $150M.
In year 1, the Lakers tried to surround James with a promising core and a bunch of (misfit) veterans, but it didn’t really pan out for both of them as they faltered down the stretch and missed out on the NBA Playoffs after a promising start to the campaign.
With the clock ticking on the King’s indefinite championship window, the Lakers changed their approach and went all in for James’ second year with them. Only Kyle Kuzma remained from the young supporting cast as general manager Rob Pelinka jettisoned almost everyone just to acquire Anthony Davis, the first overall pick of the 2012 NBA Draft.
It proved to be a masterstroke as the Lakers currently occupy the first seed in the Western Conference standings (49-14 win-loss record) with eight games left to play before the league goes into the Playoffs. They will most likely retain this spot as they are 5.5 games ahead of the second-seeded Los Angeles Clippers.
Now that the first season objective (secure a Playoff slot) has been accomplished, the focus now shifts to the big result in the postseason. The Lakers is the second-most winningest franchise in NBA history, while James is one of the best players to ever play the game, so attaching the term “championship or bust” to their current campaign wouldn’t be unfair. But based on the present situation, this term might weigh a little bit heavier this time around.
Let’s first take a look at James. He will turn 36 years old in December. For context, that is two years older than when Michael Jordan won his sixth and final championship. On the other hand, it is also two years younger than the late Kobe Bryant’s retirement age. Yes, James is built different from these two athletes, but this can be used as a good indicator that he might be nearing the twilight of his playing career.
Aside from “Father Time” slowly catching up to the Akron-born superstar, James has already accumulated a lot of mileage in his tank. He has played non-stop basketball for the past few years as he has led both the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers to deep Playoff runs (eight straight Eastern Conference titles, by the way) while suiting up for the USA National Basketball Team back in the 2012 Olympics. But due to the lengthy (COVID-19) suspension, James has been given the rare opportunity to rest up and stay fresh for the upcoming Playoffs.
So from an individual point of view, the next few weeks will most probably be the healthiest version we’ve seen James in the Playoffs (and also in a Laker uniform). Adding another year or two to James’ age and mileage does not give us a guarantee of him performing at a high level.
Next is the franchise with 16 NBA championships. The Lakers have abandoned the youth movement and set-up a team that can immediately compete for the title to maximize the shrinking window that they have with James.
They took a huge gamble on Davis, but he has a player option once the current campaign ends. Davis has remained tight-lipped on his impending free agency plans and has solely focused on playing basketball.
Rich Paul, Anthony Davis’ agent, announced that his client will be “going into free agency. 2020: Anthony Davis will be in free agency.” If we analyze that statement, it seems like Davis will decline his player option with the Lakers. And now that leaves the Purple and Gold with a dream scenario or an absolute nightmare.
The Lakers will have the advantage of giving Davis an additional year and more money (max contract of five years, worth over $200M) if he re-signs with the team. Additionally, Paul happens to be James’ agent as well. So these two factors are a huge plus for them.
But what if Davis decides to move on to another team (win or lose ala Kawhi Leonard)? Where does that leave the Lakers?
The free agency class of 2020 is not that good and the Lakers will definitely struggle to replace Davis. The next all-star that comes to mind is DeMar DeRozan, but he has a player option with the San Antonio Spurs and might stick with them for one more year.
Bogdan Bogdanovic seems like a good fit with James, but he’s no all-star and he’s a restricted free agent so they have to overpay him to scare off the Sacramento Kings from matching the offer. Brandon Ingram will also be available via restricted free agency, but it’s unlikely that the New Orleans Pelicans will let him leave for the Lakers. Plus, it would be an awkward reunion for both Ingram and the Lakers, right?
If the Lakers strike out on any of the big names in the free-agent market this 2020, they’ll be forced to surround James with a bunch of role players in his third year with them. And that is a very bad idea if you’re pursuing an NBA title.
They also don’t have enough trade pieces (both young players and draft picks) to secure another superstar via trade as they gave it all up for the Davis trade. Kuzma is their next best asset outside James and Davis, but his status in the team is still a question mark. Do they see him as an up-and-coming all-star player or a tradable piece that can give you a certified all-star in return?
Alex Caruso and Talen Horton-Tucker (who will be a sophomore next season) are two players that the Lakers can put in the trading block to get players who can give James the immediate help that he needs (and fit his timeline), but the return surely won’t be a new all-star sidekick.
Meanwhile, Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (player option), Danny Green, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo (player option) will be on expiring contracts for the 2020-2021 campaign, but then again, their trade value can only get you so much.
The internal factors (James’ health, Davis contract conundrum, roster construction, etc) are currently not a problem, while the external factors aren’t enough to scare the Lakers for now.
Leonard, Paul George, and the rest of the Clippers haven’t played together in long stretches, so chemistry problems might arise during the Playoffs. The Houston Rockets have a fearsome backcourt duo in Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but they don’t have a legit big man to match up against Davis, McGee, and Dwight Howard in the paint. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson will miss the postseason this year as the Golden State Warriors stumbled to the bottom of the Western Conference standings – but do expect them to make a run at it again next season.
In the Eastern Conference, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the Milwaukee Bucks have yet to prove themselves in crucial stretches, the Philadelphia 76ers are having problems in spacing the floor for both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and the Brooklyn Nets won’t have the services of both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.
So to sum it all up, this season might just be the last best chance for both James and the Lakers to win a ring together. Of course, if Davis decides to stay put with the Lakeshow after this season and James sustains his MVP-level of play, then the championship window will remain open in the foreseeable future.
But then again, that’s a big if.