After five dim seasons, the Lakers added one of the biggest basketball stars in the world to their roster. Here are the five biggest questions surrounding the Lakers as this season unfolds.
1. How will the Lakers’ young players mesh with LeBron James?
The team LeBron James joined this summer is filled with second-year (Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart) and third-year (Brandon Ingram) players who will have important roles. Those young players have never had a teammate like James. And James has never had a team quite like this. James has said repeatedly that this season will test his patience, which is something he also said when he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. While Cleveland wasn’t a ready-made championship team like the Heat when he went to Miami, the Cavaliers wound up being a team with some experienced stars. Kyrie Irving was entering his fourth season. Kevin Love was traded to the Cavaliers a month later for Andrew Wiggins, the 19-year-old whom the Cavaliers drafted with the first overall pick that summer. James went to the NBA Finals every year upon his return to Cleveland.
2. Can Lonzo Ball assert himself as the Lakers’ future point guard?
By all accounts, Rajon Rondo has been a model teammate since signing with the Lakers. The 12-year veteran is happy to share his knowledge with his younger teammates. He is a willing mentor, with designs on being a coach later in life. He has never publicly said he wants the starting job, but Rondo is also a very competitive person who sees himself as a starting point guard — indeed, he started in 63 of the 65 games he played for the New Orleans Pelicans last season. That’s exactly the type of dynamic the Lakers wanted to introduce in adding Rondo to their roster. Last year they told Ball he was the face of the franchise after drafting him second overall. This year they are pushing Ball with a legitimate competitor. As the Lakers bring Ball back slowly from injury, there’s a strong chance Rondo will be their starting point guard to begin the season. It will be up to Ball to wrest that from him.
3. How will coach Luke Walton fare this season?
Even before the Lakers added this summer’s most coveted free agent, rumors arose about Walton’s future. It was perhaps the gestation of a seed planted last season by Ball’s father, LaVar, that Walton had lost the confidence of his players and nurtured by the Lakers’ initial hesitancy at first to publicly support Walton. James’ former coaches say the 14-time All-Star makes their jobs easier. But he is a player with a considerable amount of power in a franchise’s decision-making process. If James, who was part of the same draft class as Walton, doesn’t like the direction in which the Lakers are heading, his voice will matter far more than the elder Ball’s voice did. A veteran-laden roster full of players with quirky personalities could also add to the degree of difficulty in coaching the team.
The Lakers are putting great faith in the evolution of the NBA, which has put less emphasis on the play of centers and more on positionless basketball. JaVale McGee is their primary option at center. Rookie Moe Wagner could be another, but he has missed the entire preseason because of a knee contusion so it’s hard to tell what his role will be for the Lakers. They have mostly used small-ball lineups, groups that include a traditional power forward as the center, when McGee is out of the game. It’s likely McGee will get the heaviest workload he has had in years. How will the Lakers fare using smaller players against the league’s big men otherwise?
5. Will the Lakers make a big mid-season trade or wait patiently for free agency?
Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka likes to say that he always considers the roster fluid and is constantly looking for ways to improve the team. There could be opportunities during the season for the Lakers to change dramatically. What if the Timberwolves’ impasse with star Jimmy Butler festers into January? What if the Raptors feel the need to get something for Kawhi Leonard and he agrees to commit long term to the Lakers? Their position in the past has been that they’ll explore any option (though it is safe to say they do have at least one untouchable player now). They have also been insistent on only spending what they must. If a player can be acquired in free agency, why give up assets for him now? But a deadline deal could prove too tantalizing a prospect.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli