B/R

Lakers 'Eager to See Our Version of the Death Lineup' with LeBron at Center

Eric Pincus

LeBron James made his first public appearance since signing with the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, watching the summer league version of his new team beat the Detroit Pistons 101-78.

"It won't feel real to me until I see him in training camp," said a Lakers executive, standing not more than 40 feet from the superstar forward. "It's still hard to believe."

Los Angeles has been abuzz since Klutch Sports, headed by James' agent, Rich Paul, released a one-sentence message July 1 that James would head to the Lakers. Just like that, the grand plan of owner Jeanie Buss and executives Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Rob Pelinka was validated by the best player in the NBA.

For now, that honeymoon glow has reduced the pressure to add a second star. The team missed out on Paul George. Kawhi Leonard is a member of the Raptors—and while ESPN's Chris Haynes reported that Leonard is not thrilled with the prospect of playing for Toronto, the franchise has a year to change his mind before he hits free agency. 

If Leonard doesn't eventually make his way to L.A., the list of targets next July will likely include Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, DeMarcus Cousins and even Kyrie Irving.

Still, the franchise has a lot of work to do for the coming campaign, to give James a roster capable of challenging the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference.

As currently constructed, the Lakers have plenty of guards and wings but are a bit light at center with JaVale McGee the only free-agency addition at the position. Ivica Zubac and rookie Moritz Wagner will need to show they're ready for regular roles.

Nothing about that trio should inspire confidence. Instead, the Lakers' best and only choice may be to deploy James as a small-ball center.

"We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors'] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron," a second Lakers executive said.

It's a great opportunity for the team's young players to prove they're ready to win games. James will have a collection of fresh-legged, long, active playmakers, scorers and defenders alongside him. For some, it will be sink or swim, but the team is eager to see how that group will fare with James in the middle.

John Locher/Associated Press

"The roster we have in October may not be the same come February," the executive continued. "But we like what we have."

Not everyone is a believer.

"I don't think the Lakers make the playoffs," said a Western Conference rival executive who questioned the experience of their talent outside James.

"James has been steadily coasting on defense in recent years. Now he's going to close games as the Lakers' 5?" another skeptical executive asked. "Draymond [Green] is why that works for the Warriors."

Golden State has thrived with Green in the middle because he is such a versatile and motivated defender—and isn't tasked with carrying the team offensively.

It remains to be seen how much the Lakers will rely on the 33-year-old James on offense and if he'll also have the energy to anchor the defense.

Last season, James didn't play center often for the Cleveland Cavaliers (just 1.5 percent of his time on the floor, according to Nylon Calculus). The Cavs' most productive lineup with James at the 5 featured George Hill, JR Smith, Kyle Korver and Jeff Green. That group played just 22 minutes together, per NBA.com, averaging a 9.3 positive net rating per 100 possessions.

The young Lakers who will surround James may not have the same levels of experience but will have a significant advantage athletically.

To an extent, Johnson and Pelinka created the center issue by letting restricted free agent Julius Randle walk to the New Orleans Pelicans and incumbent starter Brook Lopez join the Milwaukee Bucks for $3.4 million instead of the $4.4 million the Lakers have to spend.

The Lakers didn't want to bring back players who were expecting significant minutes, according to the second team executive. They are more interested in seeing what their young core can do alongside James.

Could Luol Deng be a stopgap as a small center after sitting out most of last season?

The executive said Deng is all but semi-retired. He may never play again in the NBA unless he has a change of heart.

The Lakers do have one roster spot available. Perhaps that will go to summer league standout Jeff Ayres, who was an important part of the team's run to the championship game in Las Vegas. The 31-year old last played in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2015-16 and has since played overseas in Japan, Russia and Turkey.

Ayres, who won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014, also played for the Los Angeles D-Fenders in the D-League (now the South Bay Lakers of the G League). When the Lakers summer squad needed a center, South Bay Lakers president Joey Buss and general manager Nick Mazzella brought in Ayres, per a third team executive.

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

It's worth noting Ayres is represented by Mitch Frankel of Impact Sports Management. None of Frankel's clients are in the NBA except one: Leonard.

Last year's acquisition of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is represented by Paul and Klutch Sports, was a significant step in landing James in free agency. The Lakers had a full year to build a relationship with Paul and ultimately James—perhaps Ayres gets the team's final roster spot and a chance to play center in some of the team's smaller lineups.

Maybe that's why Leonard lands in Los Angeles before the start of the 2019-20 season. The Lakers have not signed Ayres to a contract beyond summer league, but that may be well worth keeping an eye on.

In the meantime, the Lakers will need to use James at center, with the hope that he'll turn their biggest weakness into a strength.

James has led his team to the Finals nine times in 15 years, but on paper, the Lakers shouldn't be considered a favorite this season.

How far they go will be dictated by the development of their many young players.

Regardless of the result, the Lakers have taken a major step toward respectability after five disappointing seasons.

   

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

   
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