LeBron James and Anthony Davis are two of the only Lakers left from the championship team in the bubble, and they’re the reason the Lakers enter this season as legitimate title contenders once again. James and Davis were slowed by injuries in the playoffs, but showed in the bubble how dominant they can be if they’re healthy. The Lakers added another household name over the offseason in Russell Westbrook, and his integration alongside his superstar teammates will be one of the biggest storylines of the season. Los Angeles also signed a bevy of wing shooters around them with Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, and Kendrick Nunn joining the mix. With James turning 37 years old in Dec., the Lakers know they don’t have any time to waste. This team was built to win the West.
Russell Westbrook makes LeBron James’ load lighter than ever and keeps him fresh for the playoffs, Anthony Davis channels the energy he saves by constantly having a superstar playmaker on the floor with him into a Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season, and Westbrook embraces doing the little things to help make what is an at-best-iffy on-court fit between the Lakers’ new Big 3 run smoothly. Together, they raise the team’s 18th banner.
Westbrook never attacks doing the little things (like cutting off-ball) with the verve he has for triple-doubles, gumming up the works for the Lakers offensively. LeBron James sustains another injury as he clearly starts to lose his long battle with father time, and Anthony Davis rebels against playing center after a few weeks, leading to an even more clogged floor for the Lakers offensively. The three stars never get healthy and fit at the same time, and Frank Vogel never finds the right mix of role players around them. They lose in the first round, leading to Westbrook getting traded and Vogel being fired.
True title contention. Maybe things never fit quite as well or flow as harmoniously as outlined in the “best case” scenario above, but this team looks primed to play as much “small-ball” as ever, and they will destroy teams on the break when they get stops by virtue of having Davis run the floor and two of the greatest fastbreak-leaders in NBA history in James and Westbrook. Their speed, athleticism and size should make them a bear to deal with in a seven-game series — provided they figure out ways to get enough spacing around their Big 3 — and has a good shot to take them to the Finals (and potentially win the whole thing).
To see if this can finally be a LeBron James team that can succeed when James sits. His rosters have historically struggled while The King takes a breather, and understandably so: It turns out it’s hard to replicate his skills. Westbrook comes about as close as anyone in the NBA today to being a mini version of James’ tireless rim attacks and explosiveness, and with Davis as a pick-and-roll partner, they should destroy opposing benches. If that allows James to rest up for the playoffs or carry less of a burden when he plays, it would be a big boon for the team’s contention chances.