The moment James announced his decision to don the purple and gold, it was inevitable a circus would follow, but the first three games have already packed a month’s worth of storylines.
The spotlight remained in game three thanks to a roller-coaster last-second loss to the San Antonio Spurs that saw LeBron hit a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation before missing two critical free throws in the final seconds of overtime.
This is the best player in the world on one of the most popular franchises in team sports. Of course everything that happens – good or bad – will be under the microscope. Perhaps no team’s stock is going to rise and fall with every result this season like the Lakers’ will.
And at 0-3, that stock is the lowest it’s been yet.
It’s still incredibly early, but the all-important question is already arising: will the Lakers even make the playoffs? That seems like a ridiculous question to ask of a LeBron-led team, but the query had some validity coming into the season, in part due to how loaded the Western Conference is.
But really, it was worth floating for the simple reason that this Lakers team isn’t very good. Outside of James, the roster is flawed in a number of ways, and those deficiencies have reared their ugly head very quickly this season.
Three games is hardly much of a sample size and the previous two occasions when LeBron switched teams, his squads struggled in the early going as well – the 2010-11 Miami Heat started 9-8, while the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers began 19-20.
However, those teams had better supporting pieces around James and in the NBA, talent almost always wins out in the end.
These Lakers don’t have that luxury. You wouldn’t say they’ve been built to be greater than the sum of their parts because LeBron is the greatest singular part you can ask for, but there was a sense of getting the combination right when this team was oddly constructed.
It’s not as if there haven’t been positives for the Lakers to hang their hat on. Their transition attack has been absolutely deadly – their 32.3 fast-break points per game lead the league by a whopping margin, with the New Orleans Pelicans second at 23.5. Lonzo Ball is shooting 42.1 per cent from 3 on 6.3 attempts per game. Josh Hart looks like a perfect role player next to James. Kyle Kuzma deserves more minutes at power forward after exploding against the Spurs.
But none of that has mitigated the Lakers’ weaknesses, namely their lack of depth at centre and their train-wreck defence.
This team is heavily relying on JaVale McGee, which sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. There’s a reason why he didn’t average more than 11.5 minutes the past four seasons.
Yet McGee hasn’t even been the issue so far – it’s the fact that the Lakers have little behind him to soak up valuable minutes. Rookie Johnathan Williams was a pleasant surprise against San Antonio, but expecting the undrafted big man to be a reliable rotation player after one game is foolish.
As far as the defence, there’s been little of it so far. Opposing teams are getting whatever shot they want, whenever they want. And not only are they getting it, but it’s often been a clean look, with the Lakers allowing the fourth-most open shots (closest defender within four to six feet) in the league at 27.0 and the second-most wide open shots (closest defender beyond six feet) at 26.3.
The Lakers will improve, but their margin for error is slim. It would be a different story if they were in the East, where reaching the playoffs is hardly much of an accomplishment. The West is unforgiving – three games separated the third seed and the ninth-placed team last season.
This is LeBron though and even at 33, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. No one in the league is more aware of the marathon nature of the season, and taking the long view is what he’s always going to do.
“I didn’t come here thinking we were going to be blazing storms right out of the gate,” James said after the loss to the Spurs. “It’s a process and I understand that.”
He added: “We’re going to continue to get better. I like the direction we’re going in. Obviously, it’s not resulting in the wins right now but it’s such a long process.”
This specific process with this specific team, however, may be one even James is unfamiliar with.
The Lakers slipped to 0-3 after James, who joined the LA franchise this summer, missed with a potential game-winning three-pointer with less than three seconds to go.
James had landed a 3-pointer with 3.3 seconds of regulation time left to take the game into overtime after the Lakers had trailed by eight points with 70 seconds remaining.
But with the Lakers up by one with 13 seconds left in the game, James missed two free throws and he could not respond after Patty Mills had put the Spurs ahead with seven seconds left.
The Lakers were missing Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo, who were both suspended for their part in the melee during the defeat to the Houston Rockets.
Kyle Kuzma stepped up with 37 points while James ended with 32, but LaMarcus Aldridge’s 37 points and 10 rebounds helped the Spurs improve to 2-1.
The Golden State Warriors bounced back from their defeat on Sunday night with a comprehensive 123-103 victory against the Phoenix Suns.
Stephen Curry hit six three-pointers in his 29-point performance while Kevin Durant added 22 for the reigning NBA champions.
The Toronto Raptors are 4-0 after easing past the Charlotte Hornets 127-106.
Kawhi Leonard top-scored with 22 points for the Canadian side, who have earned three of their wins by a margin of more than 10 points.
Kyle Lowry added 16 points and 14 assists as every Toronto player who took to the floor scored some points.
The Boston Celtics, pre-season favourites in the Eastern Conference, fell to 2-2 after they were beaten 93-90 by the Orlando Magic.
Nikola Vucevic had 24 points and 12 rebounds for Orlando, who bounced back from two successive defeats to improve to 2-2.
Celtics duo Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward both had three-point attempts in the final seconds but neither were able to force the game into overtime.
The Milwaukee Bucks moved to 3-0 after seeing off the New York Knicks 124-113, with Giannis Antetokounmpo recording a 31-point haul and claiming 15 rebounds, while the Minnesota Timberwolves were 101-91 winners against the Indiana Pacers.
The Washington Wizards spoiled the Portland Trail Blazers’ night as the visitors won 125-124 after overtime.
Portland’s players had turned up for the game in Halloween costumes but they were unable to mark the evening with a victory in a thrilling finale.
John Wall missed two free throws for Washington with six seconds left but Damian Lillard’s attempted game-winning shot was blocked by Otto Porter Jr.
Elsewhere, Zach LaVine’s 34 points were in vain as the Chicago Bulls were beaten 115-109 by the Dallas Mavericks while the Memphis Grizzlies saw off the Utah Jazz.
For all the hoopla and hype the franchise has received in the past three months since adding the best player in the world, the Lakers are, as of right now, a flawed team.
That was very much proven in the 128-119 takedown by the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday, which showcased the positive and negative aspects of Los Angeles’ identity.
Let’s start with the bad.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of how Magic Johnson built the team around James in the offseason – aside from mixing volatile personalities – was centered on the lack of shooting. James’ teams in the past have been at their best offensively when they’ve had shooters to space the floor for James, which has opened up playmaking opportunities.
On Thursday, the Lakers missed their first 15 attempts from beyond the arc and finished just 7-of-30 from long range. With the Trail Blazers not feeling threatened by Los Angeles’ shooting, the defence cramped the floor and made life difficult for the Lakers’ half-court attack.
There won’t be many nights when James, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma combine to go 1-of-15 on 3-pointers, but the concerns over shooting were validated in game one.
One player who had no problem knocking down shots was Josh Hart, who hit 8-of-12 from the field, including 3-of-5 from distance, for his 20 points off the bench. Hart made his case to start, but swapping him in for starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – a 38.3 per cent 3-point shooter last season – may only improve the Lakers’ shooting marginally. Instead, the Lakers could look to use Hart in more small-ball lineups in which James plays centre.
However, that would just worsen Los Angeles’ other issue – their lack of interior defence and rebounding.
JaVale McGee got the start at centre and swatted three shots, but was on the floor for just 22 minutes as the Lakers tried to create more spacing without him in the lineup.
The downside of that was the Lakers getting outrebounded by a 54-46 margin, which included 14 offensive boards for Portland, leading to 21 second-chance points.
Los Angeles didn’t play any other true big man aside from McGee, but they’ll have to consider putting more size on the floor going forward, even if it means sacrificing half-court scoring.
That may be a trade-off worth making because there should be no shortage of points, thanks to the Lakers’ ability to strike in transition.
Even disregarding the runaway train that is James in the open court, Los Angeles are stocked with ball-handlers, playmakers and youth – ingredients that give them one of the most potent fast-break attacks in the league.
That was evident on Thursday as the Lakers sprung for 34 fast-break points in a game that featured a breakneck pace of 113.5 possessions.
Some discrepancy between pace statistics on https://t.co/HbzTMXqxMf and Basketball-Reference. But still.— Adam Fromal (@fromal09) October 19, 2018
Fastest-paced games of LeBron James' career:
1. 10/18/18 vs. POR: 113.5 via https://t.co/HbzTMXqxMf
2. 3/13/18 vs. PHO: 113.1 via B-R
3. 1/6/17 vs. BRK: 109.3 via B-R
Los Angeles want to run early and often, and when they get an opportunity to push the ball, it’s likely to result in points. That’s the biggest strength of the team right now and it’s one that will give them a chance to compete on a night-to-night basis while they work through their weaknesses.
The pace they want to play with will also result in some high scores, but that won’t necessarily be an indictment of their defence.
Even though the Trail Blazers scored 128 points, they shot just 44.0 per cent as the Lakers were hurt by their inability to finish off possessions with a rebound and their general effort at times.
It’s only one game, but it revealed exactly what the Lakers are.