The LeBron James era as a Laker officially kicks off Thursday night in Portland when Los Angeles faces the Trailblazers on TNT.
All eyes will be on LeBron in his regular season debut with Los Angeles. The 33-year-old joins a Lakers squad that went 35-47 in 2017 and that has spent the better part of the past five seasons in the dregs of the NBA. All that changed with the arrival of LeBron this offseason though, and the Lakers are looking to return to prominence in 2018.
It’ll be easier said than done for LeBron in Los Angeles. He certainly does not have the superstar sidekick that he had in the past like Dwayne Wade or Kyrie Irving. But LeBron does have a nice collection of talent to work with. All that losing Los Angeles has endured has set it up with two lottery picks in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, and surprising late round steals in Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma. It’s this young core that LeBron will hope to mold into a championship contender over the course of 2018.
LeBron and the Lakers success will depend on their ability to harness the versatility of their roster. Los Angeles presents some interesting matchup problems across the court because of the diverse skill sets of its players. Both Ingram and LeBron are capable of playing anywhere on the floor, and KCP, Kuzma and Hart can play multiple wing positions. If LeBron can get these guys rolling, the Lakers will be tough exit in the playoffs.
Los Angeles will have a chance to put their versatility to the test Thursday night in Portland. They’ll be facing a dangerous Trailblazer team that went 49-33 in 2017, good enough to secure the third seed in the Western Conference.
Portland thrives off the play of guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. The duo combined for 48.3 points a game in 2017, roughly 46% of the team’s total offensive output, while adding 16.7 assists. The Trailblazers’ success Thursday night, as with the rest of the season, will depend on the abilities of this duo to make plays.
Containing them will be Los Angeles’ primary focus Thursday night. The duo absolutely torched the Lakers in route to a 3-0 season-series sweep in 2017. Lillard had 32 and 39 point outings in his two games against Los Angeles, and McCollum averaged 20 points a contest over the series.
Their success against the Lakers in 2017 highlighted a flaw of the Lakers last season: their subpar perimeter defense and lack of an interior presence around the rim. It’s something Los Angeles attempted to address in the offseason with the resigning of talented wing defender Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and the acquiring of former Laker nemesis Rajon Rondo. Rondo has always has been known for his defensive skills as well as high basketball IQ. By pairing him with LeBron and the rest of the Lakers group, Los Angeles is hoping to sure up the defensive unit. Rondo started most of the preseason and it looks like he’ll be the Lakers starter at point guard to begin the season.
Expect the combo of Rondo and Ball at point guard to sufficiently lock down McCollum, and for him to struggle from the field for much of the night. Guarding Lillard will be another story. Los Angeles will probably throw multiple defenders at him, including Caldwell-Pope, Hart and Ingram. While all three are more than capable wing defenders, none have the experience to keep Lillard from getting his. Look for Lilliard to have a huge game as he exploits the Lakers lack of perimeter defense.
Both Lillard and McCollum will have huge nights as the Lakers defense shows its still a work in progress. It should be a highly contested game until the final stages but the Lakers will ultimately prove to0 explosive on offense. Expect Ingram to thrive with so much attention cast on LeBron. The Lakers win this one 112-104