With the regular season almost here, theScore basketball writers Joseph Casciaro, William Lou, Alex Wong, and Joe Wolfond sat down to chat about the major storylines impacting the Pacific Division.
Moderator: Let's start by talking Lakers. Where do you see this team ending up with LeBron James in the fold - and more importantly, what will they look like?
Joseph Casciaro: I think they'll be fun. The Lakers last year, while bad, were still fun. They also had a respectable defense, which was incredible when you looked at the roster going into the year. I think the young guys will pop a little bit with LeBron there. I don't know if Kyle Kuzma is going to pop, but if he is what he was as a rookie, he'll have a solid NBA career. They have enough talent. I think Lonzo (Ball) is better than people give him credit for. He's almost an elite defender and playmaker already, and he's what, 20 years old? And LeBron James is LeBron James. Even in the Western Conference, a LeBron one-man show is still a playoff team. In terms of their ceiling, they're not competing with the Warriors, or the Rockets, or even the Thunder yet. And then you wonder, are they even as good as Utah? What is their ceiling? It might just be finishing as a 4- or 5-seed and getting out of the first round, which is crazy for a LeBron team.
William Lou: I don't think they're gonna be a very good regular-season team. They're just not really built to be. They're relying a lot on really young players, and a lot of like ... not even good veterans. (Rajon) Rondo's a good veteran, and then there's Lance Stephenson, JaVale McGee is maybe good. The main issue with the Lakers is that they have no bigs whatsoever. It's JaVale, it's (Ivica) Zubac, and it's Moritz Wagner. That's it.
JC: They said they're gonna experiment with Kuzma at center.
Joe Wolfond: It makes it all the more curious that they just let Julius Randle walk.
WL: Apparently Julius Randle, after the LeBron signing, said, "I don't wanna deal with this." So he left.
JW: I still feel like they could have convinced him to come back, and just pay slightly over market value to him.
WL: They have money.
JW: They did! They gave $25 million combined to Rondo, (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope), McGee, and Lance Stephenson. They could have allocated that money so much better.
JC: Do you guys believe for a second what Magic (Johnson) and Rob Pelinka are selling? That this was their vision for the team? "We've seen the 'surround LeBron with shooters' thing, and we wanted to go in this different direction of surrounding him with ball-handlers and rim-runners and cutters." Do you guys actually believe that?
Alex Wong: They probably thought they were getting at least another guy. Whether it was trading for Kawhi (Leonard) ... and we don't know the back-channel stuff. Kawhi probably doesn't want to play with LeBron. And that might be a thing, right?
JW: I do believe it was done by design because it all happened on the first day of free agency.
AW: Well, they knew they weren't getting Paul George.
JW: But they signed all those guys right away. If it was a few days down the line, and they realized that they weren't going to get a marquee free agent or they weren't going to make a Kawhi trade, and then they signed all these guys and tried to play it off like it was by design, I would have been more skeptical. But the fact that they did it all right away makes me think, "OK, they actually had a plan going into this." I just don't think it's gonna work.
AW: But it's also just a one-year thing, right? They're gonna go out and get another guy. Or at least they're gonna try.
WL: My favorite Lakers moment from last season was when Kobe was in town. I think they were playing the Warriors in a big TNT game. And they actually played them really close; the Warriors weren't really trying hard. It came down to the buzzer. And in regulation, KCP dribbles the ball up the floor and takes this ridiculous pull-up three that catches an airball. And Kobe just takes his whole family and leaves.
JC: It was the night they were retiring both his jerseys! And he was so disgusted, he left after regulation.
WL: The Lakers are just not really built to be a good regular-season team. But in the playoffs, though, they're gonna be better. They have a couple of guys. LeBron takes it to a completely different level in the playoffs. Any team with LeBron, I would take them pretty much over any team in the West except for Golden State, Houston, and maybe Utah. I think LeBron could single-handedly carry them over (Oklahoma City), for example. And Rondo's a better playoff guy than he is a regular-season guy. But realistically, this Lakers team is built to create a ton of drama and get a lot of attention, but not ultimately do that much.
JC: But you have to get to the playoffs first. And I can't see LeBron missing the playoffs, but if you're saying you don't even think they'll be a good regular-season team ... this isn't the East. You can't get by like that in the West. So if they're not a good regular-season team and you don't buy into the talent around LeBron, are they even getting to the playoffs?
WL: No, they'll get to the playoffs. I think LeBron's gonna make sure this team gets to the playoffs. It's his first year in Los Angeles. LeBron cares very much about the narrative and is not going to let it be written that his first year, he couldn't even get to the playoffs. 'Cause then you'd get all the Kobe fans coming out and saying, "See? LeBron couldn't even take the Lakers to the playoffs."
JW: It doesn't seem like he actually does care about the narrative anymore. Everything he's saying, it seems like it's meant to deflect attention or scrutiny away from basketball, or from what the team is actually going to do this year.
WL: He just wants to make "Space Jam." He chose to play with JaVale and Lance so he can make "Space Jam."
JW: But I almost think that, if these moves were by design, the design was basically, "Let's have a pressure-free season where nobody expects anything from this team and we'll make another go at it next summer." And realistically, what they're saying doesn't actually make sense. They could have set it up so that LeBron was in a position to play off-ball more or play in the post more often and not soak up so many possessions. They could have had guys who were capable playmakers, but that could also play without the ball. They didn't get any of those guys.
Moderator: Should we expect to see anything at all different from the Warriors this season, in terms of player rest, rotations, etc.?
AW: They might be bored in the regular season.
WL: They probably will be. But I think the DeMarcus Cousins (signing) was as much for the locker room and for just the general interest of the team. "Hey, let's win it for DeMarcus. We all like him." It's just to give them some motivation. They don't even need DeMarcus Cousins, right? So they just brought him in to be some sort of motivational mascot - which is kind of insulting. But I don't think that DeMarcus changes that much for them. Best-case scenario, DeMarcus gives them another guy who is matchup-proof so that if they play a team like Houston, who are gonna switch a lot and end up with a lot of mismatches, they want DeMarcus in the post against Chris Paul as opposed to David West.
JC: To me, that's literally the only reason they made the move, other than the whole interest thing. DeMarcus Cousins could not play until March, and it's completely fine, because we're talking about the most talented team ever assembled. They don't need him. As long as DeMarcus Cousins is 60 percent of what prime, peak Boogie is, they could just plug him for the playoffs and say, "This is the one thing you could exploit about us - and we've now filled that hole with a guy who does that job better than all but two people on Earth." To me, that's all it was - eliminating the one weakness they had.
WL: And they've got a couple more wings on the roster - nothing too much to write home about. We're talking about Jonas Jerebko: not great. Alfonzo McKinnie: not great. But they straight-up had no wings last season, and that also became an issue in the Rockets series. So basically, they addressed their wing depth, obviously with a limited budget, and they got Boogie.
Moderator: Of the other three teams in the division, which one interests you the most?
JW: Probably Phoenix. The fact that they have so many young players who in theory have a lot of potential makes them interesting. I'm curious to see what those players actually look like. And now that there's an expectation that the Suns are at least going to be a competent team, at least push for 30 wins, I'm curious to see whether Devin Booker is actually any good.
WL: He's good, man. He's good. They need a point guard, though.
JC: I agree with the Suns. They'll be bad, but fun. I agree that I want to see Booker in an environment where they're approaching the level of legitimately trying to win.
WL: And (Deandre) Ayton is dominant. He's next-level athletic, I'm talking young David Robinson-like athletic. He's not that good defensively because he doesn't apply himself as much on that end; he could eventually get there. But he is that good offensively.
JW: How much young David Robinson have you watched?
WL: Fifteen minutes of highlights.
AW: Three still JPEGs. And they were just of him shooting.
JC: I also think it's a process of elimination, too, for all of us to go with Phoenix. Sacramento ... other than maybe watching Marvin Bagley, there's not a single reason to watch the Kings. And the Clippers, to me, might actually be the least interesting team in the NBA.
AW: You know what they are.
JC: They're a bunch of vets that will play hard and scrap their way to 35 wins, but they aren't winning anything. They're probably not making the playoffs.
WL: The Clippers are very interesting to me. Every two months, they'll make a move that reminds people, "Hey, we're gonna go get a free agent next summer." It was the dead of the offseason and they were like, "Oh, yeah, we got Jerry West. Builder of these championship teams." And two months later it was like, "We fired Bruce Bowen because of some innocuous comments about Kawhi Leonard. By the way, we're gonna go get Kawhi Leonard." And then it's like, "Oh, yeah, we just got Lee Jenkins from (Sports Illustrated)." They'll do anything to get in the headlines, because the rest of this team ... this is most random assortment of players ever.
JW: I'm excited about Shai (Gilgeous-Alexander), though.
WL: He's not bad. He's nice. He could be the best point guard of the draft if his jump shot holds up. Also, a word on Marvin Bagley ... I feel like he has disaster written all over him. He's one of the most left-handed-dominant players I've ever seen, but he doesn't shoot it well from deep, and he doesn't play defense - at all - and he's strictly a power forward and not a center. How many players in the league succeed like that?
JC: I think he'll have disaster written all over him because he'll be wearing a Sacramento Kings uniform.
JW: Who would you compare him to?
AW: Not a young David Robinson.
Moderator: Let's get to your predictions for the Pacific Division.
JC: After taking a year off from caring about the regular season, the Warriors win 70-plus games again.
AW: The Lakers make the conference finals.
JW: The Lakers come in under 50 wins and lose in the first round.
WL: I don't think the Clippers get anybody in free agency. It's the same issue Brooklyn had; you can't just be like, "Hey, this is a great city, and we have money." You need a little bit more than that. You need a player - and they have no players on the roster.
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