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The NBA Returns Tuesday, but All Eyes Are on LeBron and the Lakers

James looked as strong and sharp as ever in preseason.



    The NBA Returns Tuesday, but All Eyes Are on LeBron and the Lakers
    Shahan Ahmed
    LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers at the UCLA Health Training Center during the 2018-19 training camp. (Shahan Ahmed/KNBC)

    The NBA is back.

    The Lakers are back.

    Sure, opening night of the 2018-19 NBA season doesn't feature the Los Angeles Lakers, but that doesn't mean all eyes aren't on LA. They are. The Lakers have the best basketball player on the planet dressed in a noticeably undersized gold jersey that serves to only further enhance a physique that would intimidate all of Mount Olympus.

    With one $164 million stroke of the pen, LeBron James has transformed the complexion of the Los Angeles Lakers, basketball and the NBA like only a superstar of his statuesque stature could.

    Photos: LA Lakers' 2018 Training Camp and PreseasonPhotos: LA Lakers' 2018 Training Camp and Preseason

    On the court, the best comparison for James is Earvin "Magic" Johnson, but James plays in a different era and is a different player than the five-time champion. Johnson's not-so-subtle purpose is to bring the Lakers a title in honor of the late Dr. Jerry Buss—Johnson's mentor and longtime owner of the Lakers.

    With James, Johnson brought magic back to the Lakers. Now, the Lakers are closer to a title than they've been since Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher were celebrating with an open palm to mark five titles in 2010.

    Eight years later, the Lakers look ready to escape out of a black hole that featured a five-year postseason drought.

    Now, the games finally count. The Lakers are no longer a lottery team or even a fringe playoff team. With James, the Lakers are a playoff team. However, the Lakers don't enter the season as favorites to win the Western Conference.

    The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are clear and away the top two teams in the conference. The Warriors begin their season on Tuesday with a ring ceremony, and the regular season champion Rockets begin their season on Wednesday—both before the Lakers tip-off on Thursday in a tough game against Portland.

    The Blazers are a better team, especially at home, than the Lakers on day No. 1 of the season, so a defeat at Portland shouldn't come as a shock or even a setback. Even with James on the roster, the Lakers winning in Portland would be an impressive accomplishment.

    On Saturday, the Lakers begin a new era with James taking the Staples Center home court in a game that matters for the first time. The excitement is impossible to contain for the city, and the atmosphere at Staples Center on a regular season night promises to rival, possibly beat the electricity on offer at an October night at Dodger Stadium.

    It's James' team now, and the Lakers can be a real problem come playoff time. Regardless of seeding, James on the Lakers makes them an automatic championship contender. Initially, though, the Lakers expect to have defensive deficiencies that will cost the team games.

    Offensively, James' addition alone elevates the team, especially in late game situations. Rajon Rondo is one of the smartest NBA minds in the league by nearly all accounts, and Rondo is looking like the likely starter to on opening night.

    That convenient decision comes due to Lonzo Ball missing most of preseason and still working on his conditioning. Ball's addition to the second unit, regardless of how ephemeral, only promises even more fluidity for a player like Kyle Kuzma.

    Given that the Lakers expect to start JaVale McGee with James and Brandon Ingram in the front court, Kuzma should be the Lakers' stable scoring sixth man. Ball's addition to the second unit—or Rondo's if Lakers coach Luke Walton decides to switch the point guards at any stage during the season—should only improve Kuzma's chances of capturing the Sixth Man of the Year award.

    Kuzma may not be the favorite, but if he can provide the scoring punch he routinely administered during his rookie season, the proud Flint, Michigan native should be in the running for the award.

    Josh Hart may start, or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope may get the starting shooting guard spot. The former is probably a better fit for the second unit than the latter. Hart, to his credit, fits better with both units, but Caldwell-Pope offers far more utility as a starter than coming off the bench. So, Hart playing as a backup that regularly finishes games seems to make the most sense for maximizing the roster.

    Michael Beasley and Lance Stevenson are two players than expect to get minutes off the bench, as well, but neither is in the conversation to regularly start for the Lakers because LA is banking on the youth of Ingram, Hart, Kuzma and Ball to develop during the season.

    James and Rondo arriving to provide a championship level of leadership and knowledge should only assist that growth process for the individuals and the team as a whole.

    To his credit, James looked as strong and sharp as ever in preseason. He  displayed the type of form that should erase enough mistakes to get the team early wins it probably doesn't deserve. Regardless of how the season starts, though, the Lakers have enough talent and depth to make the playoffs, even in a loaded Western Conference.

    Once in the postseason, the Lakers have James, so they are automatically championship contenders. Betting on the best player on the planet in a best-of-seven series isn't a bad bet. Yes, the Lakers are back to being championship contenders, and that status should only improve in a year's time when Johnson and James look to use open salary cap space and a playoff tested, developing roster to lure another superstar to LA—with Kevin Durant's name conspicuously floating about.

    But the conversation about who will join James can wait for another summer. The superstar's arrival in LA has already propelled the most popular brand in the history of the league back to the forefront of the 82-game NBA drama—and well beyond that point if one considers James' entertainment projects.

    On Tuesday, the NBA returns, and this season, the Lakers are back.

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