As the NBA season tips off, LeBron James and the new-look Lakers hope to join the league’s elite

After years of competing against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, LeBron James decided to head to Los Angeles this summer. James will look to fill Bryant’s shoes as the newest superstar to lead the Lakers to a championship. (Photo courtesy of Erik Drost)

“LeBron James, four-time NBA MVP, three-time NBA finals MVP, fourteen-time NBA All Star, and two time Olympic gold medalist has agreed to a four year, $154 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers.”

Klutch Sports Group, James’ agency, sent out that simple press release via Twitter July 1, and it turned the NBA upside down.

The first two times James switched teams through free agency, his decision altered the landscape of the league and resulted in four consecutive trips to the finals for both the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The NBA season starts Tuesday, Oct. 16, and as James appears in purple and gold for the first time, one thing is clear: Los Angeles is the center of the basketball world once again.

The last few years have been the worst in the franchise’s storied history. Since Laker legend Kobe Bryant’s devastating achilles injury in 2013, and retirement three years later, the team has fallen upon hard times. Nothing spells defeat for the Lakers like six straight seasons of losing records against their Staples Center rival, the once perennially inferior Clippers.

However, iconic teams located in big markets don’t stay down for long. LA had struck out in free agency the past few years, but locking down the self-ordained ‘Chosen One’ for the next four years is a huge victory for team executives Jeanie Buss and Magic Johnson.

In a town where there’s always another show in town, fans won’t stick around watching a losing team for long. Yet, the Lakers leveraged their location in the nation’s entertainment capital to lure James, and are now poised to enter the league’s upper echelon of teams once again.

However, the situation James is walking into in LA is vastly different from those in Miami and Cleveland, where he immediately made it to the Finals. James is joining a young Lakers team that finished 35-47 last year, good for 11th place in the hyper-competitive Western Conference.

The Lakers have a strong young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram. Ball is entering his sophomore season as a passing savant, who hopefully learned how to shoot over the offseason. Kuzma is looking to build on a stellar rookie season and possibly learn to play center in small ball lineups designed by head coach Luke Walton.

Brandon Ingram, entering his third season, is a player the team hopes will make the jump and fill the role of secondary scorer behind James. The lanky wing — 6’9 with an impossible 7’3 wingspan — shows enormous potential and could greatly benefit from playing alongside the greatest position-defying player of all time.

If the best player on Earth surrounded by a promising young trio wasn’t exciting enough, the Lakers also brought on a cast of big-personality veterans — Lance Stephenson, Javale McGee, and Rajon Rondo — to give the team more leaders with playoff experience.

While the trio of signings puzzled the NBA world, the veterans are certainly still capable — Rondo and McGee particularly proved their worth in last year’s playoffs — and could thrive with more playing time than they’ve seem in recent years, assuming their bodies hold up.

The bottom line is, there’s a lot to be excited about for LA basketball fans. However, it won’t be an easy walk to the playoffs, as the league is filled with strong teams optimistic about the upcoming season.

The Western Conference is still ruled by the Warriors, who are bringing back essentially the same team that has won three of the last four NBA titles. The only major move they made since last June’s sweep of the Cavs was to add Demarcus Cousins, a low-cost gamble that one of the best offensive big men in the league can overcome last year’s achilles tear.

The Rockets are nipping at the Warriors heels, and if they avoid missing 27 consecutive three-pointers as they did last season in game seven of the Western Conference Finals, they could break the Warriors streak of four straight conference championships.

Beyond that, the West is full of promising teams like the Pelicans, Blazers, and Jazz who are hoping to make the leap into the conference elite.

The Eastern Conference is as wide open as it’s been this decade, now that James’ eight-year reign of terror is over. The Celtics are the favorites to win the conference, with an athletic lineup ideally suited for today’s game of three-pointers and defensive switches.

The Raptors will hope to last longer in the playoffs than previous years now that they have added a talented, albeit disgruntled, Kawhi Leonard. The Sixers also will likely be in contention, led by Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, who both already look like dark horse MVP candidates despite being only 22 and 24, respectively.

Aside from the championship chase, this will likely be the final season for NBA legends Dwayne Wade and Dirk Nowitzki. Wade will play his final year in Miami, where he won three championships, while Nowitzki will have the chance to pass Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan to become the fourth leading scorer in league history by the time his 21st season with the Dallas Mavericks comes to a close.

A deep NBA draft last June also provided the league with many exciting rookies to watch, including the Suns’ superhuman big man Deandre Ayton, the Mavericks’ Luka Doncic, who has already dominated in Europe, and the Hawks’ Trae Young, who looked like Steph Curry at times last year at Oklahoma.

As another season of NBA basketball tips off Tuesday, the Lakers will be one of many teams hoping their offseason moves can turn into success on the court. With LeBron James on the roster, they will likely jump past many teams in the rebuilding process and compete deep into the playoffs.

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