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Even with LeBron, some NBA execs still aren’t sure the Lakers will make the playoffs

LeBron James is in Los Angeles and expectations are high for the Los Angeles Lakers, even if they never wound up getting that second elite player to pair with James.

Paul George might still be with the Thunder and Kawhi Leonard might begrudgingly be a Raptor, but that hasn’t stopped the Lakers from ranking fourth in the latest NBA title odds from Bovada. That might be influenced by some Lakers fans happily betting on the best-looking team they’ve had in ages, but there is still plenty to like on a team with LeBron James and a solid group of young players.

However, some rival execs reportedly still aren’t quite sold. In a report from Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report, two NBA executives threw some cold water on expectations for the Lakers:

“I don’t think the Lakers make the playoffs,” said a Western Conference rival executive who questioned the experience of their talent outside James.

“James has been steadily coasting on defense in recent years. Now he’s going to close games as the Lakers’ 5?” another skeptical executive asked. “Draymond [Green] is why that works for the Warriors.”

Will the Lakers make the playoffs next year?

There’s really no way to say for certain. The arrival of LeBron James led to immediate finals appearances for the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Heat also added Chris Bosh while the Cavs brought in Kevin Love. There’s no extra superstar joining James, nor is there a Dwyane Wade or Kyrie Irving waiting on the Lakers, who went 35-47 last year.

With James, Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and JaVale McGee coming to LA and other players like Julius Randle headed elsewhere, the Lakers will probably need something around a 10-win improvement to make the playoffs. That sounds far from impossible, but you never know what could go wrong with a team that’s about to drastically change its inner workings.

What are the Lakers planning with LeBron James?

As far as what wrenches the Lakers are planning to throw at their Western Conference rivals, one part of Pincus’ story is quite notable: A Lakers version of the Warriors well-known death lineup, featuring James, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma.

“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.

That’s a group of five players between 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-9, and that all bring some kind of danger on offense (some more than others). There would be constant switching on defense and plenty of movement around the ball on offense, with James anchoring the center.

A team structure built around playmakers while James sees more of his time at the post has reportedly been the Lakers’ master plan since signing him, and it’s easy to see why when you look at the small-sample numbers when the Cavaliers ran out James at center last year. There’s no way to know sure if the Lakers are going to be good, but at least they’ll definitely be interesting.

Some NBA executives don’t think LeBron James will enjoy his first year with the Los Angeles Lakers. (Getty Images)

How bad would missing the playoffs be for the Lakers?

Missing the playoffs would be disappointing and mean the end of James’ vaunted NBA finals streak, but the good news is that James signed for four years. This isn’t a wait-and-see deal where LeBron can easily leave if he doesn’t like how things are going in the early stages. And James seems to understand that patience next season could reap benefits in the long term, according to this quote from USA Today:

James believes the Lakers are in position – with some of the players they have now – to build a team that can contend for a championship soon. Also, James was not adamant that another All-Star, such as Kawhi Leonard or Paul George, had to join the Lakers for him to sign with the Lakers. He understands they can build and create a contender with him there.

Leonard has basically been screaming from the rooftops that he plans, for now, to join the Lakers in free agency next season, which would give the Lakers a team consisting of James, Leonard and a group young players good enough that the Spurs wanted them in a trade for Leonard. That sounds like a team that can contend for a championship, even if James first year in Los Angeles isn’t quite what some fans expect.

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