May 29, 2024

This Lakers preview column wanted to be trendy.

It wanted to predict the 2023-2024 season through the lens of their young and shiny objects. It wanted to cite Rob Pelinka’s smart summer maneuvers as the key to this team’s championship hopes. It wanted to praise the depth, marvel at the versatility, and go bonkers over the bench.

Who doesn’t want to trumpet the fun of Austin Reaves, the maturity of D’Angelo Russell, the shooting of Rui Hachimura, the smarts of Gabe Vincent, the toughness of Taurean Prince, the promise of Max Christie, the potential of Christian Wood and … ?

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

This Lakers preview column wanted to be trendy, it really did, but that approach could only survive all of three paragraphs.

Who are we kidding? As has happened with each of the previous four seasons, the entirety of the ambitions of a Lakers dozen rest on the shoulders of only two.

LeBron and A.D. Who else? Run it back. Once again.

It’s obvious and repetitive and frankly a little boring, but it’s also the absolute truth. The Lakers fortunes begin — and end? — with LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

If LeBron and A.D. stay healthy, they can win a championship. If they don’t, they won’t.

If LeBron and A.D. play well, they can beat anybody. If they don’t, they won’t.

If LeBron and A.D. act like the superstars they are, all those role players will shine. If they don’t, they won’t.

Of course, both guys can show up for every game and record career-high numbers and something else could go haywire and derail the winning. It’s obvious, they can’t win anything by themselves.

But without them, the Lakers can’t win anything, period.

Thus leads this column to the one question every Lakers fan must ask themselves before what could be the most exciting Lakers season since they won their last 82-game championship a distant 13 years ago.

Do you believe in LeBron and A.D.? Not just one of them, but both of them. If you do, you’ll believe these Lakers have a good chance of returning to the Western Conference finals and a decent chance of turning last spring’s four-game sweep on its head. You’ll believe these Lakers can then advance to an NBA Finals for what everyone in town would hope to be a monumental duel with the Boston Celtics in the final lap of the race to 18.

If you believe in LeBron and A.D., who have led the team to a 95-49 record when both play in the same game, you will believe in a championship. If you don’t, you won’t.

Meanwhile, your prognosticating columnist isn’t so sure what to believe, and he’s certainly not going out on a limb to make any guarantees right now. Been there, done that.

This space recently contained a prediction of a Dodgers’ World Series title. They didn’t win a playoff game. This was preceded by a prediction of an unbeaten regular season for USC football. That didn’t last two months.

Nothing so bold will be happening in regard to the Lakers. You’re welcome.

When coming from this keyboard, any prediction will henceforth proceed with caution, particularly here, when both Lakers anchors are swimming in questions.

Start, as everything in this organization starts, with LeBron.

Lakers stars Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James tower over reporters and photographers at media day.

Lakers stars Anthony Davis, left, and LeBron James carry the weight of the Lakers’ championship hopes on their shoulders again this season.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

When we last left him, James was carrying the Lakers through the final game of their competitive but winless series against the eventual champion Denver Nuggets, scoring 40 points with 10 rebounds and nine assists and failing only when his final potential score-tying shot was blocked by Aaron Gordon.

On that bitter night, the Lakers were eliminated but James was empowered, playing all 48 minutes while showing he can still carry this team when necessary.

But …

He’ll turn 39 during the season. That makes him the oldest active player in a league that celebrates its youth.

He will be playing in his 21st season, more than Kobe Bryant played, more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar played, and more than all but five players in NBA history.

He hasn’t played in anything close to a full season since he came to the Lakers five years ago, and every season he misses large chunks of time because of injuries, the latest being a foot problem that hampered him through last spring’s playoffs.

When he plays, his production is still strong, he’s still incredible, amazing, awe-inspiring. In the last two seasons, he produced his highest scoring averages in 13 years.

But he can’t play like this forever, can he? Father Time is undefeated, right? At some point, he will get … you know … old?

“I feel different, I’m not a 21-year-old, that’s for sure,” he acknowledged earlier this fall. “Feels a little different getting out of bed every day. But as far as my energy level, I feel pretty good.”

Betting on James is betting that he will continue to outrace the aging process. It’s that simple. Judging from how strong he’s looked in training camp, it’s an understandable bet. But it’s still a shaky bet.

It’s almost as shaky as the bet that comes with Davis.

Yes, he was the best player in the league for much of last year’s playoffs. Yes, when he’s on the court he can be an unstoppable force, witness his double-digit rebounds in 12 of their 16 postseason games, and the four times he scored at least 30.

But …

Like James, Davis has yet to play even close to a full season with the Lakers. In fact, he has yet to play a full season in his 11-year NBA career.

He’s seemingly always hurt, every fall to the court is accompanied by great wincing and worry, and how can you trust that he can be upright enough to carry anybody?

“My body feels good,” he said recently. “I’m prepared to play every game this year.”

When he does play, there is a question of whether he is ready to fully assume the leadership responsibilities that come with his recent $186-million contract extension. Remember, in last year’s Western Conference finals, he went great game, stinker, great game, stinker. The inconsistency is troubling, as was his answer to this columnist’s question on media day about, given his new contract situation, are the Lakers now his team?

“I think this is the Lakers team and I play for the Lakers,” he said.

Davis needs to step up. James needs to stay up. If they can do that, the Lakers will rise up.

If they don’t, they won’t.

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