College Professional Sports

SPORTS DIGEST: Opening night is here for LeBron and the Lakers

By Don Wanlass

Staff Writer

There is no doubt that LeBron James will make the Lakers a better team this season.

James makes his Lakers debut Oct. 18 in Portland at 7:30 p.m. TNT will have its zany cast of characters bringing you the game, focusing most of its attention on James.

That’s how it should be. At 33, he is still the best player in basketball on the planet. Where he stands in the pantheon of all-time greats remains to be seen, but he is easily among the top 10 all time to play the game and probably in the top 5.

In more than 1,100 games he has averaged 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. At 6-8 and 250 pounds, he can guard just about anybody on the floor.

He has been to the NBA Finals nine times in 11 years, including the last eight years. His teams have won the NBA title three times, so James will make a difference on a Los Angeles Lakers teams that has missed the playoffs five years in a row.

Whether he can lift the Lakers back into the playoffs this season will be determined over the long, 82-game season that won’t end until the middle of April.

If the Lakers played in the Eastern Conference, which James has dominated for most of the last decade, I would say the Lakers are definitely a playoff team. But the NBA Western Conference is tougher than the East and the Lakers are going to have to improve a whole lot to climb past some of those teams, including the team they share Staples Center with, the Los Angeles Clippers.

Personally, I think the Lakers can make the playoffs. They aren’t going to unseat the Golden State Warriors as king of the Western Conference, but they should end their playoff drought, which will make Lakers fans happy this year.

James might have a better team this season with the Lakers than he did last year with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Lakers have done a good job of drafting the last two or three years and have some young talent that is starting to blossom into solid NBA players.

Brandon Ingram, now in his third season out of Duke, is the player who will most benefit from James’ presence. Ingram will be able to watch how James works out, practices and studies the game to learn how the elite players act on and off the court.

Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball also have more room to grow and will learn from watching and playing with James.

Team President Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka brought in veteran talent like point guard Rajon Rondo, center JaVale McGee and swingman Lance Stephenson to provide some experience and leadership.

Those are eight solid players. Add to that mix veteran forward Michael Beasley, who can provide scoring off the bench; and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who averaged 13 points a game for the Lakers last season; and the Lakers won’t miss Julius Randle, who signed with New Orleans as a free agent when the Lakers let him walk after last season.

It remains to be seen how James will get along with Lakers coach Luke Walton. Although more than four years older than James, Walton entered the NBA the same year as James, chosen 31 picks after his current player.

In the past, James has been known to run off coaches he didn’t like. Johnson, Pelinka and, most importantly, Lakers owner Jeanne Buss, like Walton. Unless this team blows up in January, I don’t see Walton losing his job.

I think James will be willing to let Walton coach as long as the team wins more than it loses.

Last year’s Lakers won 35 games. I expect at least a 30 percent increase in wins for a team that suddenly has a bright future.

THAT OTHER TEAM: After being the top dog in Staples Center for the last five years, the Los Angeles Clippers again find themselves in the Lakers’ shadow. And unfortunately, there is no Blake Griffin, Chris Paul or DeAndre Jordan to help them out this year.

Yes, the Lob City days are over for the Clippers. Jordan has been replaced at center by Marcin Gortat, Montrezl Harrell is the power forward instead of Griffin and Patrick Beverley and Avery Bradley will share the point instead of Paul.

Only four players on the 15-man roster played more than half the season for the Clippers last year and that includes super sub Lou Williams, who provides instant offense off the bench.

The Clippers have had a franchise record seven straight winning seasons, the last five under coach Doc Rivers, who returns without his son, Austin, who was traded for Gortat in the offseason.

Gortat is backed up by one of the biggest players in the league, Boban Marjanovic, who has become a crowd favorite at Staples Center, who can shoot and move better than his 7-3 frame might indicate.

Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris will rotate with Harrell at both forward spots and rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has impressed at time during the preseason at point guard to give the Clippers someone to provide a youthful spark.

Like the Lakers, the Clippers will take a while to get to know each other. We probably won’t see their best efforts until January.

But by April, the Clippers figure to be in the hunt for one of the last playoff spots in the NBA Western Conference. At the start of the season, that’s the best they can hope for.

TOYING WITH EMOTIONS: The Dodgers continue to toy with the fragile psyches of their fans. As this is being written, the Dodgers are toed 2-2 with the Milwaukee Brewers, a couple of hours before playing game five in the best of seven series.

This has not been the playoff series the experts predicted. The Brewers pitching staff has frustrated the Dodgers hitters and Brewers manager Craig Counsell has messed with Dave Roberts mind (and batting orders) by quickly removing his starting pitcher in three of the four games. Each time, Roberts has stuck with his platoon system, meaning his bench is decimated by the fifth inning.

While the Dodgers starting pitching and the Brewers relief pitching were supposed to be the keys to the series, the Dodgers have been able to score only two runs in the first six innings of the first four games and the Brewers have been unable to hit the Dodgers relief pitchers.

Whatever happens in game five, game six will be held in Milwaukee at 5:30 p.m. Oct. 19.

A BIG WIN: You know it has been a rough season when a 31-20 victory over Colorado is considered a big win. That’s how it has been for the USC Trojans, who are now 4-2 on the season, but more importantly, leading the Pac 12 South.

Colorado entered the game with a 5-0 record and ranked 19th in the country, but they couldn’t stop freshman quarterback JT Daniels when they had to. Daniels completed only 18 of 35 passes but he threw for 283 yards and all three touchdowns.

Michael Pittman Jr. caught six passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns and Tyler Vaughans caught five passes for 86 yards and the other score.

USC never got its running game going against Colorado. The Trojans gained only 55 yards on the ground in 24 carries.

The Trojans played without inside linebacker and captain Cameron Smith, who has a hamstring injury and then lost outside linebacker Porter Gustin for the rest of the season with a broken ankle.

The Trojans need to win Oct. 20 at Utah to maintain their lead in the Pac 12 South.