It is a known truth that the Lakers’ quest to hoist NBA championship banner No. 18 will rest in the capable hands of LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
James and Davis have more than enough weapons to help them win the 2024 title. To reach the mountaintop of the NBA, the Lakers first have to navigate an uber-competitive Western Conference.
They begin their march Tuesday night in Denver against the Nuggets, the team that swept them in the conference finals last season and wound up winning the franchise’s first championship.
The Lakers play their first home game Thursday night against the talented Phoenix Suns, who have one of the most lethal threesomes in the league in Kevin Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal.
The Clippers, with a healthy Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, and the Golden State Warriors, with the league’s best shooters in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson as well as Draymond Green and new addition Chris Paul, also are championship-contending foes the Lakers will have to deal with in the West.
Read more: Column: Lakers championship hopes begin — and end? — with LeBron and AD
“We’re just starting out on this journey,” coach Darvin Ham said, “and we got a bunch of high-level thinkers in our program top to bottom.”
Here are five Lakers storylines heading into the season:
Can they stay healthy?
It’s an understatement to say the health of James and Davis is paramount to the Lakers’ success.
James, who turns 39 in December, missed 27 games last season because of a right foot injury in which he “pretty much tore the whole tendon.”
In his 55 games, James still played at a high level. He averaged 28.9 points, 8.3 rebounds and 6.8 assists over 35.5 minutes per game. He shot 32.1% from three-point range and 76.8% from the free-throw line.
Still, James is entering his 21st season, his sixth with the Lakers.
There will be plenty of nights when he’ll be able to carry the Lakers, but on nights he’s not the top dog, that’s when Davis has to be the force.
Davis, 30, missed 26 games last season because of a foot injury. But the Lakers still gave him a three-year, $186-million extension that locks him up through the 2027-28 season.
“It’s my goal every year to play 82 [games],” Davis said on media day.
James has gone on record saying it’s now Davis’ team.
In the 56 games Davis played last season, he averaged 25.9 points, an NBA-high 12.5 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.0 blocks in 34 minutes per game.
He shot 56.3% from the field and 78.4% from the line.
Despite Davis shooting just 25.7% from three-point range, Ham said he wants his forward/center to hoist up six threes per game.
For what it’s worth, Davis made 46.2% of his threes during the preseason.
Looking for a wing man
Which player will step into the void and be the third-leading scorer? They have plenty of options.
Could it be Austin Reaves, or D’Angelo Russell, or Rui Hachimura, or even Gabe Vincent?
“We have a plethora of guys that can carry that load and we’re going to need every one of them,” Ham said. “Every person in that locker room, we’re going to lean on them if we plan on this being a nine-month journey.”
Reaves has shown he’s ready to take his game to another level after he emerged in the playoffs, when he averaged 16.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists while shooting 44.3% from three-point range. He was just as impressive playing for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup over the summer, averaging 13.8 points and shooting 57% from the field and 50% from three-point range over eight games.
In 17 games last season after the Lakers acquired Russell, he averaged 17.4 points and 6.1 assists and shot 41.4% from deep. In six preseason games, he averaged 13.5 points, shot 57.4% from the field, 45.5% from three-point range and made a conscious effort to improve his defense.
Hachimura took a giant step in the playoffs, averaging 12.2 points and 3.6 rebounds while shooting 55.3% from the field, 48.7% from three-point range. He posted a playoff career-high 29 points against Memphis.
Vincent played with the Miami Heat last season and was a big contributor in the playoffs, averaging 12.7 points while shooting 37.8% from three-point range during their run to the NBA Finals.
James, Davis, Reaves, Russell, Hachimura and Vincent are joined by Jarred Vanderbilt, Taurean Prince, Christian Wood, Cam Reddish, Jaxson Hayes and second-year guard Max Christie.
That gives Ham plenty of options from which to choose.
Who will be the fifth starter?
James, Davis, Reaves and Russell will start, but it wasn’t known until Saturday who will be the fifth starter.
Ham announced after practice that Prince will be the fifth starter.
He started the last five preseason games after Jarred Vanderbilt injured his heel, leaving the forward unavailable for the regular-season opener at Denver.
Prince, known as a very good three-and-D player, averaged 9.3 points while shooting 55.9% from the field and 45.8% from three-point range during the preseason.
Ham’s guiding hand
The continued maturation of Ham in his second season also will be important.
When they started last season 2-10, Ham stayed the course and made sure his team did the same. That the Lakers wound up playing in the West finals was a testament to Ham’s ability to guide his team.
“Coach Ham, you could see how the whole season he got better and better and better and then we saw how he made the great moves in the playoffs,” Lakers legend and five-time champion Magic Johnson said. “I was really impressed with Coach Ham’s ability.”
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.