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After an ugly 0-3 start to the 2018-19 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers finally picked up a win last night defeating the Phoenix Suns 131-113.
The Lakers’ struggles have raised plenty of red flags and many NBA fans and experts are still pondering the same question they had during the offseason:
Why would Magic Johnson choose to surround LeBron James with so many controversially polarizing personalities?
Rajon Rondo. JaVale McGee. Lance Stephenson. Michael Beasley.
At first glance, that looks like a squad poised to lead the league in ejections, suspensions and Shaqtin' a Fool nominations.
But according to Johnson, he “watched every [2018 NBA Playoffs] series, so I built this team based on what happened in the playoffs.”
Ultimately, he stacked the roster with excitingly volatile players who would help the Lakers captivate Twitter and dominate media headlines with their unconventional playing styles, combative personalities and flashy highlights.
Johnson sought to maximize TV ratings and jersey sales for James’ first season in Los Angeles while keeping the Lakers relevant amidst the unspoken understanding aound the Association that the Golden State Warriors are heading to their fifth consecutive NBA Finals.
But these controversial free agent signings also serve another purpose.
They protect King James.
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All four players have also been scapegoated to some extent by other teams in the past, so this season marks a genuine opportunity to reenergize their careers and prove they can contribute in a meaningful role while simultaneously earning James’ respect.
James dubbed these four players as “MUD” in an Instagram post, meaning they are “misunderstood, under-appreciated, determined.” With James closely observing, they know this is their chance to earn minutes for the Lakers of the future.
They won’t compete for a championship this season, but they could as soon as next year once Los Angeles signs another All-Star free agent such as Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant.
In the meantime, the locker room is packed with talented but unpredictable players who will serve as perfect scapegoats for Johnson and James to throw under the bus whenever struggles arise.
It will be MUD's fault, not James’, when the Lakers inevitably fail to compete against Western Conference elites this season.
That scapegoating process has already begun for Rondo and Brandon Ingram, who were portrayed as the villains in the brawl with Chris Paul and the Houston Rockets which resulted in suspensions for all three players.
Amidst all that controversy, James completely escaped blame and criticism despite his team’s three-game skid to open the season. Johnson’s plan is working.
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Having one of these guys on your roster can help you win a championship and Rondo, McGee and Stephenson have already shown early flashes of their intriguing potential as they compete for future minutes.
This is essentially a down year by design with James’ comfort in mind as he acclimates to Los Angeles and embraces his new Hollywood persona as an actor and film producer before next summer when he teams up with other elite players as the NBA landscape drastically shifts.
With Durant, Thompson, Leonard, Jimmy Butler, DeMarcus Cousins and other All-Stars ready to enter free agency, the Lakers will have every opportunity to assemble one of the best teams in the league next offseason.