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Magic Johnson ‘not scared’ of Warriors as Lakers plan ‘Death Lineup’ with LeBron James at center

LeBron James hugs new Lakers teammate Josh Hart at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The addition of LeBron James has the Los Angeles Lakers thinking big, albeit in a small-ball way. The team is reportedly “eager” to take a page from the Golden State Warriors with its own “Death Lineup,” one featuring the former Cleveland Cavaliers star at center. And Lakers President Magic Johnson is at least as excited to take on Golden State directly, preferably with a spot in the NBA Finals at stake.

“I’m a competitor, so I’m not scared of Golden State,” Johnson said Wednesday on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” adding, “I’m not worried about Golden State. They don’t keep me up at night.”

Asked whether the Lakers, as constituted “right now,” could beat the Warriors, particularly after they added all-star center DeMarcus Cousins, Johnson replied, “I think that we will look forward to that challenge.

“Everybody expects Golden State to win again, but I would love to have the challenge to play them in the Western Conference finals, if we can get to that position,” he continued. ” … I know that we have a really solid team, a good team, a competitive team and a tough-minded team. And we’ve got guys now who are winners.”

Johnson described James as someone who “brings a championship mentality to our team,” and he cited two other recent free agent acquisitions, Rajon Rondo and JaVale McGee, as having been on NBA title-winning squads. Neither of them, though, nor Lance Stephenson, another veteran added after James announced he was going to Los Angeles, was among the players the Lakers plan to use in their version of the so-called Death Lineup.

Rather, according to Bleacher Report’s Eric Pincus, James would be surrounded by the Lakers’ four most promising young players. “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,” an unidentified team executive told Pincus.

The only catch is that James would have to play center, something he rarely has done and a role that, as Pincus noted, could involve some taxing defensive responsibilities. James is bigger and more athletic than Draymond Green, who plays center in the Warriors’ version — which some have re-dubbed the “Hamptons Five” after Golden State replaced Death Lineup member Harrison Barnes with Kevin Durant — but Green has almost none of James’s scoring burden on offense.

Then again, even the Warriors have chosen to judiciously use their Death Lineup, which also includes Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala in a quintet capable of switching effectively on defense while raining points on overmatched foes. The lineup has tended to hit the floor toward the end of halves, either to give Golden State a halftime bulge or to let it lock up victories.

The Lakers could try a similar approach while letting McGee, brought over after winning consecutive championships with the Warriors, get the bulk of the minutes at center. But the gambit is not without its risks, as a skeptical executive with another team told Pincus.

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

Nevertheless, Johnson is just delighted that his team has the ability to experiment with any kind of lineup featuring James, especially after he claimed he should be fired if he did not lure a superstar to the Lakers either this summer or in 2019. Asked by Kimmel if, at the time of those comments, he had “a good idea” that he would get LeBron, Johnson replied, “I had confidence in myself, the Laker brand, the young players that we had, and Luke Walton as the coach.”

Johnson said he and General Manager Rob Pelinka “had done our homework” and “really thought we had a great plan to introduce to LeBron.” Saying he’d watched “all the film” of James, in both of the latter’s stints with the Cavs as well as with the Miami Heat, Johnson asserted that he had gotten “a sense of [James’s] game, and what he wanted, in terms of what he was looking for.”

When the Lakers signed Rondo, Stephenson and McGee, all of whom have had moments of tension with James as opponents, and none of whom brought the kind of outside shooting considered most helpful to the four-time NBA MVP, some wondered whether the team had actually run those moves past its newest franchise icon. Following Johnson’s late-night appearance, it’s also fair to speculate about how much James has been “looking for” a chance to play extended minutes at center, not to mention how much that prospect will keep the Warriors up at night.

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