'You can't judge them yet' – LeBron James and the LA Lakers need to get healthy, says five-time NBA champion Ron Harper

FIVE-TIME NBA champion Ron Harper says it's unfair to judge LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers right now.

The Lakers were among the pre-season title favourites but currently sit sixth in the NBA's Western Conference, with a record of 16-14 – eight wins off the leading Golden State Warriors.

Despite the glamorous additions of Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and the return of 2020 title winners Dwight Howard and Rajon Rondo, the Lakers have struggled to string together consistent wins and performances this season.

Critics have consistently pointed to the age of their stars – their average age is over 30, the only team in the league to top 28 – and the need for LeBron and Co to regularly take nights off to save aching limbs.

On Sunday, they face a uniquely structured Chicago Bulls team that was, in contrast, not tipped for success ahead of the season but find themselves second in the East after a superb start to the season.

Harper, who won three titles as a key man alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the Bulls and another two with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Lakers, says the latter will come good come crunch time.

He tells SunSport: "It's been a tough year so far. Every time you put on that Los Angeles jersey it's either a championship year or not a good year.

"They signed a bunch of free agents, they got a bit older. LeBron has missed some time, Anthony Davis has missed some time.

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"You really can't judge them yet because you haven't had a chance to see them healthy.

"I think once they get healthy after the All-Star break, 10-15 games after that, you will really see the kind of team they can become."

Harper, who was in his mid-30s by the time he won those titles as a part of experienced, veteran teams, believes the Lakers will still make noise in the play-offs.

Speaking before Anthony Davis went out of Friday's game with a knee injury, he added: "They are still a competitive team, they're a team that don't need home court advantage [in the play-offs] to beat you.

"They can win at any place because they've got enough experience, they'll just go out there and get the job done.

"But it's about being healthy first. When you've got an old car you've got to change the oil a bit more, you got to put some more gas in it.

"But when it's time for the run, you know it's going to run good.

"When I was in Chicago we were an older team and we always said we didn't have to be the top seed.

"The year we beat Utah [1998] we were second in the East that season. The Lakers have got enough experience that they can go and win any place.

"It's going to be interesting to see what seed LA get in the play-offs, if they end up seventh or eighth it's obviously going to be tougher for them."

In contrast, the Bulls came into the season with low expectations.

Chicago have not made the play-offs since 2017 and pundits pointed to an oddly-constructed squad that looked weak defensively and where new signing DeMar DeRozan appeared a poor fit next to star man Zach LaVine.

But DeRozan and LaVine are thriving next to each other, both averaging 26 points per game, playing stout defence and looking like sure picks for the All-Star game.

Lonzo Ball continues to be one of the best defenders in the NBA and is now also among the league's best shooters, while they are getting great contributions from Nikola Vucevic and Alex Caruso – who was signed from the Lakers in the summer.

And Harper continued: "The Bulls are definitely a surprise this year. They really didn't know what they had.

"They knew Zach Lavine was a great player, DeMar DeRozan is playing at an All-Star level, Lonzo Ball is playing great.

"They got a mixture of young and older guys playing a good brand of basketball, they play a tough brand, and they play well as a team.

"The Bulls are a very unique team, they've got speed, they've got size. If they continue to be as advertised, as good as they've been so far it's going to be a great ending."

Elsewhere in the league, last year's winners the Milwaukee Bucks continue to find their rhythm and are now back near the top of the East, while beaten finalists the Phoenix Suns are also having a brilliant season.

Kevin Durant, James Harden and the Brooklyn Nets sit top of the East despite the continued absence of Kyrie Irving, while the Golden State Warriors look as good as they did when they won three titles in four years – with superstar Klay Thompson back next week.

Harper says: "You've got to put Milwaukee and Brooklyn as the top two [in the East] and then everybody else you never know.

"The spots [after] are going to be tough, they're not going to be divided by more than four or five games I don't think.

"But we know what Milwaukee have, we know what Brooklyn have. We know those two are going to be the top two, everybody else has got to figure out what position they will be in.

"I'm not going to speak on Golden State until Klay Thompson comes back. The Suns are a good basketball team, but I don't know if they can beat the Lakers over a series. Golden State have a better chance as they have people who can shoot.

"In the East it'll come down to Milwaukee and Brooklyn, this time I'm going to give the edge to Brooklyn by [pinches fingers together] this much.

"Without Kyrie it'll tough but if he comes back it's Brooklyn by this much."

*NBA Saturdays and NBA Sundays presented by NBA2K22 on Sky Sports – starting from 6pm every weekend. This week on Sunday, December 18 the Chicago Bulls host the LA Lakers on Sky Sports Football and Sky Sport Mix from 9pm

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