The last four years for the Los Angeles Lakers have been a time marred by tulmultuous ownership, conflicts among players, and four different coaches. In 2017, owner Jeanie Buss decided to take a different direction by gutting the entire front office and bringing in Lakers legend Magic Johnson, followed by superstar agent Rob Pelinka. The duo moved quick in their plans, by subsequently trading D’Angelo Russell and drafting UCLA point guard, Lonzo Ball with the number two overall pick. Now, with new ownership, the Lakers look to get back to the winning days of old, but will it work?
Last season the Lakers got off to a promising start, starting 10-10 while at the time facing one of the league’s three hardest schedules. Coach Luke Walton’s offense was proving to provide efficient, open looks that benefitted the likes of D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, and Jordan Clarkson. Over time, though, as injuries and conflicts arose, the team fell apart; highlighted by a 1-12 record in the month of December. They ended up finishing with a 26-56 record, good for second worst in the West.
Throughout all of the issues from last season, there was still some promise. Ivica Zubac surprised many with his play in becoming a nightly double-double threat. Also, over the season, Brandon Ingram showed significant signs of improvement. Julius Randle showed signs of being a force in this league, despite his very inconsistent play on a night-to-night basis. Luke Walton showed signs of being a very good coach, with an offense that has many of the same principles of the Golden State Warriors. The best part of last season, though, was the Lakers keeping their draft pick and drafting potential superstar point guard, Lonzo Ball.
For the first time in a long time, the Lakers actually had an offseason of improvement. Even with trading combo guard D’Angelo Russell, they were able to dump off the Mozgov contract and acquire Brook Lopez, who is on an expiring deal. They also added two-way player Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on a one year deal, as a “don’t tell me, show me” kind of deal. As said before, the drafting of Lonzo Ball proved to be a turning point in the franchise, with Johnson and Pelinka going all in and handing Ball the reigns to the franchise. The draftings of players Kyle Kuzma and Thomas Bryant, both of which showed promise in the 2017 Summer League, may prove to be exceptional pieces off the bench.
Some of the key departures include the aforementioned D’Angelo Russell, Lou Williams, Timofey Mozgov, and Nick Young. Russell was a young player I liked very much, but he lacked the maturity and leadership to lead this time to better times. I think he is going to develop into a good player, but the Lakers aren’t the right team for him. Lou Williams was traded midseason to the Rockets for a draft pick. His scoring may be missed, but he’s a player who needs the ball on a team where the culture is trying to become pass-first. Mozgov and Young are expendable pieces, and have already been replaced with better players on the bench.
While the addition of player personnel showed signs of improvement to the team, arguably the most important move for the team was the exile of former President of Basketball Operations, Jim Buss. Since the great Dr. Jerry Buss passed away in 2013, the takeover of the former has caused great conflict within the organization, and family. Moves such as giving Kobe Bryant a two year, $50 million deal at the end of his career and foregoing the hire of Phil Jackson in favor of coach Mike D’Antoni has caused ripple effects that have extended out to the fan base.
With Jeanie Buss calling the shots now, fans, players, and people within the organization have glimmers of hope. Her firing her own brother and taking charge has shown she’s not afraid to do whatever it takes to get the Lakers back on a winning path. Hiring Johnson and Pelinka were great foundational pieces, but if the Lakers don’t start winning, how long will the duo have left before they are ousted?
Projected starting lineup (averages from last year in parenthesis):
PG: Lonzo Ball (14.6 points/6.0 rebounds/7.6 assists- 55.1% FG, 41.2% 3P%)*
SG: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (13.8 points/3.3 rebounds/2.5 assists- 39.9% FG, 35% 3P%)
SF: Brandon Ingram (9.4 points/4.0 rebounds/2.1 assists- 40.2% FG, 29.4% 3P%)
PF: Julius Randle (13.2 points/8.6 rebounds/3.6 assists- 48.8% FG, 27% 3P%)
C: Brook Lopez (20.5 points/5.4 rebounds/2.3 assists- 47.4% FG, 34.6% 3P%)
*Player was in college last season
This is probably the best starting lineup the Lakers have had since the Dwight Howard-Kobe Bryant-Steve Nash days. With Lonzo Ball as a pure point guard and distributor, this lineup will get plenty of opportunities to score. Ball shot 41.2% from the three point line, which should help the Lakers improve from 22nd overall from deep. Caldwell-Pope and Ingram will get plenty of spot up attempts and be vital to the fast breaks aided by Ball. Julius Randle is the outlier of the group, as he has struggled shooting from outside the paint and typically relies on low-post play. However, with his willingness to run the floor and improved body shape, Randle will get plenty of opportunities on the fast break. Brook Lopez may have the biggest impact as a pick-and-pop big man who shot 34.6% from three last season.
Vital bench players:
PG: Jordan Clarkson
PG: Tyler Ennis
SG: Josh Hart
SF: Luol Deng
PF: Kyle Kuzma
PF: Larry Nance
C: Thomas Bryant
C: Ivica Zubac
The Lakers also have a very improved, but inexperienced bench. Point guard duo Jordan Clarkson and Tyler Ennis will be very good backups to Ball and Pope, while rookie Josh Hart may find a role within the roster. The Lakers also have a very good front court mix, with Kyle Kuzma and Larry Nance as high-flying, stretch power forwards. Nance has shown improvement on his shooting and needs to work on his defense, but has shown some nights to be a triple-double threat. Kuzma showed a lot of potential in summer league and was a top five performer during the summer. Leading the centers, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant should complement each other well. Zubac is a classic post-up big man with some defensive prowess, and may be used next season when the pace slows down in games. Bryant is a young but athletic player, who has shown an ability to score and rebound the ball.
What to Improve on from Last Year
While the Lakers improved upon their offense from last year, their is still plenty of room for improvement. The Lakers ranked 17th in the NBA in scoring, averaging 104 points per game, while shooting a mediocre 45% from the field, good for 21st in the league. The Lakers also shot a below-average percentage from three, shooting 34.6% and ranking 22nd in the league. Also, despite the improved offensive scheme which Luke Walton formed from his experience on the Warriors, the Lakers averaged only 21 assists, which ranked in the bottom five in basketball.
The Lakers experienced even more problems on the defensive end. The team gave up a putrid 111.5 points of that end of the floor, the third worst mark in the association. While averaging 8.2 steals (the fifth best mark in basketball), they averaged only 4 blocks a game, which was third worst in basketball. The Lakers absence of rim protection was a big reason for their awful defense. The Lakers also averaged the fifth most turnovers in basketball and ranked in the bottom half of the league in total rebounding.
Clearly, the most glaring issues from last season were on the defensive side of the court. Brandon Ingram’s development and Caldwell-Pope’s acquisition may help, but at point guard, the Lakers lack any player of above average defense. In the West, Lonzo Ball and company are going to have some long nights. Although, if they can control the pace, the Lakers could give a lot of teams problems. Lonzo Ball’s passing and leadership could make waves and give the Lakers life, but if Lonzo doesn’t pan out as hoped, the Lakers will have another long season ahead of them.
Another immediate fix on defense needs to come from the Laker’s big men. Julius Randle, Brook Lopez, and Thomas Bryant must step up and become rim protectors. The Lakers gave up 47 points in the paint last year (third worst in the league) at a time when scoring in the paint has become less and less important. Often times, the Lakers would give up on the fast breaks and not even attempt to defend.
Three Moves the Lakers need to make
- Trade Luol Deng and Jordan Clarkson. The Lakers have to get rid of some cap space in preparation for the 2018 offseason. Luol Deng was a signing that never made sense, and the trade market for him may be near nonexistent, so the alternate option may be to stretch his contract over five years (and hope he maybe retires in that time). Trading Jordan Clarkson will be easier, but maybe for divisive. Some fans love Clarkson’s ability to score and run, but that’s really all he is good for. The Lakers have plenty of scorers for the upcoming season, and a veteran contender may pay to bring Clarkson off the bench (See Raptors, Wizards, Thunder).
- Give up Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in the offseason. Unless both players plan on taking less money on long-term deals, there is no reason to throw money at both players. Brook Lopez is an aging big-man who is a below average rebounder with numerous injury problems. Caldwell-Pope may prove to be a better asset, but I imagine he’ll pursue a long-term, max-like deal if he has a career year. He’s a good player, but also has a lot of consistencies and issues on both ends of the floor. Perimeter scorers are easy to find in this day and age so, finding someone who will be cheaper and a better shooter from three won’t be a hard task.
- Go all-in on LeBron James and Paul George. Do I really have to explain the rationale for this? Okay, I will. Paul George has openly said he desires to be in the purple and gold at some point in his career, and at age 27, his prime and window for a championship is closing. The Thunder will be a good team this year, but will ultimately prove to be the fourth best team in the West behind the Warriors, Spurs, and Rockets. George can have his own team with a young and potentially great point guard who is willing to share. LeBron James is another story, with all possibilities of him going to the Lakers is all speculation. What is true though: LeBron is unhappy with the Cavalier’s organization, the roster is slowly getting worse, and he has already achieved his goal he set out for in bringing Cleveland a championship.
Predictions and Outlook
While the Lakers have made some strides this offseason, the West is better than ever with eleven teams vying for a playoff spot (every team except for PHX, LAL, SAC, and DAL). The Lakers will have to have an exceptional season just to make the eight seed.
I predict 27-35 wins for the Lakers, with Lonzo Ball finishing in the top three in rookie of the year voting. I believe Brandon Ingram will become a force, and will double his averages he posted last year and become a contender for most improved player. The acquisitions of Lopez and Caldwell-Pope will be admirable, but this team will struggle on the defensive end. Hopefully, the young role players in Nance, Zubac, Kuzma, Bryant, and Hart make strides this year and begin to form a young powerful core.
The Lakers have spent four years being everything they’re not; losing, conflict, and no superstars. But for the first time in what feels like a lifetime, the fans have one thing that has been absent: hope.