After two preseason games, the '14-15 Los Angeles Lakers have shown us both some of the potential of what this roster can do when it is clicking, and the very sobering reality of how much this team's defense will struggle. It's dangerous to draw too many conclusions from just two preseason games, but here are some things that I have observed anyway.
Judging by my Twitter feed (with the exception of during portions of the loss to Golden State) optimism abounds about this Lakers team. That this group would get waxed by a more polished, more talented, and hot shooting Warriors team that has more roster continuity should not surprise anyone who had reasonable expectations for this season.
Despite the difficulties against the Dubs, unquestionably the most positive development for most fans is that Kobe has shown flashes of his once-and-hopefully-still legendary game, demonstrating that his fadeaway game is still alive and well. This, as well as the 19-year veteran moving well out on the floor and holding up thus far as the undoubted centerpiece of the offense, has been a treat to witness once again after he spent the better part of a year and a half on the shelf.
Additionally, Julius Randle has injected some much needed hope and youth into the roster. Head Coach Byron Scott may have stated that the rookie looked "lost" after the loss against Golden State, but:
1) It is only the second preseason game, and all rookies struggle to learn the ins, outs, and minutiae of defending at the NBA level
2) It's not like Carlos Boozer or any of the other veterans look like Magellan on that end.
Two (albeit meaningless) games into the Lakers season, and Randle has looked on track to have a positive season, riding his bull-in-a-China-shop dribble drive game to many a highlight reel along the way.
During these two contests, a few more scattered thoughts came to mind regarding these performances and the Lakers grander roster building plan.
All salary data per Sham Sports unless otherwise indicated:
Would you rather have Carlos Boozer, Nick Young, and Ed Davis for around $9.2 million this year (with only Young's contract guaranteed for more than this year) or Pau Gasol for $7.1 million on a rising deal with a player option for a third year? These were not necessarily the only two choices, but for what it's worth I would much rather have that first grouping.
I hear the argument that Jordan Hill is Gasol's real replacement, but Hill's deal is essentially stop-gap trade-bait, with next year being a team option. Also, Ed Davis has looked as great as many thought he might, ably playing his role to a T (rolling hard to the basket, playing defense, and getting rebounds) and showing that he could indeed be the free agency steal that many predicted he might be.
The Lakers may not be spending in traditional throw-all-your-money at free agent X ways that a lot of fans associate with ownership wanting to win, but they are flexing their big market financial muscle in other ways, such as buying the pick used on Jordan Clarkson for $1.8 million and guaranteeing his salary of $507,336*. To this observer, taking a shot on Clarkson at such a rate is preferable to spending similar money to do something like (hypothetically) bring back familiar face and Kobe favorite Steve Blake for two years at around $2 million annually with the second year as a player option (even with Clarkson's shooting struggles thus far). Clarkson's second year is unguaranteed unless he is on 2015's opening night roster, in which case his salary of $845,059* would be guaranteed.
In Blake, the Lakers and the league already know what they are getting, whereas Clarkson is an unknown who could turn into a solid contributor by the time that the Lakers are ready to really be competitive again (around the time that Randle starts winning his first of numerous MVP awards and bullies the Lakers into contention, for both championships and blue-chip free agents). So far the rookie is off to a rough start, but has also shown some flashes of the dynamism and potential that led many to declare him such a steal on the night of the draft.
These choices between X and Y are fairly arbitrary, but I believe they do a solid job of demonstrating that the Lakers are utilizing all of the options that they have to get better in a mostly coherent way, which in turn demonstrates that there is a plan behind this roster building. It has been laid out before, but here is a re-hash in its simplest terms:
Take chances on young players, hoping one or two pans out as role players down the road (i.e. Clarkson, Kelly, Sacre, renting Lin in order to acquire an extra first round pick.)
Maintain as much financial flexibility going forward as possible (demonstrated by most of these players being on what are essentially one-year deals).
Using this flexibility, as well as the draw of an attractive roster with younger pieces, and eventually take swings at max free-agents in order to become competitive again.
What is lost in a lot of the criticism that this team has taken over the past year is that the Cleveland Cavaliers just executed a very similar plan, even down to hiring Byron Scott to help them tank for better picks (sorry). Now, I am not saying that this is the same situation, there is no obvious LeBron James type of free-agent out there with homecoming ties to Los Angeles, but I do believe that this plan is a solid one. If the team continues to draft well where it has picks (it mostly has so far), buoyed by the new cap space infusion from the NBA's recent mega-TV deal, then the Lakers can certainly give themselves the opportunity to be a prime landing spot for a couple of really good players who can lead them right back on the road to contention.
The NBA preseason, where unbridled optimism happens.