Change is never easy. Switching course midstream is hard. Changing directions in the midst of a storm -- change with adversity -- is even harder. But burning it all down and starting from square one? Sometimes, that's just easier.
But none of it is fun.
The Los Angeles Lakers are right at ground zero of their lengthiest rebuild in twenty years. It's been a stark change from a two decades-long run of nearly continuous title contention--seven Finals appearances and five titles will do that--making this forthcoming third consecutive year of no postseason games an even harsher reality.
The previous two seasons have been manned by two of the very worst Lakers squads of all-time. Marred with injuries to key players, poor personnel decisions, bad contracts, coaching staff turnover and similarly turbulent player turnover, LA couldn't get any consistent production going for 164 straight games. It's been a painful two seasons, though I'd also count the last horrid half of the 2012-2013 season as the first part of the the rebuild as well. Quite plainly, it's probably been the worst stretch of Lakers basketball ever. Ev-er.
The topper of course was last year's team. The 2014-2015 Lakers were, statistically and record-wise, the worst Los Angeles squad of all-time. At 21-61, no team before them had a lower winning percentage. No team had lost more games. They were putrid in almost every way, even struggling towards the end keeping enough players in uniform to fill out an active roster. Names like Vander Blue and Dwight Buycks are forever going to be associated with the purple and gold. I'm not happy about that.
Some of it wasn't completely on the players on the floor. Of their projected starting line-up at the beginning of training camp, Kobe Bryant played in just 35 games, Julius Randle played in three quarters and Steve Nash never even suited up. Even key role players like Nick Young (42 games), Ryan Kelly (49 games) and Xavier Henry (9 games) missed significant time with injury. But truthfully, even if every one of those players were available, it still wouldn't have been a very good team.They simply did not have the personnel necessary to play competitive NBA basketball.
At the core of it was that the Lakers were arguably the worst defensive team in the league. They couldn't stop anyone, allowing points from the inside-out, watching three pointers fly past outstretched arms and craning their necks to see another easy lay-in at the rim. Those Lakers were young, inexperienced and ill-equipped to defend on an NBA level. It was embarrassing to watch night after night, especially in that it never seemed to get any better, even at the season wore on. Combine this with a slow offense that de-emphasized threes and didn't feature much ball movement altogether and blammo--you get the very worst Lakers team ever.
But there are signs that they may not hold that crown for long. Because the 2015-2016 squad could be the new standard for futility in purple and gold.
There's no doubt that this year's Lakers team is bad. I would even go so far as to say that there's no doubt that this Lakers team is very, very bad. At 0-3, they certainly aren't throwing out the good vibes to start with and definitely not the manner in which they're losing. And I don't see the trends stopping any time soon.
As I mentioned, last year's team was victimized by a horrid defense, a mountain of injuries to key players, a troubled and inconsistent offense and young, inexperienced players being given a ton of responsibility. Sound familiar? It should, because that's exactly what the 2015-2016 Lakers are.
Just three games in, it's easy to see how discombobulated this squad is. The key tenet of their difficulties thus far has to be the complete and utter unfamiliarity the team has not only with each other, but with the offensive and defensive schemes. For some players, it's not even a new squad or coaching staff -- it's simply the speed of the NBA game altogether.
This Lakers team is very young, one of the youngest in the NBA. They're relying on a 19-year-old point guard, a 20-year-old power forward and a 23-year-old combo guard. Each one of them are playing key roles on this team, with the three essentially being relied on to carry the offense as Kobe Bryant finds his sea legs after three years of injuries.
Right off the bat, it's going to be very, very difficult for D'Angelo Russell to shine in his rookie year. He's still a teenager trying to learn the most difficult position in the NBA and wrangle an offensive scheme that might not be all that great even in its theoretical construction. Jordan Clarkson proved his worth last season as the lone remaining scoring option while the team was going through a Britney '07-style meltdown, but he still has a long way to go as a shooter and especially as a facilitator. Julius Randle has looked very impressive as a ball-handling big man, but he can be reckless with the rock on the attack and very often is a ball stopper on offense.
These three youngsters certainly have a ton of upside, but they'll take their lumps and I'm certain it'll come faster and harder than we all suspect. It won't take long for opposing coaches to key in on their weaknesses and exploit them, and as we've seen in the previous 60 years of NBA basketball, rookies aren't the quickest to adjust. Still, the Lakers know that they have to ride or die with their youngsters and certainly won't be replacing their minutes with the likes of Lou Williams, Brandon Bass and Nick Young. Clarkson, Russell and Randle will get their minutes, no matter how badly they are slowing down an offense they're still learning, NBA-speed defense they're far from mastering and the physical grind of an 82-game season, the likes of which they've never seen. No matter how bad it gets, this is the core. The organization knows that and they are not going anywhere, no matter how bad the team looks in the process.
Beyond that, the concern for this team has to be a defense that looks every bit as bad as last year's. It's only been three games, so the sample size is incredibly small, to be sure. However, the personnel and suspect nature of the coaching staff leave a ton of questions that may never get answers. The perimeter defenders likely won't change: Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, Nick Young and two young fellas in Russell and Clarkson will be patrolling the three point line, watching defenders blow by on simple pick and rolls or pin down screens. Even the most physically able players -- Russell and Clarkson -- are again, not keyed in to NBA-style defense yet. Will that improve as the season goes on? Perhaps. But most likely not enough to make a meaningful difference. What's frustrating is that between Clarkson, Randle, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass and even Young (at times), the Lakers have enough athletes to have an adequate defense, at the very least.
However, there's serious concerns that this coaching staff isn't equipped to teach their players how to defend adequately. With a similar young rebuild in Cleveland, Byron Scott's teams finished 29th, 26th and 27th in defensive efficiency from 2010-2013. We're now looking at what could be five straight years with young teams finishing in the bottom five of defense for a BS-led squad, a damning statistic to say the least. Now, the hope is that Roy Hibbert asserts himself more and can become a defensive strategy unto himself. However, if the perimeter D remains porous and/or constantly confused, it's not going to make much of a difference no matter who is patrolling the paint.
Offensively, this team is a different nightmare altogether. Part of it has to be a team of essentially all-new players. Aside from Young, Bryant, Clarkson and Ryan Kelly (each of whom missed large chunks of games last season), the rotation is stocked with guys who have never played for Scott, nor with one another, ever. Combine that with two rookies getting major minutes, it's no wonder the Lakers look like such a mess while trying to score. I suspect that this will get better as the season progresses, but it's troublesome to see not just that the offense looks like a bunch of one-on-one possessions with little to no movement from anyone other than the ball handler, but how completely unprepared everyone looks on the court. A bigger issue will be how long it'll take Kobe to round into shape and how long the team will allow him to take such a big part in the offense while doing so. Taking all this into account, I can't imagine how many games it will be before this LA scoring attack rounds into whatever Byron Scott has in mind. Again, it's hard to judge the conceptualized offense with so many factors going against it, but like the defense, there's also a chance that Byron's offensive concepts are, well, shit.
Again, I can't stress this enough: it's been three games. THREE. However, it's not so much that the Lakers have played poorly against three very mediocre teams and haven't yet faced a surefire playoff team, but rather, the signs within their losses, personnel difficulties and coaching hurdles that have surfaced. It's the ingredients that worry me, not the final products thus far. The hope for improvement as the season wears on has to be Kobe Bryant rounding into shape and not breaking down and Roy Hibbert stabilizing the defense. Other than that, I'm not sure how this team gets better, considering all the other attrition I expect them to suffer from.
The 2015-2016 Lakers are going to be a bad defensive team, maybe one of the worst in the NBA. They are going to develop their youngsters, no matter what the results are on the court--even the great Kobe Bryant said as much. They are full of teammates that have almost zero continuity with one another. They are in possession of an offense that no one seems to know how to run and may not be all that great to begin with.
But is this last season type of bad? Is this 62-loss type of bad?
The defense would have to continue to falter and be one of the three worst in the league. The offense would have to keep stagnating while opposing teams become better versed in how to shut down the one-on-one possessions. The Lakers would have to have extremely bad luck, which may come from playing Russel, Randle and Clarkson in late, close games, in which I have no doubt they'll make stupid rookie mistakes. Kobe would have to continue to play poorly and then if he improves, stop playing altogether. The team would have to sell off pieces at the deadine, including Hibbert and Young.
All of those things are in play. Well in play. Without a doubt.
Last season I predicted, fairly early, that we could be looking at the worst LA Lakers team of all-time. But looking at all the factors going against the 2015-2016 Lakers, this team could be even worse. It's not a lock and several factors would have to torpedo this roster, but ... we've seen it before.
Strap in my friends. It could be a long season.
--Follow this author @TheGreatMambino