ESPN's much-hyped Summer Forecast of the NBA's '15-'16 Western Conference standings debuted this week. The mothership turned in a scathing projection for the Los Angeles Lakers' record, declaring the team would achieve a mere 26-56 record, giving them the second-worst record in the Western Conference.
The #TeamTank enthusiasts out there may enjoy this news. The Lakers first-round pick in the 2016 NBA Draft is top-3 protected and at 26 wins, or the fourth-worst record in the league, the franchise would solidly be in the running to once again retain said pick at lottery time.
However, I have my doubts that the Lakers will flounder as badly as ESPN projects, or to the depths of the previous two seasons. This Lakers team should be able to win more than 26 games during the upcoming season due to three primary reasons.
The trade for Hibbert was one of the central roster upgrades, if not the most important, made over the summer. The trade to acquire him cost the squad an unprotected 2019 second-round pick. However, the move has the potential to significantly shore up the team's lackluster interior defense
Last season, the Lakers defense ranked an abysmal second worst in defensive efficiency while the Hibbert-anchored Indiana Pacers enjoyed a much healthier eighth place ranking. Hibbert's Pacers shaved off roughly 7 fewer points on defense per 100 possessions than the Lakers.
During his stellar '13-'14 campaign, Hibbert ranked fifth-best in the league, contributing 5 defensive win shares throughout the entire season. His defensive plus-minus stood sixth best in the league at 3.3, and was fourth best in the league with 2.2 blocks per game.
Hibbert is in a contract year and has worked diligently this offseason to put himself in the best mental and physical condition possible. If he is able to rediscover his form from two seasons ago, the Lakers will have an elite defensive center on hand.
The team's perimeter defense will also greatly benefit from Hibbert's presence. Russell and Randle will have some definite growing pains containing the drive, but even Kobe Bryant is no longer an elite defender by any measure and may struggle to adapt to playing small forward. Hibbert, the verticality expert, will be able to cover up for their defensive mistakes with solid paint protection.
Hibbert will prove to be a much-needed safety net preventing what were easy buckets at the rim last year. With an improved defensive efficiency, the Lakers stand to squeeze out a few more wins in close games.
Pace and space
The Lakers roster has undergone a significant overhaul this summer. The new lineup is considerably quicker and far deadlier from behind the arc. Perhaps to Byron Scott's chagrin the front office has clearly constructed this team in the mold of the pace and space era.
A quicker pace is important because it yields extra possessions per game. The additional volume of shots created by a quicker pace and the increased emphasis throughout the roster on three-point shooters should lead to a natural increase in points per game. Incoming rookies D'Angelo Russell and Anthony Brown in particular excelled in college from behind the arc and in transition. The front office's additional acquisitions of Lou Williams, Michael Frazier, and Jonathan Holmes clearly indicate a trend towards attaining shooters who can spread the floor.
The return of Julius Randle will bring another infusion of speed into the offense because of his proclivity and skill in initiating the fast break immediately off a rebound. Even Scott has repeatedly encouraged Randle to push the tempo and run the break. In conjunction with Jordan Clarkson and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers starting unit should have four consistent ball-handlers capable of pushing the pace in transition.
There are of course some potential obstructions to this roster totally unlocking its small ball potential. Most importantly is Byron Scott's instinctive aversion to emphasizing the three-point shot or quick hitting offensive sets within the half-court. The Lakers' Summer League performance showed just how balky Scott's Princeton sets in the half-court could be.
Furthermore, Hibbert weighed down the Pacers attempt to run-and-gun last season. With Hibbert on the bench the Pacers were able to achieve 3.1 more possessions per 48. However, Hibbert has lost 16 pounds during the offseason in an effort to adapt to the small ball style of play.
Assuming the Lakers are able to maintain a quicker pace and exploit their new three-point shooting firepower, we are looking at a more explosive Lakers offense.
Now my entire theory, predicated upon the hope and expectation that this season will be a healthier one, could come crashing down if the Lakers have an unfortunate repeat of last season's injury-plagued year. This Lakers roster is fairly young, clocking in at a median age of 27.4, near the league-wide average of 27.3. The starting unit itself projects averages out to 25.2 years old, featuring a rookie and two second-year prospects.
Thankfully gone is Steve Nash's creaky back and Jordan Hill's chronic bouts with mid-season injuries. This younger lineup should see fewer wear and tear type injuries that have hampered the franchise's progress since the Nash trade. In addition, Kobe Bryant has admitted that there may be a minutes restriction placed on him this season. If the Lakers' training staff can preserve Bryant throughout the year it will be a huge boon for the roster's efficacy and ability to improve its record.
That being said it is difficult to believe that the Lakers will lead the league in games lost due to injuries for a third straight season. A natural reversion to the league's mean should be in store for this year's Lakers squad. With more games played by a healthier starting unit, the team is far more likely to pick up additional wins.
Given these factors, I'm far more bullish on the Lakers' prospects than ESPN. The team should be able to win north of 30 games, and if all goes well, potentially somewhere around 35 games. It won't be a pretty season at times and playoffs probably are not in the cards, but it will be a joy watching this young core develop and taking in what may be Kobe Bryant's last ride in purple and gold.