The Los Angeles Lakers are setting lofty goals for themselves before the season even begins. Multiple players on the team have publicly voiced their hopes for a playoff push. If the Lakers want to shoot for the top-eight, they will first have to get out of the basement of the Western Conference, an area they have occupied for the past two years. Even this will be a struggle, requiring a lot of luck, and probably an unrealistic goal. But playoffs? That is almost assuredly not happening.
"But the Lakers were the second-worst team in the West last year, and they have improved!", some might say. That is undoubtedly true. The team's additions of Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, and D'Angelo Russell coupled with the returns of Kobe Bryant and Julius Randle will make the Lakers better than they were last season. Will it be enough to move them out of the bottom two in an absolutely brutal Western Conference? It is certainly possible, but no sure thing.
The Lakers' biggest problem last season was on the defensive end, where they ranked 29th out of 30 teams in the league, only marginally better than the Minnesota Timberwolves. While the Wolves may have an impressive young core led by Karl-Anthony Towns and
Anthony Bennett Andrew Wiggins, they are still probably too young to make significant strides in record, and I see the Lakers' mix of veterans and young players edging them out at the very least.
But back to the Lakers' main issue: defense. While Hibbert certainly helps on that end, the oft-projected starting five of him and Julius Randle, Kobe Bryant, Jordan Clarkson, and D'Angelo Russell features no other players who are likely to be plus defenders this season. If the Lakers acquired Lou Williams for his defense, they have significantly bigger problems than where ESPN projects their record to be. Bass is at least a good to average defender, but he will likely top out around 20 minutes per game if Randle stays healthy. It is almost impossible to see a scenario where the Lakers improve dramatically on the defensive end of the floor.
This team is going to have to try and outscore other teams in an efficient manner to have any chance of winning games. Can they do that? Yes. Will they do it more often than the other three teams in the same tier of the West as them (the Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, and Portland Trail Blazers)?
The Nuggets downgraded at point guard in the short term by trading Ty Lawson to open up minutes for Emmanuel Mudiay, even if it is the right long term play. The team also did not retain Arron Afflalo, but will add a healthy Danilo Gallinari back to their mix, and new head coach Michael Malone has a track record of improving teams defensively.
Before his early season firing, the last team Malone improved defensively was the Sacramento Kings. George Karl has replaced Malone as HC with the Lakers' one-time rivals from Sacramento. The Kings finished eight games ahead of the Lakers in the standings last year, and with a full training camp under Karl and a presumably healthier DeMarcus Cousins, they will figure to improve. The Kings also traded Jason Thompson, who played power forward in the Kings' four most used lineups last season according to NBA.com, which likely opens up minutes for Karl to play Rudy Gay more minutes at the four, where he may be able to exploit mismatches more effectively. Cousins is also far better than any player on the Lakers right now, but is a wild card because with all of the rumored discord between himself and the organization it is possible he could be traded or the locker room could implode at any time. Speaking of locker room implosion, Rajon Rondo has also joined the Kings, and gives them some backcourt depth alongside the return of a healthy Darren Collison.
After losing four players out of their starting five, the Blazers are not going to sniff the playoffs, and could potentially fall below the Lakers, but as with Cousins and the Kings, Lillard is better than any player the Lakers have right now, and with the offensive ingenuity of Terry Stotts it is possible to see scenarios where the Blazers win more games than the Lakers.
Could the Lakers outperform any, or even all three, of those teams? It is entirely possible, but only leaves their ceiling at 11th in the Western Conference because they are not passing up the Phoenix Suns, New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, or Utah Jazz barring major injuries to those teams. The Jazz are already dealing with Dante Exum's ACL injury he suffered during international play.
For what it's worth, I think the Lakers will be better than the Nuggets, but still passed up by the Kings and Blazers. That would leave them at 13th in the West. The main point of this exercise was to demonstrate the context the Lakers currently find themselves in. While they have improved, the West is at a ridiculous level of competition right now and in terms of raw positioning, the team may be right back in the dregs of the conference next season. So rather than focus on lofty goals like the playoffs, the most important thing to watch for will be the growth of the team's young core game to game. The team's record, good or bad, is a secondary concern.