Editor’s Note: It’s with great honor I welcome Jabari Davis to our staff! He’s one of the first people in the basketblog world that I befriended back in the day, and I couldn’t be more excited to have his phenomenal experience, perspective and writing here for our community. Enjoy, and give him a follow over on Twitter if somehow you aren’t already.
The past seven months have been pretty fascinating for the Los Angeles Lakers when you consider just how much has changed over such a relatively short period of time. The team’s controlling owner, Jeanie Buss made the decision to not only replace her brother Jim with a franchise legend in Magic Johnson, but also ushered longtime general manager Mitch Kupchak out in favor of veteran player agent Rob Pelinka.
While there were questions about the timing and most certainly the selection of such a relatively inexperienced duo to entrust with the task of returning a once-proud franchise back to glory, the reality is one of the most powerful women in professional sports recognized her organization was in trouble. The organization her father spent 33-plus seasons establishing as one of the greatest ever was teetering eerily close to the edge of irrelevance, and that doesn't seem to be something Jeanie Buss is about to allow anytime soon.
The jury is still out on whether these decisions — and all subsequent decisions — will ultimately yield the type of success the city of Los Angeles is accustomed to anytime soon, but this new triumvirate atop the purple and gold throne has already managed to (at least) shift the conversation surrounding the team.
Not only has this front office produced a constant stream of positivity — and, if we’re being honest, wishful thinking at this stage — as it openly tries to refortify the brand, Pelinka and Johnson have already started reworking the roster in preparation for what they hope will be the type of overall improvement and positive organizational momentum that will result in some of the bigger names on the upcoming 2018 free agency market to consider joining.
Over the next nine months, we can probably expect an endless supply of articles on the chances of names like Paul George, LeBron James or *insert your favorite or a disgruntled star* being lured by the allure of starring beneath the center-stage lighting of Staples Center, so we won’t inundate you with more of the same (today). Especially, when the truth is... none of the ‘big plans’ or attempts at instilling infectious positive vibes will matter if the team doesn’t start putting it together on the court.
For that to take place, it’s going to require a lot more than simply adding talented, yet unproven rookies in Lonzo Ball (No. 2 overall), Kyle Kuzma (No. 27), Josh Hart (No. 30) and Thomas Bryant (No. 42) to a mix with relatively young and developing players in multiple positions and roles as is. It’s going to also take significant internal improvements from second-year guys like Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac; as well as a transitional season from Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr. Not to mention the idea of needing to simultaneously find ways to showcase soon-to-be free agents Brook Lopez (2018) or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (2018), and even Corey Brewer (2018) or Andrew Bogut (2018) to a lesser extent.
Not an easy task by any stretch of the imagination, but that’s precisely the job second-year head coach Luke Walton and his staff have signed up for.
For Walton and Co., beyond overseeing each of those projects, perhaps the greatest challenge will be in attempting to once again establish a defensive identity, or at least a collective willingness to buy-in on the more difficult side of the court. Getting NBA-level guys to agree to an offensive system that encourages freedom and promotes plenty of scoring opportunities is easy. Convincing them to bring the same amount of energy to the less-heralded, but equally significant aspects of the game will likely make the difference on a game-to-game basis as this team continues to grow both from an individual standpoint as well as together as a unit.
A quick look back
Last year’s squad may have been a middle-of-the-pack (17th-best) scoring offense, per teamrankings.com, but they still wound up with the third-worst record (26-56) based largely due to the fact that they were either last or near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. In fact, they gave up the most points per 100 possessions (113.72 in 2016-17) for the second consecutive year.
On the flipside, although they scored 104.6 points per game last season, they weren't very efficient offensively and actually ranked just 23rd in Offensive Rating (points per 100 possessions), per Basketball-Reference.com. They were in the bottom-third of the league from the field (45 percent as a team), from beyond the arc (34.6 percent) and from the charity stripe (75.4 percent). Numbers like that on both sides of the court aren’t simply going to disappear overnight, but these Lakers have to hope the current mix of talent can fit the system and overall team philosophy this coaching staff continues to instill better than the previous group.
What to expect
It isn’t solely a matter of Ball joining the team with the highest level of expectations the organization has placed on a rookie player in quite some time, as the move to also find a legitimate scoring threat in Lopez to help spread the court and pace the action could prove to be one of the more beneficial moves of the summer. Lopez provides an inside-outside presence that can make life easier for each of his teammates, but for Ingram in particular. Ingram may be seen as the future in terms of being a leading scorer, but Lopez’s ability to space the floor and willingness to find slashers and open teammates around the arc should provide several scoring opportunities each game for Ingram; all while relieving the 20-year-old of the burden of being a first option for now. Lopez averaged 2.3 assists per game for Brooklyn in 2016-17, which was good for 7th-best amongst starting centers.
For Ball, a hometown product (Chino Hills to UCLA) whom described the opportunity to play for the Lakers as a “dream come true” back on draft night, it all begins in less than a week. He'll be facing his first official NBA action vs the Clippers on what Lakers fans hope remains his home court (STAPLES Center) for many years to come.
He'll be challenged each and every night, and not just by the big names. Patrick Beverley will be waiting to bring it to him in his home opener, as will Austin Rivers, and every other opposing guard he’ll face. Part of that is simply because he’s donning the purple and gold. It comes with the territory and always will. Part of it is due to the verbal ‘checks’ the front office and his father have written for him.
That’s also part of the deal, and Ball seems confident and prepared to embrace that challenge as well. One of the more intriguing aspects of what must have been a whirlwind of a summer for Lonzo — drafted by the Lakers and tearing up Las Vegas Summer League all while starring in his family’s reality TV show before continuing his preparation for the upcoming season — is the fact that while many were (and likely remain) concerned by some of his father LaVar’s antics and proclamations via the media, the soon-to-be 20-year-old doesn’t seem in the least bit fazed by any of it.
While many of us may range from being amused to bemused by some of the more outlandish statements made by his father in an effort of brand promotion, Ball seems perfectly fine with simply going out and allowing his on-court action to do most of his talking. His teammates and coaches couldn’t be more complimentary and it doesn’t look nor sound as though the front office will be expressing any ‘buyer’s remorse’ anytime soon.
The trouble is, shifting a narrative towards a more positive tone and what we should actually expect to take place on the court may wind up being two completely separate things. Any talk of “competing for a playoff spot” this year lands somewhere between being woefully premature and outright silly. If the past few seasons have taught us anything it would be that “easy-buttons” simply don’t exist when it comes to rebuilding. This team finally appears to have a solid foundation, but those of us expecting a 26-win team (2016-17) to suddenly catapult to the 50-win plateau are probably setting themselves up for disappointment.
The reality is, they don’t need to be that good this soon. Wins are always nice, but just so long as they show steady signs of improvement over the course of the season, that’s all anyone can honestly ask of a team with an average age that will likely still be under 25 years old; and that’s with Andrew Bogut (32), Luol Deng (32), Corey Brewer (31) and Brook Lopez (29).
Early season storylines
Unless several guys get into the type of shooting grooves that leads to career-years, this team may struggle from beyond the arc times. That isn’t likely to stop or slow them from shooting them, but it’s difficult to imagine the idea of losing several of the more consistent three-point shooters from last year’s team (Nick Young, D’Angelo Russell and Lou Williams) not having an impact. As mentioned, Lopez’s presence should make up for some of the offensive impact they parted ways with, but won’t be enough to completely offset such a loss.
That’s where this team has to hope Ball’s overall skill-set is as advertised, particularly his reported ability to lead and galvanize teammates in ways young players often aren’t expected to be able to do. Whether he decides to alter his form, shooting will be a concern for Ball just as it is for most young guards. He may have shot the ball well from distance during his sole year at UCLA (41.2 percent from deep, 55.1 percent overall), but that touch hasn’t quite been there (so far) with the Lakers. Ball was clearly the most electric player during the Las Vegas Summer League, earning the tournament’s MVP award, but did shoot 38.2 percent from the floor, making just 10 of his 42 (23.8 percent) attempts from behind the line. Cause for concern, yes, but certainly not a reason to instantly panic since that isn’t the main thing he was brought in to do. Lopez may wind up being the one to pace the scoring, but Ball is the motor the front office expects to run the vehicle.
Ball’s ability to create for others should also play a role in making the game easier for Ingram to establish himself as a scorer. Ingram may have the ability to attack off the dribble or operate with the ball in his hands, but when you have a shot creator and offense that is supposed to generate open looks for all, it probably makes more sense to simplify things as he continues to settle into his role. While it’s wasted breath to preach patience with some, Ingram remains a work-in-progress that still has plenty of time put things together.
Although much of the narrative surrounding this team has revolved around Ball’s potential and whether guys like Ingram or Randle can take the next step, the surprise of the summer has been the impressive play of Kuzma. After turning heads during Summer League, Kuzma continues to impress as a scoring threat. At 6’9, Kuzma appears to have the type of agility and athleticism to play either forward position, depending upon the matchup. Coach Walton hasn’t ruled out the idea of at least considering him as a starting option, but his versatility is going to result in playing time regardless of his ultimate role. Though his hot shooting from summer league cooled down through preseason (24.2 percent), the closer he can move that to the 34-36 percent range, the more difficult it will be to keep him off the floor.
Speaking of Randle, like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Lopez, the fourth-year power forward is technically heading into the 2017-18 season in a contract year. In what has been reported as the best shape of his life, Randle is at a relative career crossroad in that he’s already shown an ability to be a nightly double-double guy that can do some damage around the rim or even act as a playmaker for others. Beyond proving whether he can create space — both for himself and teammates — by routinely hitting open looks, one of Randle’s greatest challenges remains in showing consistency on the defensive end.
This is a team concern for sure, but Randle has shown an ability to defend and make stops at or around the rim; he just hasn’t been able to string those efforts into very many complete games, let alone stretches of the season. Regardless of whether Randle is in the ultimate plans for this front office as they reconfigure the roster, it will be an interesting story to watch unfold throughout the year. Randle’s game may have some holes, but barring any catastrophic results to this season, someone is likely going to pay him big money next season. It would be great to see Randle perform so well that he makes it that much more difficult to leave him out of the future framework of team.
In a perfect world…
We know there’s no such thing as a “perfect world” in general, but particularly when it comes to professional sports. That said, if things were to go optimally for the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers, these three things would have to take place:
- Ball and the other rookies perform as advertised and continue to display how well this organization has drafted over the past few years.
- Second and third-year guys (we’ll throw Randle into that mix as well) take the next step and find some level of consistency in effort and output.
- The veteran players can remain healthy enough to do the bulk of the heavy lifting when the younger guys go through inevitable peaks and valleys.
Shooting may and likely will come and go, but things will probably be a roller coaster ride until the team finally embraces playing lockdown defense on a possession-by-possession basis with the same energy players naturally bring with the ball in their hands.
Five biggest questions heading into the season…
- Can Lonzo Ball have the type of impact the organization and his promotional team has all-but-guaranteed? If he’s as special as the organization believes he is, the Lakers should be in tremendous hands (pun only slightly intended) moving forward, regardless of whether they land a big name or two next summer.
- Can the presence of Lopez and Bogut help remedy some of the issues we’ve seen on both sides of the court over the past few seasons. Obviously, Lopez will start and likely play a good portion of the minutes at the center position, but the Lakers could really use some quality minutes and defensive play from Bogut as a rim-protector. Bogut’s presence could also be key in the further development of Zubac and Thomas Bryant when those two players aren’t splitting time with their G-League affiliate South Bay Lakers.
- Can the team find ways to draw the best out of KCP (and other guys in contract years) without stunting the growth of the developing players? KCP was brought in to be a ball-hawk on defense, but the team has to be hoping the style with which they play can help him complete his most efficient offensive season as well.
- Is Ingram the “untouchable” talent some of us continue to believe? Seems a bit hasty to throw the proverbial baby out due to a slow start to preseason. Ingram’s rookie campaign started slowly, but the Kinston, NC native showed some positive signs as he grew more comfortable throughout the season. Now, he’s not only adjusting to the *reported changes in his body* and has only played in 3 games with Ball. We’ll check back around each ‘quarter’ of the season to track his progress.
- Can Coach Walton and his staff effectively translate their ideology into lessons these guys can and are willing to learn and follow? Look, everyone loves Luk. As they should. He’s a bit of a hometown guy that played for the organization for an extended period of time and seems to have the right temperament and approach to get through to players. All of that said, it’s time for the coaching staff to show what they’ve ‘developed’ and improved upon, just as it is for the players.
What’s most vital for overall team success…
Keeping in mind, although the phrase “zero-to-100” is both a common colloquialism and the title of a popular song from a few years back, it isn’t a realistic way to view or have expectations for this team. We’ve endured the momentary irrelevance and poor play for this long, so everyone might as well head into this season with the idea that anywhere near 35 wins (which would amount to a nine-game improvement in consecutive seasons) would be yet another stepping stone. It would also mean the team continues to be headed in the right direction and very well could lead to their desired targets on next summer’s market determining Los Angeles is the place to be.
They may not be able to control what takes place next July (and beyond), but that will take care of itself at that time. The first order of business is getting through the rest of preseason relatively healthy and starting off the year at full strength and on the same page. Hopefully everyone will be available and ready to go for next Thursday in the season opener, and even though it is somewhat natural to want to forecast or look beyond the trees (so to speak), it would be in everyone’s best interest to simply take it a game at a time and look for improvement along the way.
As cliche as that may be, that’s probably the safest and smartest mindset to have with such a young rebuild.