At midnight on Monday, the Los Angeles Lakers were ringing in the new year in Houston, following a double overtime loss to the Rockets. With 2017 in the books, the Lakers can look ahead to what comes in 2018.
While 2018 promises to be an eventful year for the Lakers, it’s unclear whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Here are five storylines to keep an eye on as the New Year unfolds.
The seat under Luke Walton heating up
The Lakers have been worse than most people thought they would be this year, and that doesn’t have everything to do with head coach Luke Walton, but he deserves some of the blame.
While the defense is miles better than it was last year, the offense is still stagnant, usually depending on a single player’s skill rather than a flowing, team offense. That’s something fans were hoping picked up in Walton’s second year, and so far, it hasn’t.
Walton has also been heavily criticized for his lineup management, specifically in late-game situations, where he has made some head-scratching decisions like letting Kentavious Caldwell-Pope take the game-winning shot almost every time.
Walton signed a five-year deal with the Lakers in 2016, but if the Lakers finish with the worst record in the Western Conference, Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka might need to consider expanding their star search at the head coaching position too.
The trade deadline
This NBA trade deadline is something worth tuning into every year, but this year’s trade deadline in particular is an important one for the Lakers.
In order to open enough space for two max contracts, something the front office has had no problem prematurely parading, the Lakers have to dump a contract or two at the deadline. This is something teams usually wait until the end of the season to do, but with cap space expected to be scarce next summer, salary dumps are going to be harder to pull off than in years past.
The Lakers have given up on trading Luol Deng, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (H/T Lakers Outsiders), with the team reportedly unwilling to part with first-round picks or young players like Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball.
Other names to watch at the deadline include Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, who the Lakers “would love to trade” before the deadline on Feb. 8, according to Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.
There had been previous reports saying the team was “confident” that they could move Clarkson during the summer, but with playoffs no longer a realistic possibility and Clarkson noticeably regressing, it might be best for the Lakers to move him while he still has some value.
As for Randle, his future with the team, or lack thereof, has been made clear since the start of the season. Expect him to be heavily involved in trade talks closer to the deadline.
Brandon Ingram’s second half of the season
Brandon Ingram has been... good, I think?
Coming off a historically bad rookie season, Ingram has drastically improved in every statistical category (per game) including points (16.2), assists (3.3), rebounds (5.4) and field goal percentage (44.6 percent). However, those numbers can be deceiving, as Ingram is still far from where he needs to be to be considered “untouchable.”
To his credit, he’s improved in a few areas, such as finishing at the rim, but in many ways he’s the same player he was last year, just with about seven more minutes per game and a little longer leash. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there are still several areas he needs to improve.
Luckily, many of those things just have to do with his lack of strength and adjustments he’s still getting used to, like his re-tooled jump shot, but some things like his shot selection, namely from midrange, can be addressed now.
Ingram has shown the flashes that fans saw glimpses during his rookie year on a more consistent basis this season. Hopefully by the end of the season, he’s the Lakers’ uncontested go-to guy.
The NBA playoffs
While the Lakers likely won’t be playing basketball past the regular season, there’s still plenty reason for the Lakers and their fans to tune in.
Several of the big names the Lakers are expected to pursue next summer will be hoping to make deep playoff runs with their respective teams. However, with the exception of the guy from Akron, Ohio, there are no sure things when it comes to postseason basketball.
Paul George and the Oklahoma City Thunder look like they’re finally starting to click, but postseason success can sway things on way or another. Should the Thunder find themselves on the wrong side of a 4-1 series again this season, it’s going to be hard to convince a homesick George to stay.
The same can be said of DeMarcus Cousins, who the Lakers are also expected to aggressively pursue next summer. The New Orleans Pelicans missed out on the playoffs last season, despite the blockbuster trade that paired Cousins and Anthony Davis to form what was supposed to be the most dominant big man duo in the NBA.
Now in their second season, they’re barely holding onto the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, with teams like the LA Clippers and the Utah Jazz creeping up behind them. If the Pelicans miss out on the playoffs again this year, it’s not hard to imagine Boogie taking meetings with other teams in the offseason.
Additionally, if the Pels are outside the playoff picture leading up to the trade deadline, the Lakers could make a play for him in hopes of securing at least one free agent going into next summer.
The grand finale (or the ultimate meltdown)
Everything the Lakers have done to this point has been in preparation for the grand finale in the summer of 2018.
The Lakers, with a revamped front office led by Lakers legend Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant faithful Rob Pelinka, will try to sell big name free agents on a team that has won just 91 games over the past four season. Sound ambitious? It is.
The Lakers haven’t been able to get meetings with the big names free agents in recent years and when they have, it hasn’t always gone well. But with an exciting young team, the league’s best training facility and the lure of playing in Los Angeles for one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, who could say no?
Paul George, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, etc.
One would hope that with how adamant the front office has been about clearing cap space for next summer, they have at least one mum-commitment from a player, but what if they don’t? What if they spent all this time setting up for a big pay off that will never come?
What if Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are the Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero of basketball?
Only time will tell what the future holds for the Lakers, but with summer inching sooner every day, we’re about to find out how bright or gloomy it will be.