The Los Angeles Lakers are one game into their new future. But while anyone watching Thursday’s opener could fairly easily pick up on the issues with the current roster, on both ends of the court there were also reasons to be optimistic, positive signs that Kobe Bryant noticed.
In a recent interview with Jerry Bembry of The Undefeated, Bryant gave his thoughts on what the Lakers are capable of”
“The Lakers are going to surprise a lot of people, said Pelinka, the Lakers’ general manager]. He has smartly built a team of physical players. Big, versatile, fast, physical players. He understands that if you want to challenge Golden State, you can’t challenge them with shooting. That’s what they do.”
This is obviously the most pervasive stance held by those that are optimistic about what the team can do this year, and Bryant has his sights set beyond the Lakers merely making the playoffs. He took aim at the Golden State Warriors in explaining what his former agent — Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka — might’ve had in mind when piecing together this roster.
“You’ve got to beat them somewhere else. You have to beat them with size. Chippiness. Feistiness. Strength and speed. And he has a team that has that. He has a mixture of vets that are still in their primes and young kids that are hungry and open-minded and willing to learn. A team that can compete and challenge. That is a dangerous mix.”
Bryant isn’t the only one who thinks the Lakers are going to be good this year. For the more analytically inclined, Kevin Pelton of ESPN used real plus-minus to project how teams will do this season, and while his numbers don’t exactly have L.A. challenging the Warriors like Bryant thinks, they did project the purple and gold as (just barely) playoff team:
As compared to the original projections, minor rotation changes -- most notably seeing in the preseason that Luke Walton is serious about playing Kyle Kuzma at center rather than one of the Lakers’ traditional 5s -- push them into eighth, though with nine teams projected for at least 41 wins, that doesn’t come close to guaranteeing L.A. a playoff spot.
Part of the reason the Lakers’ projection is so modest in the first place (even in comparison to other statistical projections; FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projections have them winning an average of 48 games) is the tendency for players to perform worse in RPM after changing teams, as independently found by Andrew Johnson in a Nylon Calculus piece. As I subsequently noted in comparing RPM projections to over/under win totals at the Westgate Superbook Las Vegas, this is consistent with how LeBron James’ new teams have tended to fall far shy of their lines during his first season there.
So while that isn’t a super optimistic take, ESPN’s panel of experts was far more bullish on Brandon Ingram’s future, and thinks he’s the runaway favorite for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award this year, with nine votes from the panel. The next closest player? Tobias Harris, with two votes.
All that noted, while it’s great to hear Bryant and ESPN this optimistic about the Lakers’ roster, the problem is this: Wins aren’t measured in how annoyed one team made another. As cool as that might sound, wins and losses are tallied by points for or against teams. Try as Lance Stephenson might, employing players that will do actually positive things on the court is more effective than hoping he pisses the Warriors off enough to get themselves thrown out of games.
Earlier in the preseason, both Stephenson and Michael Beasley were thrown out, so that’s off to a great start.
Still, there might be something to what Bryant is saying about the roster. Maybe the Lakers have enough fight to compete with what’s objectively a better group of talent by way of grittiness and fight. However, despite some people’s optimism on Ingram and the rest of the team, the numbers and the eye test don’t seem to have the Lakers quite on that level yet.
So while grittiness is nice and fun to root for at times, hopefully the Lakers can eventually put together a roster that can beat anyone they see on talent alone and without relying only on such tactics. If their young players like Ingram continue to grow like many think, they just might. Eventually.