I’ve written and deleted this post a half dozen times and probably a dozen more times in my head. I think I know what I want to say about the 2017-18 Lakers, and then…I don’t. I guess that’s how it goes when you have a team that seems on the cusp of being fun with a core of young players you want to root for, but also clearly looking beyond this season for the pieces which can become a more solid foundation of the next great Lakers team.
This is a team in the midst of change. The turnover in roster from last year to this one is enormous. Should Larry Nance begin the season as the starting power forward, not one opening night starter from last year will be the same for this one. And only four players (Ingram, Nance, Randle, and Clarkson) will be carryovers from the 10 man rotation the team trotted out the beginning of last year. Should Luke Walton again want to play 10 deep (and this team has at least that many players who could/should play in specific roles), we’ll see a rotation turned over by 60% and a roster turned over by more than that.
Familiarity, then, will not be a strong suit and chemistry will be work in progress. It will take time for this team to gel and coalesce, to learn each other well enough where reads become natural and tendencies become instinctual. But, I believe they can get there, however. Especially with some of their new additions.
Which brings me to rookie Lonzo Ball. I was always a believer in his talent, but it has taken me some time to understand the nature of how his specific style can impact this team’s culture and trajectory. His passing is contagious and his want to continuously give the ball up to teammates in positions to make a positive play is a foundational element for winning basketball.
He is a specific kind of unselfish, not just a willing passer whose gifts to see the floor and spot openings in advance, but one who consistently cedes control of the game to others by throwing ahead. In today’s NBA, point guards are so often deployed as the primary weapon that attacks and strikes defenses with the ball in their own hands. They’re the creative scorers whose skills in getting buckets bend the defense to their will.
Lonzo can certainly get you baskets, but he’s someone who prefers to use the ball as the weapon itself, pinging it around the floor into spots that compromise the integrity of the defense and scramble their signals. And his teams have been better for it. I expect the same to be true for the Lakers.
Another player whose teams are better because of him is Brook Lopez. The team’s new center has toiled on some bad Brooklyn team recently which obscures his value and impacts how he’s generally perceived. But Lopez is a really good player — probably the best the team has had since Kobe or Pau in the season of Kobe’s achilles tear. Lopez has a complete offensive game, scoring at all three levels of the floor while being able to serve as a release valve to teammates who need an outlet or an anchor and primary target to build schemes around.
Further, his ability to stretch the floor will aid in the overall effectiveness of what the Lakers want to do offensively, both in the halfcourt and in transition. Lopez popping to the arc in P&R situations, spacing to the weakside corner to counter against strong side actions, or serving as a trailer in early offense will open up the paint and create driving lanes and passing angles which simply were not there last season. Everyone who shares the floor with him will benefit from his presence.
The other key new addition brings us back to the backcourt. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was the surprise get of the offseason, his restricted free agency making him once ungettable only to have that status shifted to unrestricted and there for the grabbing. He’s shown flashes of playmaking as a P&R ball-handler and I remain intrigued by what he can bring as a secondary shot creator.
He also brings a competitiveness and activity level defensively which the team has not had in a single player for several seasons. He can be a high volume three point shot taker and, over his career, a good enough open shooter to make defenses pay for leaving him open. He can fly up the court in transition and his game pairs nicely enough with Lonzo to create the potential for some dynamic plays out of the backcourt.
While the players above are all Lakers newbies and, in their own ways, foundations to the new style the team is trying to create this season, it’s the holdovers from last year who will plot the path back to respectability — if that can even happen.
Brandon Ingram is now a 2nd year player but only a moth removed from his 20th birthday. He put in a long summer of skill and weight-room work with the hopes of returning a dramatically improved player from the one who ended his rookie year on a surge. It remains to be seen how big a jump he can make, but the baseline of talent and tools are there. The biggest obstacle to his success this season might just be his mentality and how that impacts his every game approach. Ingram must walk the fine line of maintaining aggression while letting the game come to him. The coaches will need to optimize him better, too, by putting him in the best positions to be the player he is now rather than the one they want him to be down the line.
He’s not yet the go-to scorer some in the front office (ahem, Magic Johnson) proclaim him to be, but he has enough offensive talent to get baskets in a variety of ways. His pull up jumper is coming along. He can be a relentless driver who will finish at the rim with either hand when he gets a step on his man. And his spot up shooting can be a resource when his feet are set and he’s shooting with good balance.
You’ll notice a lot of caveats here. Ingram can play, but it comes in spurts and spells under conditions that allow him to thrive. He is not a force the action and succeed player, yet. But he can be wholly useful and a boxscore stuffer by playing to his strengths instead. This approach can be hard when you’re young and want to prove your worth in a league as competitive as the NBA, but this is the path he must take in his 2nd year.
Two players who are no longer that “young” are the team’s top two power forwards.
Larry Nance is the likely starter and whatever any of us think about his growth heading into his 3rd year, he can be an asset to this starting group. His back line defense helps and overall acumen on that end is a vital component to team success. He rotates well and will challenge shots at the rim. He’s a good ball mover who understands where his teammates are and how to deliver them the ball. He must be more assertive this year, not in a “force the action” way, but a “I’m really open, it’s time to shoot” type of way.
Nance’s biggest problem to this point in his career is that he’s prone to long stretches of simply fading into the background. As a starter, it’s even easier to do that; the players you share the floor with are better and can relieve you of certain pressures. But he must fight those urges to put his stamp on the game more often. Attack the backboards, dive hard in the P&R, shoot when open. Be a threat to do something at all times. Do that more and the Lakers will have a fine starting PF who helps them win games. Don’t and…the calls for change will come quickly and loudly.
Julius Randle will not be happy about a reserve role and I don’t blame him one bit. He’s done what the coaches and front office have asked heading into year 4. He’s in the best shape of his life, is cutting down on his isolation tendencies, and is giving up the ball earlier in possessions in order to facilitate ball movement. He’s playing harder and smarter on defense, too. For that, he’s being rewarded with a bench role for the first time since Byron Scott was telling him (and the rest of the team) to man up.
If there’s a silver lining here, though, it’s that Randle can truly be a difference maker — especially against reserve big men. He’s going to be stronger and faster than nearly anyone he faces on a night to night basis. In theory, he’ll get the ball more often in both the open and half court as a creator of offense for himself and others.
He can wreak havoc in the open court as a grab and go player or simply by running the floor hard filling the middle lane. He can work the half court too, especially when playing small-ball center using his passing ability at the top of the floor to get others good shots or his quickness to get into the paint for his own. Randle shouldn’t be happy as a reserve, but if he can thrive there while Nance works in with the starters, the team may just get two starting level PF’s out of this situation.
When looking at the PF rotation, though, rookie Kyle Kuzma, though, is the wild card. Whether you want to call him a 3/4 a 4/3 or a 3.5, Kuzma has the blended skill set of a modern NBA forward. He’s adept at shooting the long ball in high volume, but skilled enough off the dribble and in the post to work the mid-range and restricted area for scoring opportunities.
He will compete defensively on the perimeter, either guarding his own man, when switching onto a small, or when hedging and recovering. His aggressiveness on offense is a needed component with Lou Williams or Nick Young in new uniforms this year. And his developing chemistry with Randle can help spearhead a second unit attack that could really hurt opponent’s benches.
And then there’s Jordan Clarkson. I’ve been hard on JC over the last two years as he’s seemingly devolved from the point guard who flashed scoring and playmaking chops as a rookie to the gunner who saw his assist rate plummet in his 2nd and 3rd seasons. But he can get you baskets and do so in a variety of ways. He can work in isolation, come of picks both as a ball handler or working curls and pin-downs, and can be dynamite in transition.
This preseason he showed an inclination to move the ball, driving and kicking more often than he has the past two years. When he’s playing with balance — in both a technical sense of being under control and in his pass/shot decisions — he will help. And a bench trio of Clarkson, Randle, and Kuzma can be scary in the open court if they can play with synergy. I am hopeful they will.
So, all of this sounds great, right? The Lakers are young! They’re fun! They have some building block players, some veterans, and a group of hungry holdovers who are tired of losing! All of this is true. It’s just not what makes a good team when you also consider the holes on the roster.
This team currently doesn’t have enough shooting. I mentioned Young and Williams being gone, but so is D’Angelo Russell. Those three were all high volume 3 point shooters who were at or (well) above a league average level. They’ve replaced them with Lopez, KCP, and…that’s it.
Kuzma has promise and I’m ecstatic at what he’s shown in the summer and preseason, but it’s disingenuous to predict that it will continue over a full season. Lonzo might project to be a good three point shooter for his career but it remains to be seen if he’s that right now. Randle and Nance have not yet shown expanded range, even if they (or at least Randle) have shown more comfort in taking those shots. Clarkson, unless a leap is made, is not going to be a knock down shooter from distance. Ingram is making strides, but is not there yet.
Playing fast is great and adhering to the analytical approach of layups, FT’s, and 3’s is the way of the new NBA. But the Lakers don’t project to be a team that can make you pay from behind the arc. Teams will go under picks on them. They’ll crowd the paint and shrink the floor from the weakside until shooters make them pay. Again, Lopez will help — and maybe exponentially so because he’s a stretch 5 — but unless Lonzo, KCP, Kuzma, and Ingram all prove to be league average or better from distance generating gravity on the perimeter will be difficult. And without that, the rest of the offense will suffer.
On the other end of the floor, the Lakers are coming off 4 straight seasons of being a terrible defensive team. Last year they were 30th in defensive efficiency. Yes, the roster has changed over and some of the new additions will help. KCP is better than Young defensively. And I think Lopez — from a positional and via fewer mental mistakes — is better than Mozgov, too. And even as a rookie, Lonzo might be better than Russell was last year on that end.
But systemic issues persist and relying on young players to guard well is rarely a formula for success. This team habitually over-helps. They gamble too much, both on the weakside and when reaching for steals on the ball. They have not shown a proclivity for helping consistently when and where they are supposed to. Team-wide defensive integrity depends on discipline individually and schematically. The Lakers have the athletes to defend, but it remains to be seen if they have the acumen to.
And if this team does not get stops, they cannot play their preferred style. From Magic Johnson on down, the emphasis has been on defense and running. It is nearly impossible to do the latter without the former. People will want to point out the 7-seconds or less Suns, but they were about league average defensively and got enough stops to increase tempo and suck teams into to playing their style. If the Lakers cannot escape the bottom 5 in defensive efficiency, they cannot run the way they’ll want.
Without running, they will be overly reliant on their half court sets. Which then puts an added emphasis not just on precise schematic execution, but on the individual shot creation skills of their players. With the starting group having Lonzo, KCP, and Nance…you see where I’m going with this. The 2nd unit offers more variety in this area, but if you’re dependent on your 2nd unit to win you games, the likelihood you actually do isn’t that high.
So, where does this leave us?
Well, like I said earlier, this is a team in transition. It has players in contract years whose time in LA is likely limited and young guys who are being groomed for long term roles, but also need to grow and find their respective games. It will be on coach Luke Walton to galvanize this group, generate and maintain buy-in, and advance them schematically to account for areas of weakness. He too will need to advance his skill as the leader of this team, continuing to fine tune his X’s and O’s template while building on his strengths as a people person who can connect to this generation of players.
This team will likely be equally fun and frustrating, one part building of a foundation and one part an unknown future of next year and beyond. But I’m going to be here for all of it, enjoying the ride as best I can. Lakers basketball is back for another season. Thank goodness for that.