It is impossible to analyze anything about the Lakers’ present without interweaving it with their future. This is a team which just hired a new, 36 years young, head coach and whose foundation is built on similarly inexperienced players. Any examination of them must be viewed through the prism of them being works in progress rather than fully formed, finished products. While looking forward as a means of examining today, though, it is also impossible to avoid gazing backwards at what this organization has been, who it has lost, and how that shapes where the team currently stands and where it is going.
This is the dichotomy of the Lakers 2016-17 season and the backdrop against which this campaign will be forged.
On one side you have a team without Kobe Bryant for the first time in 20 seasons. This fact alone changes how this team is viewed, how they will be game planned for, and, maybe most importantly, how they will operate on both sides of the floor schematically. Tied to that last point, of course, is that Byron Scott will no longer be hovering over the team’s sideline and huddles, arms folded — often in disappointment, diagramming actions more suited to an era past.
I do not want to oversell these points, but they matter a great deal when looking at the construction of and the path about to be traveled by this team. There is a vacuum to be filled with the departure of such important figures within a franchise. A vacuum of leadership, of accountability, of direction provided, of, even more simply, shot attempts. The filling of this vacuum is one of the primary themes of this season.
This, of course, leads us to the construction of the roster. The Lakers bring back more than half the team which only won 17 games last year, but hope endures due to the presence of the aforementioned young talent.
D’Angelo Russell looks ready to break out, even if the consistency still is not all the way there. From summer league through preseason, last year’s #2 overall pick has shown improvement in every facet of his game. He is getting to spots on the floor with more ease, shooting the ball with more confidence and strength, reading defenses and reacting rather than acting with predetermination. He is showing better feel as a passer, further optimizing the tantalizing court vision he brought with him from Ohio State. And, maybe most important to his long term prospects as a player, he is focusing more defensively. Russell will never be an elite defender — he lacks the burst in lateral movement to stay in front of the quickest guards he’ll face nightly. But he does have tools — height, length, great hand-eye coordination — which he can leverage to his advantage.
As the point guard, he is also taking on more of a leadership role. Working in tandem with and at at the urging of Luke Walton, Russell is trying to command the floor not only with his game, but with his voice. There will be fits and starts with a 20 year old player trying to take this position nightly. But Russell is the team’s best player and the sooner he can get a feel for how he can lead and what his style will be, the better. It will take time.
Beyond Russell, the Lakers will also depend on improvement from the other young players. Though it looks as though he will start the season as a reserve, Jordan Clarkson has made real strides heading into his 3rd season. Defensively, he is showing a greater understanding of how to play angles, how to be more attentive off the ball in space and when chasing his man, and where to be within the concepts of the team’s help schemes. And while he still has a ways to go before he can be considered a plus defender, these strides are important. Until he can show he can defend his position well, Clarkson’s best role might just be as an offensive minded substitute, doing damage against a team’s 2nd unit.
And Clarkson definitely has the skills to be just that. The range and accuracy on his jumper is improved. His mid-range game is still solid, and he can finish at the rim with finesse and power. He’s not elite in any single area as a scorer, but the well rounded nature of his attack can keep his man off-balance enough where he can be a threat at all three levels of the court. I would still like to see him draw more fouls and become more of a playmaker for others — even though he’s a shooting guard, he can still be a good setup man — but I am hopeful these areas will improve over time. As it stands he’s an important player who can help in any lineup he’s put into.
At power forward, the Lakers have some decisions to make with their duo of young players. I remain high on Julius Randle’s game as an all-court forward who can use his rare combination of power, speed, and ball handling skills to impact the game in a variety of ways. He has already shown he can be productive, but he must take the next step to becoming more consistent so that productivity brings a steady level of impact. Part of that will be in growth as a jump shooter and finding ways to be a more efficient scorer when in traffic. But more will be on how he sees the floor and reads the game in front of him; in learning when and when not to force the issue in order to leverage his strengths and minimize his weaknesses. This is something that can come in time, but, you know, for some players this never does come.
Then, of course, there is the need to improve defensively. Randle has tools to be able to guard the post and chase around the perimeter. His foot speed and lateral quickness makes him an ideal big man in a switching scheme, but his off-ball awareness much catch up to his physical ability to become what he can be. This is a big year for Randle’s growth, because if true strides are not made, the team does have an alternative in Larry Nance.
Nance doesn’t have all the offensive tools Randle has, but he can, in some ways, be just as (if not more) effective in the simplicity of his approach. Nance has shown mid-range shooting ability and good feel around the restricted area as a finisher. He can sky above the rim to create highlight plays, but has a nice little jump hook with a soft touch when met with resistance. He must continue to improve his aggression level and learn to threaten the defense more often, though. Teams can scheme a player like Nance out of effectiveness by preying on his habit of becoming a reclusive scorer. If he’s to take the next step as a player, he must break out of that shell.
Lastly, the young player who I am maybe most high on (or least on par with Russell) is Brandon Ingram. This year’s #2 overall pick has the potential to be an impact player on both ends. We have discussed at length his physical tools and how he can really think the game at a level beyond his 19 years. He’s a natural ball mover who can make plays for teammates or simply operate within the flow of the scheme to help the offense get good looks. He also has the skill to be a natural scorer, though he looks to be better used as a spot up option than an individual shot creator right now.
The biggest thing Ingram needs, though, is time. Time to best figure out how to use his physical tools, to grow into his lanky frame, to learn how to measure the speed of the game, to learn the tendencies of his teammates and opponents alike. He’s already showing an understanding of how to leverage his length defensively and his long stride offensively, but when he’s able to combine those things with improved strength and better understanding of the pace defenses play with, look out. Like with Russell, it is only a matter of time but we must remain patient.
Here to balance the young guys are some key, new veterans. In Luol Deng, Timofey Mozgov, and Jose Calderon, the Lakers have a trio of contributors who can help on the floor. To what level and how consistently, are the big questions.
Of these three, as strange as it sounds, I think Mozgov can be the most important on-court contributor. His screen setting, ability to finish in the paint, and defensive presence all fill huge needs for this group. Yes, he’ll fumble a pass here or there and, no, he doesn’t have the foot speed to consistently hedge and recover or switch in P&R’s. Team’s will try to scheme him off the floor and we will see how well he can counter these things through his play. But the Lakers have needed a big who can 1). set a good pick 2). be a dual threat as both a dive man and jump shooter in the P&R and 3). defend the rim without fouling. To varying levels of effectiveness, Mozgov checks these boxes and that alone will help.
As for Deng, we will see if he is miscast as a full time SF and whether or not that impacts lineup construction long term. After playing mostly PF for the Heat last season and missing a lot of time this preseason with a bruised knee, Deng is a bit of an unknown — which is strange to say for a veteran with a lot of history in this league. That said, what we do know is that he is smart, a good position defender, and has enough ball skills to be another ball mover and facilitator of offense. Can he make the three ball at a high enough rate? Can he defend in space against the top wings in the league? Can he create his own offense if a play breaks down? I have my doubts, honestly. This doesn’t mean I am down on him, necessarily. But I do think it’s reasonable to be skeptical about how big his on-court impact will be even if I think he can still be a net positive.
The questions on the wing don’t end with Deng, either. In Lou Williams and Nick Young, the Lakers have two high volume gunners who don’t necessarily fit cleanly in the ideal offense for this team. They can help as floor spacers and instant offense producers who can carry you for stretches. Whether they can balance that effectively with enough playmaking for others and without hijacking too many possessions remains to be seen. Both Young and Lou have again shown how capable they are during the preseason, but taking the leap to thinking 10+ year veterans can change their spots is not something I am ready to do. Ultimately, I think it would be nice if only one of them played real minutes, but then that creates a dilemma for the coach who must then handle the fallout of such decisions.
Speaking of which, I’ve gone this entire time without speaking about the most important “youngster” — Luke Walton. At only 36, Luke is the youngest coach in the league. And while he as a nice pedigree and a reputation as a relatable bridge builder, this season will present some unique challenges.
Even though he has gone on the record as saying the priorities for this season are the development of his young players and the building of the team’s culture, he will need to do that against what will likely be another 50 loss season. How does he manage the locker room when the losses come? How does he stay upbeat? Can he keep his veterans happy if their minutes get cut? Can he corral the young players to play the way he actually wants them to?
I fully endorse Walton and believe he can help turn things around. But to ignore the challenges he is facing would be foolish. I said similar things last season when his predecessor faced similar hurdles, but it will be interesting to see how Walton deals with losing and whether or not he can continue to build positively in what will surely be some tough stretches.
In saying all that, I cannot recall a Lakers’ season where the outlook of the team’s on court success projected to be as bad as many think this one will be while, simultaneously, as much excitement is expounded by those who root for that success. After all, Lakers fans are used to competing at the highest stakes the sport has to offer. On the back of their uniforms there is a Larry O’Brien Trophy and 16x emblazoned on a patch stitched into the neckline as a reminder of what the organization has accomplished. The franchise is at or near the top in every definable measurement of success the league has.
Narrow your focus and zoom in, though, and recent history tells a far different story. One where losses, embarrassment, and a decline in prestige are very real. So there has been this constant negotiation among those who root for the team on how deal with the reality of what it means to cheer on the Lakers. This year I can sense the shift, though. Not because fans think a barrage of wins are coming, but because they are finally starting to believe again in the direction the franchise is moving in.
And ultimately, that is what this season will be about. The goals really are simple: make enough incremental progress where the product on the floor is again worth getting behind. Get growth from the players, growth from the staff, and combined, end up in a better place than where they were a season ago. It seems like such a small goal, especially considering what this organization is used to achieving historically. But after coming off three consecutive seasons of declining wins, this is where we are.
In the face of all that, though, I am excited. There really is nowhere to go but up and I do believe this group has what it takes to change the course. If nothing else, watching them navigate this journey will be worth watching.