There is a general excitement about the Lakers that I, personally, have not felt in years. You may need to go back to the off-season of the Steve Nash and Dwight Howard acquisitions to find this amount of optimism about the direction of the team. Of course, that squad had championship aspirations while this team has an over/under win total of 33.5 by Vegas bookmakers. So, let’s be clear about what we’re actually discussing.
That said, people are eager to watch this team play. Including NBA TV games, the Lakers have the 5th most games on national television this year, trailing only the Warriors, Rockets, Cavs, and Thunder. Some of that is about the Lakers being a west coast team and the need to optimize viewing through having teams in the Pacific Time zone fill that 7:30pm – 10:00pm slot. This automatically means the Lakers will get some extra push. It also matters that they’re the Lakers and have a huge following regardless of how good they are.
But, I think it’s also reflective of the buzz which currently exists around this specific group. Call it the Lonzo effect, a desire to see Brandon Ingram develop, or just that they project to be a young and fun team — the interest is real.
And while this interest does reflect the Lakers looking like an up and coming team, I actually view this season as one of transition. The Lakers, at least for this year, occupy a peculiar space where they’re not projected to be that good, have few expectations to be anything besides a plucky team that plays fast, and are looking at a roster that has the chance to turnover by a fair amount within the next 12 months.
Let’s tackle those first two points together. I don’t think there’s a sweeter spot to be in for a team that will rely on so many young players than “fun” and “not expected to win a lot of games”. Players like Ball, Ingram, and Randle (the 3 remaining lottery picks from the last 4 drafts) will surely face individual pressures to play well, but from a team standpoint there is an understanding that winning in this league is hard and that young players have only so much impact in this area.
Further, there’s a difference between impact on style and an impact on results. I do believe the infusion of Lonzo Ball, growth in Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle, and some of the other additions to the team (namely Lopez and KCP) will have an impact stylistically from a game to game basis. This team will play faster. They will space the floor more. They will probably shoot more 3’s (which is saying something considering the team no longer has Nick Young, Lou Williams, and D’Angelo Russell). Their should be more ball movement overall and quicker decision making within the flow of the offense.
These things matter. They are related to culture and the brand of basketball the team will play. They just may not lead to a ton of wins in the big picture. Again, look at that Vegas over/under. If the Lakers approach that number, it would be a 7-8 game jump from the season before. That’s progress and should be appreciated. But it’s also not the type of anticipated improvement that adds a ton of pressure; it’s more organic and a natural progression that can just as easily be related to the development arc of young players and Luke Walton being in his 2nd season as the coach.
But I see this as a transition year for another reason too: the likelihood that the Lakers run back this same roster a year from now are slim to none. Brook Lopez is in the last year of his contract. KCP just signed a one year deal. Julius Randle is approaching restricted free agency. Jordan Clarkson’s name has already been floated as a player the team could trade. That’s four of the team’s top 7-8 players who could all be gone next year.
Plus, and even more important, the Lakers front office continues to pitch the idea of chasing star players in the summer of 2018. No matter how far-fetched it sounds in September of 2017, if the Lakers add a LeBron James or Paul George or Russell Westbrook or DeMarcus Cousins — or two of them! — next year, this team is entirely different even if all of the current players returned (which isn’t possible financially, I know). The chase will be on for these guys next summer and that turns this year into…what, exactly?
A dress rehearsal? A one year holding pattern? A year on a treadmill?
None of those descriptors are fair, really. They do, however, capture a certain essence of what this year can and, I think, will be. A bridge. A transition. The Lakers clearly have prioritized certain players (Ball, Ingram) and, I believe, have a certain amount invested in Kuzma and Hart too. Those latter two are part of the first draft of this new front office and that always comes with a certain want to see them succeed.
Everyone else on the roster (save for, maybe, Larry Nance Jr. who I think has a skill set which translates to being a role player on any good team) is standing on a bit of unstable footing with a lot to prove over the next 10 months. A year from now could I envision a Lakers roster that is turned over by half or even 75%? I can, yes. This isn’t a reflection of how I view these guys as players or talents (I really like most of the guys on this team — especially the guys 25 or younger).
But, change is on the horizon. This front office has said as much. How that translates to what happens on the floor this season remains to be seen, but it is something to keep in mind as it all unfolds.