2016-17 record: 26-56. 14th in the Western Conference.
Transactions: When Magic Johnson was named Lakers’ president of basketball operations in the wake of Jeanie Buss taking control of the team back from her idiot brother Jimmy, I was incredibly excited for the future of the once storied Lakers. (I wrote about it HERE).
The Lakers had truly bottomed out as a franchise over the past few years including a disastrous 2015-16 season where instead of developing rookies D’Angelo Russell and Larry Nance Jr or second year players Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle, the focus was on Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour in his final season during which coach Byron Scott didn’t play the young Lakers talent and the team finished with a 17-65 record, didn’t feature it’s young talent at all and wasted a season on a year long goodbye party.
Last season the team improved to a 26-56 mark under new head coach Luke Walton and the Lakers really did the much needed shift to an emphasis on their young stars including talented rookie Brandon Ingram. The team also made the most important move up top by outing Mitch Kupchak and Jimmy Buss after a pretty horrible off-season where they gave potentially franchise killing contracts to Luol Deng (4 years, $72 million) and Timofey Mozgov (4 years, $64 million) who were the biggest gets that the Lakers could land – a far cry from the days when they were linked to virtually every free agent available.
The return Magic Johnson and the hiring of new GM Rob Pelinka was a major opportunity to restore the lustre to a once great franchise. To bring the Lakers back to NBA prominence and to steady a ship that had gone really bottomed out since winning it’s last championship in 2010.
It all started with a little of bit of, well, magic. The Lakers needed to win big at the draft lottery as they still owed a pick to the Philadelphia 76ers as the result of them facilitating the Steve Nash trade back in 2012. If the pick fell out of the top three, the Lakers would lose it and any chance to get their hands on one of the major talents projected to be at the top of a loaded draft class.
With Magic Johnson representing the team at the lottery, the won the second overall selection, kept the pick and fans of the team breathed a huge sigh of relief.
The Lakers then made a big move to unload one of their bad contracts when they sent Timofey Mozgov along with D’Angelo Russell to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the NBA Draft.
Giving up Russell is a steep price to dump the Mozgov deal to be sure. He was a highly touted second overall selection in the 2015 Draft but never really got a chance to shine in his rookie year due to Byron Scott’s insistence on playing veterans over rookies. He did fare a lot better under Luke Walton in his second year where he averaged 15.6 points and 4.8 assists and seemed to grow a lot as a player.
Ultimately the Lakers winning the draft lottery was what made him expendable as they were expected to select point guard Lonzo Ball who projects to be a much better play-maker than Russell who really struggled with that aspect of his game last season to the point where he was moved off the ball in most sets and caused many to question what his role would be going forward. It was not a great sign for a young player whose biggest moment with the Lakers was leaking a video to social media of then-teammate Nick “Swaggy P” Young confessing to cheating on his then-girlfriend Iggy Azalea.
Still, Russell has a lot of potential. He will now realize it with another organization. There is a chance he blossoms into the all-star level talent that he was projected as and it will likely lead to some discussions about how wise this trade was down the road, but the goal in trading Russell wasn’t just to hand the keys over to Ball, it was to get free up money to acquire future assets down the road.
The Lakers get a bad contract off the books and a useful player coming back in Brook Lopez who is still one of the best offensive big men in the game and has now added three point shooting to his impressive arsenal. Lopez brings offensive stability and scoring prowess to a young team that will struggle at times as they learn and grow in the pro game.
Coming off a season where he averaged 20.5 points on 47.4% shooting, he got a lot to offer the Lakers on the court, but even more off it in terms of financial flexibility as his deal comes off the books at the end of the season which is really what this move was about beyond anything else.
Magic Johnson has designs on the 2018 off-season and rumours have the team linked to everyone from LeBron James to Paul George (to the point where the Pacers filed tampering charges with the NBA and the Lakers were fined half a million dollars which Magic has pledged to pay out of his own pocket).
They ultimately weren’t able to get a deal done for Deng’s awful contract, but getting Mozgov off the books has to be considered a huge win for Los Angeles going forward.
The team re-upped with Tyler Ennis, who was basically a throw-in to the deal that sent Lou Williams to Houston and brought Corey Brewer to LA. He looked really good down the stretch run and showed some flashes of the player many thought could become when he was drafted out of Syracuse in 2014. He enjoyed the highest minutes of his young career (17.8 per game) and corresponded with the averaging his best points total (7.8) on his best career shooting to date (45.1% and 38.9% from three point range).
Ennis is a low risk on a one year deal with the high reward coming if he can develop into a solid back-up point guard to Lonzo Ball and allow the Lakers to move Jordan Clarkson in order to clear more cap space if necessary.
Kentavius Caldwell-Pope was a nice get for the Lakers who became available once the Pistons landed Avery Bradley and wouldn’t match any deal offered for him.
KCP will fit in nicely next to Ball in the back-court and offers the Lakers solid perimeter defense with his speed and reach. Offensively he’s a streaky shooter but did hit 37.4% of his catch-and-shoot threes last season which was a good mark for him that should only get better with an increased role on offense and getting good looks from Lonzo Ball. He’s also able to create off the dribble and is a decent passer in his own right.
Caldwell-Pope also offers the team the all-important financial flexibility that Los Angeles needs as they head into what should be a huge free agency year for them. He’s only with the team for one season on an $18 million deal and can come off the books next season or even be brought back with a longer term if things work out well for him on the team this season and the Lakers don’t land all of the big guns that they will be in pursuit of.
The Lakers also won the Andrew Bogut sweepstakes and signed the veteran big man to a one year deal at the veteran minimum. Bogut offers the Lakers excellent interior defense off the bench and also solid ball movement on the offensive side, however it remains to be seen how his signing will impact the playing time for young big Ivica Zubac.
Bogut’s signing does fit with the overall theme of flexibility though as if it works out, the team can keep him longterm or even flip him for assets down the stretch to a contender in need of some interior D. In the meantime, he offers a solid veteran presence and can mentor the team’s young bigs.
2017 NBA Draft: With the second pick in the NBA Draft, the Lakers surprised absolutely nobody by selecting Lonzo Ball out of UCLA.
It’s really a perfect match in so many ways. The Lakers still have those Hollywood trappings and Ball is perhaps not as well known in the mainstream consciousness as his brash, outspoken father LaVar, architect of the Big Baller Brand and the man who has operated as equal parts hype man, business manager, public relations head and top cheerleader for his talented son.
LaVar really became the story to a lot of people and it’s not hard to see why. He’s very charismatic and entertaining and prone to making statements about how he could beat Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one or how Lonzo is going to take the NBA by storm and lead the Lakers back to the playoffs because he envisioned it.
I mean maybe we should listen. LaVar was the one saying for a longtime that Lonzo would be a Laker and he is. But then again LaVar says and does a lot of things. Including ensure that his son’s first major public appearance since being selected as the number two pick in the draft was on an episode of WWE Monday Night Raw which took place at Staples Centre. LaVar was ultimately the focus on that night, however.
I think on most other organizations there would be some concerns that the Big Baller and his antics could detract from the on-court product or prove to be an insurmountable distraction. Most organizations don’t have Magic Johnson, though. He’s the ultimate in building relationships and mitigating potentially volatile situations. If anyone can temper LaVar or even direct his antics to serve the organization and his son’s well-being rather than potentially interfere with it, Magic can do it.
On the court, Lonzo is exactly what the Lakers need. Many see him as a generational point guard who can lead the team forward for years to come including Magic Johnson who is kind of an expert on when it comes to generational talents on the Lakers.
His playing style alone is perfectly suited for the Hollywood stage. Ball already has one of the most beautiful and thrilling passing games that I’ve ever seen. He’s an incredible passer and it’s thrilling to watch him facilitate and find open shooters and big men rolling to the hoop. Lonzo has an extremely high basketball IQ for a 19 year old and displays stellar court vision and excellent decision making skills.
Ball also excels in transition and already shows enough skills in that area of his game to make an immediate impact as a pro. He’s able to crash the boards and force turnovers and uses the blinding speed with which he handles the ball to either push the break himself or hand it off to teammates. He displays a poise well beyond his years in his transition game and 30% of his offensive opportunities at UCLA consisted of transition play with he had an incredible 4.1-to-1.0 assist to turnover ratio.
Another characteristic of Lonzo’s that immediately stands out is his highly unorthodox shooting motion. But it really worked for him in college as he hit 41.2% from three point range and was very good off the catch-and-shoot as he connected on 44.6% of his shots with the majority coming from deep in three point territory and 68% of them being contested shots. He also shoots well off the dribble as he hit 48% of those attempts last season.
Ball does struggle with creating his own shot, however, and is not a particularly strong player in isolation situations, but that is somewhat mitigated by his surprisingly high ability to operate off the ball and using his keen offensive awareness to be in the right place to catch teammates passes.
Defensively, Ball’s relative lack of athleticism and speed causes him a great deal of trouble when dealing with speedy opposing guards. He can also get blown up by screens, lacking both an awareness in reading the screen and the physical ability to fight through it.
The Lakers did get an incredible talent who is incredibly unselfish on the court and will make an immediate impact on his teammates with his incredible passing skills and court vision. Lonzo Ball is definitely the type of talent who they can build around and who will make their offense better.
Lonzo put the basketball world on notice by winning Vegas Summer League MVP on his way to setting a Summer League record with 9.3 assists per game. You can expect him to be a major player in what promises to be one of the most exciting Rookie of the Year races in quite some time.
Believe the hype.
With the 27th pick acquired from Brooklyn, the Lakers surprised a lot of people by selected Kyle Kuzma out of Utah who had two fairly underwhelming years with the Utes before exploding with averages of 16.4 points, 9.3 boards and 2.4 assists in his junior year.
He went on to prove all the skeptics wrong at NBA Summer League where he exploded with 21.9 points, 6.4 boards, 2.7 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. Kuzma earned MVP honours in the championship game where he messed around and put up a double-double of 30 points and 10 rebounds, leading the Lakers to victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Flint, Michigan native stands at 6’9” with a wingspan of 7’0” and has all the physical tools and skills necessary to become a modern NBA power forward. He possesses excellent speed in transition, is light on his feet and has the athleticism necessary to finish at the rim. His biggest assets are his footwork, agility and quickness which allow him to excel running the floor, working the pick-and-roll or on the back-end.
Kuzma has excellent court vision and excels pushing the pace off of defensive rebounds. He also has great handles and can pass the ball really well from the power forward position. His quick first step allows him to get the jump on opposing defenders and is a very smooth and fluid player once he gets going.
In order to thrive as a stretch-4 in the NBA, Kuzma will have to work on his three point shooting. He shot just 32.1% over his junior year, however that mark improved to 40.7% over the last ten games of the season. If he can get a consistent three pointer going, he will be a huge part of the Lakers offense this season.
The Lakers flipped their 28th pick to the Utah Jazz for the 30th and 42nd picks and used their 30th selection to take Josh Hart out of Villanova. The 22 year old had an excellent career with the Wildcats that included a national championship in 2016 and an excellent senior year where he averaged 18.7 points on 51% shooting.
The team coveted Hart primarily for his defensive abilities. He is an extremely versatile and tenacious defender who is able to get in passing lanes frequently for steals and displays strong fundamentals and commitment on the back-end. Hart is excellent at closing out shooters and also does a great job of using his length to challenge opposing players on the perimeter. He is able to guard multiple positions on switches and uses his body to crash the glass to prevent second chance opportunities.
With new addition KCP being the other strong presence in the back-court, Hart could get some minutes in the rotation due to his skills on the back-end. Four year seniors also often bring with them a poise and maturity that takes time for a lot of one-and-done guys to develop which should help him find a role on the team this season.
At pick 42, the Lakers selected Indiana Hoosier Thomas Bryant. The 20 year old big man stands at 6’10” with an astounding 7’6” wingspan and those physical tools provide a great deal of intrigue and the ability to impact the game on multiple levels.
Bryant’s stock fell largely due to choosing to stay with the Hoosiers for a sophomore year where his numbers took a dip, but his physical tools will likely allow him to become a physical presence down low while he works to refine other aspects of his game. There’s a lot of potential in this pick.
Outlook: This season will largely be about two things for the Lakers: developing their rookies and talent that Magic and Pelinka want for the long haul and then evaluating what they’ve got in other young players. The organizational focus is still very much in the loaded free agency class next season and getting a sense on how to free up more cap space and which players to move on from in order to do so will be key.
During the off-season, there were two guys on the roster that Magic deemed untouchable in trade: Brandon Ingram and Larry Nance Jr.
Ingram was the Lakers first round pick last season and showed a great deal of promise in his rookie season when he became just the fifth player in NBA history to total 150 assists, 36 blocks and 50 three pointers in a rookie season at age 19 joining LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. He definitely didn’t have the impact that those players had in their first pro seasons, but showed a much coveted ability to defend the paint and excellent court vision for a young forward.
The now 20 year old seems poised to make a huge jump this season. Granted some of that was with help from Mother Nature as Ingram grew two inches in the off-season and now stands at 6’11”. Ingram has been in the weight room all summer to add some muscle to his frame (he played last season at under 200 pounds) to give him more of a presence in the paint and improve his inside game.
Ingram has also gone to work on his shot. In his one-and-done year at Duke, he shot 41% on 5.4 three point attempts per game. In his rookie season that plummeted to 29.4% on just 2.4 attempts per game. He’s got to re-establish his range to be a complete NBA level swingman. If he can get get close to his college proficiency, he can help the Lakers create all-important spacing and spread the floor.
Luke Walton will likely deploy Ingram as a small forward but also at either guard position as he uses the type of “position-less” sets that he deployed frequently when filling in for Steve Kerr in Golden State. Ingram’s passing ability makes him the ideal player in that sort of system and if the off-season work he’s put in can take him to the next level, he will have a huge break-out in his second year in Los Angeles.
Larry Nance Jr has been a pleasant surprise for the Lakers since being drafted late in the first round in 2015. He is a perfect modern NBA big man in terms of his versatility and ability to play all three front court positions off the bench. He also carries himself like a veteran even though he is only entering his third pro season – which is a testament to the value that four year seniors can still bring to the NBA.
The man that Magic Johnson calls the team’s “secret weapon” offers top level defense and is incredibly athletic. His highlight level leaping ability should cause him to be on the receiving end of a lot of Lonzo Ball lobs this season. Expect a lot of opposing players to end up on posters as a result. He’s also an excellent rebounder with his willingness to crash the boards.
The organization’s belief in Nance should be a concern for Julius Randle who doesn’t have Nance’s defensive ability or positional versatility and has been somewhat of an afterthought after being a highly sought after draft pick in 2014 (he broke his leg 14 minutes into his rookie year). Randle is a very good ball handler with keen offensive awareness and skills and showed a great of improvement last season with a 13.2 points, 8.6 boards and 3.6 assists, but at 22 he could find himself a valuable trade commodity or even packaged to unload Luol Deng’s contract unless he’s able to carve out an important role on this team.
Combo guard Jordan Clarkson is also another player to watch in terms of trade possibilities. He will likely start the season as Lonzo Ball’s back-up but should any other of the Lakers’ young guards start to excel, he could find himself on the move. Clarkson has proven himself to be a capable scorer off the bench in each of his three NBA seasons and averaged 14.7 points per game last season. He’s in the second year of a 4 year, $50 million deal that could make him a value to other teams lacking guard depth but could leave him on the outside looking in on a Lakers squad that is looking to clear space to sign big names next summer.
A feel-good story to watch on the team this season will be how 2017 G-League MVP Vander Blue fares in the NBA. He impressed everyone in the Summer League and earned himself an NBA deal. He left it all on the floor every game he played in front Magic and the Lakers coaching staff to earn his way on the team. I know I’ll be pulling for him to find a home in the NBA after bouncing around the development league for his career.
As mentioned previously, Bogut’s signing complicates things as I would have thought that 20 year old Croatian big man Ivica Zubac would have factored into the Lakers’ plans after some excellent play down the stretch. Zubac averaged 10 points and 4.5 boards in 20 minutes per game after the all-star break and showed a lot of promise and presumably was due for a bigger role which is now in question.
The big story of the Lakers season and the reason most people will be tuning in to watch them on League Pass will be Lonzo Ball. He’ll be worth the price of admission on most nights with his incredible passing. Bringing in a vet like Brook Lopez to run the pick-and-roll with him was brilliant as having one of the most offensively gifted bigs in the league starting with Lonzo will give him a consistent passing target and Lopez should have a resurgent season playing with a gifted passer with elite offensive recognition.
Ball will also benefit from having KCP sharing the back-court with him in the starting line-up. He’ll be read to spot up from deep off of Lonzo feeds and will also be able to step up on defense should the rookie struggle or suffer from any of the defensive lapses that most first year players have to go through when adjusting to the pro game. The Lakers did a very good job at bringing in some quality vets to play alongside their young core.
Lonzo will be spectacular. There will be nights when his shot doesn’t fall. There will be moments that he makes mistakes and his failures will be amplified to a ridiculous extent because of the hype that he’s coming into the league with and some of the unrealistic expectations that both his father and overzealous Lakers fans have saddled him with but his otherworldly talents as a play-maker and the belief and mentoring he is going to receive from none other than Magic Johnson, he will overcome all of that.
Even if Ball doesn’t win rookie of the year, he will be in the running and lost in the hype around him is the fact that he is an unselfish player on the court who will make his teammates better with his passing more than he will chase individual glory or accolades. Lost in his father’s rap song the Big Baller Brand, the shoes and his rap song is the fact that he’s one of the most gifted passers that college ball ever saw and he’s going to bring that ability to the NBA. Just watching him facilitate will make him a can’t-miss guy.
Magic was right when he said that the Lakers can miss the play-offs and the season can still be considered a success. Despite LaVar Ball’s 50 win proclamation, this team isn’t going anywhere near the post-season and that is absolutely fine. Developing Ball, Kuzma, Ingram, Nance and the other young talent is the most important thing they can do this season. Young players make mistakes at times and that will cost the Lakers games, which is also absolutely fine. They’ve got a great coach in Luke Walton for this situation and added some nice vets for leadership.
What’s also clear is that this season is largely going to set the stage for the 2018 free agency frenzy which the Lakers are hoping to use to land some huge talents to return them to their former glory. To that end, how far Ball and Ingram come along will be a huge indicator of how willing big names are willing to take their talents to Hollywood in order to pursue an NBA Championship.
It’s going to be a pivotal year in Los Angeles and for the first time in a long time, the future looks very bright for the Lakers.
Prediction: 29-53. 14th in the Western Conference.