2017-18 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

By Darryl Howerton #21

Thank God, the Jim Buss Era is over—a timespan marked by a period of tanking which netted the L.A. Lakers four seasons of 91-237 misery, and a plethora of draft picks that became Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell (since traded), Larry Nance Jr., Anthony Brown (released), Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac. Then, in the midst of LakerTank IV, sister and fellow team owner Jeanie Buss was able to assume basketball operations command of the sinking ship and put NBA icon Magic Johnson at the helm as the team’s president of basketball ops, with Kobe Bryant’s old agent Rob Pelinka at Magic’s side as the Lakers’ new general manager. With those moves, new Lakers management promptly selected Lonzo Ball and traded for Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart and Thomas Bryant in the 2017 NBA Draft to complete the youth movement that tanking begat. Most of these prospects remain with the team today, as the Lakers now field a roster that has eight 22-and-under players, along with a handful of veterans—Brook Lopez, Andrew Bogut, Luol Deng, Corey Brewer, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—who may (or may not) be with us for the long ride.

Lakers 2017-18 Ballhandlers Wings Bigs
Returners Jordan Clarkson, Tyler Ennis Brandon Ingram, Luol Deng, Corey Brewer Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Ivica Zubac
Newcomers Lonzo Ball Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Josh Hart Brook Lopez, Kyle Kuzma, Andrew Bogut, Thomas Bryant
Gone D’Angelo Russell Nick Young, David Nwaba, Metta World Peace   Timofey Mozgov, Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

Offense: The Lakers will remain a misfiring offense as long as the Lakers cart out a lineup of college-aged players as they’ve been apt to do in various tankathon modes from years gone by (L.A. ranked 24th in offensive efficiency in 2016-17 with 103.4 points per 100 possessions). Only thing is, the Lakers do not have a 2018 first-round pick to benefit from tanking this season, so those losing-on-purpose days should be over by now. Much has changed from last season, so let’s reset the Lakers pieces as follows: Ball is the new quarterback, with Russell sent to the Nets to sweeten the bad taste of Brooklyn absorbing Timofey Mozgov’s bad Laker contract in a two-for-two deal (Lopez and Kuzma additions); floor spacers Caldwell-Pope and Lopez are the one-and-done shooting guard and center who will be asked to take pay cuts this summer if the Lakers accomplish the impossible and lure free agents Paul George from Oklahoma City and/or recruit LeBron James from Cleveland; the rest of the floor space will be determined by Laker head coach Luke Walton—or Magic when he overrules him. Do the Lakers continue to sit Deng in key minutes to give underperforming 20-year-old forward Ingram even more playing time to develop? How does L.A. handle its glut at both power forward (Randle, 2016-17 standout Nance, 2017-18 Summer League and preseason standout Kuzma) and center positions (Lopez, Bogut, Zubac and Bryant)? Regardless of how fast Walton’s offense pushes the pace (ranked sixth in 100.8 possessions per game last season), these Lakers do not have the shooters that Walton’s Warriors had in his assistant coach days at Golden State. Trader Magic has many more moves to make in that area if the Lakers want to see major improvement in offense this season.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Defense: If you thought the Lakers were bad on offense last season, you should have seen them try to defend themselves in practice. The 2016-17 Lakers D made 2016-17 Lakers O look like Showtime, that’s how bad things got for the NBA’s worst defense, which allowed a league-worst 110.6 points per 100 possessions last season. That is not to say the Lakers are horrendous at all times. Imagining a lineup of Ball, KCP, Deng, Nance and Lopez/Bogut actually gives one hope they actually can field a stopper unit at times. Unfortunately, more often than not, four or five college-aged players will share the court where they will be thoroughly exposed to the ways of the NBA and the wiles of the vets, which was oft the case last season.

Upside: Now we’re talking. If the Lakers have one thing it is plenty of upside. We believe Ball will be a top 10 point guard by age 23, which is a slight drop from LaVar Ball and Magic’s prophesy that Lonzo will be one of the greatest Lakers ever. Laker administration is also high on Ingram, though his play as a rookie left much to be desired in both efficiency (8.56 Player Efficiency Rating) and team play (-4.69 Real Plus-Minus). Zubac (17.02 PER) and Nance (+0.90 RPM) both showed the efficiency and team analytics that made them appealing now as a 20-year-old center and 24-year-old power forward. How these young men all shake out playing together with other young men trying to make their mark as well (Randle in a contract year; Kuzma, Hart and Bryant as rookies) remains to be seen.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Durability: Kids being kids, we imagine most of this roster can play ’til the cows come home. That said, KCP, Deng, Brewer, Lopez and Bogut are the key figures here, with most of this vet quintet needing to be able to withstand an 82-game schedule for L.A. to have a chance at a 35-win season. Well, since Pope is 24 and 31-year-old Brewer has not missed a game in the past two seasons, we need not worry about them. As for Deng, Lopez and Bogut, only the latter should be cause for any concern. Deng missed 26 games last season, but most of those absences were excused with the Lakers shutting him and Mozgov down so the team would lose during the season’s second half. Meanwhile, Lopez played 75 games for the Nets at 30 minutes a pop, which is a good sign for L.A. On the flip side, the 33-year-old Bogut managed only 583 minutes for the Mavs and Cavs due to various elbow, wrist, ankle and leg injuries. But with Zubac and Bryant backing the second-string vet up, L.A. is certainly not hurting for center depth.

Synergy: Jordan Clarkson and Randle are likely the only two Lakers to be in the 5,000-Minute Club when the season is over, with both entering 2017-18 with 6,425 and 4,431 minutes as Lakers. That lack of cohesion among the other 13 players, overflowing in youth, is certainly a bad blend for chaos. Thank God, at least, they have a point guard in 20-year-old Ball that everyone in the organization, at least, seems to believe in.

Experience: Bogut, Brewer and Deng are the only Lakers who know what postseason basketball is all about, with the former two winning NBA championship rings with the 2015 Warriors and 2011 Mavericks, while the latter has logged 2,427 playoff minutes in his career, ranking 49th among active players.

Win Frame: 30-35 wins

2017-18 HOOP Season Preview

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