After a couple of long, depressing seasons in LA, Lakers fans finally have something to look forward to this season. They’ll get a glimpse of what’s to come as the young core of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson showcase their talent. Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said newly acquired Roy Hibbert has a chance to become a part of the Lakers’ core group moving forward should he have a bounce back year.
While the Lakers have a top three protected pick this year, it’s imperative that the team focuses on developing the young guys while winning as many games as possible. It’s unlikely that the Lakers will keep their pick even if they tank, and improving the quality of their play would be more beneficial for luring future free agents.
The Lakers are rebuilding, which is uncharted territory for a franchise with numerous all-time greats in their history book. They’ve missed the playoffs just seven times in their rich history. With Kobe Bryant potentially retiring at the end of the season, the Lakers are banking on their young core to develop into All-Star-caliber players while simultaneously catapulting the Lakers back to the apex of the NBA.
What Happened Last Year
The venerable Los Angeles Lakers experienced their worst season in franchise history last year with a feeble record of 21-61. Although it was entertaining to watch Kobe gunslinging his way past Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list, the Lakers became unbearable to watch after Bryant went down with a shoulder injury in January. The Lakers great received a ton of flak for firing shots at will, but there was value in Bryant finding a way to put on a show for the LA crowd amidst a futile season. Besides, he diverted to displaying his artful (and vastly underrated) passing skills after surpassing Jordan in points.
Once Bryant was ruled out for the remainder of the season, perhaps the Lakers’ lone bright spot was Clarkson. The 46th overall draft pick had a surprisingly decent season and was voted to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team. He became just the 11th Laker to be named to the first team, joining Eddie Jones, Vlade Divac, Byron Scott, James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Norm Nixon, Brian Winters, Jim Price, Dick Garrett, Bill Hewitt and Elgin Baylor, who won the 1958-59 Rookie of the Year award.
Other than to monitor Clarkson’s development, there was hardly a reason to watch the Lakers play last season. Randle, who was supposed to be one of the NBA’s best rookies, broke his leg in his very first official game as a Laker and was out for the rest of the season. Nick Young and Jeremy Lin, the team’s two most popular players after Kobe, regressed under a system that was inimical to their strengths. Byron Scott seemed averse to three-pointers and pick-and-roll sets, despite the league trending toward more and more three-pointers. Consequently, Lakers fans missed out on all the fun that derives from “Linsanity” and “Swaggy P.” The Lakers were incredibly boring to watch and awful for much of the second half of the season.
What Happened This Summer
There was much anxiety among Lakers fans during last season’s lottery night. The Lakers would’ve lost their top five protected pick to Philadelphia had they garnered the sixth spot or higher. Fortunately for the Lakers, not only did they keep their pick, but they landed the improbable second pick in the draft, causing a euphoric celebration in Lakerland. They used their pick to select Russell, and they essentially added three lottery talents to their roster in Russell, Randle and Clarkson.
The Lakers surprised people when they opted to draft Russell instead of Jahlil Okafor with the second overall pick. Russell has been touted for his passing and court vision, drawing lofty comparisons to Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd as a facilitator. It’s yet to be determined, however, if Russell can live up to expectations and become the next great Lakers point guard.
The Lakers lost Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer (thank goodness), Jordan Hill and Ed Davis in free agency, most of whom weren’t going to be a part of the Lakers’ future anyway. After missing out (again) on all the top-tier free agents this summer, the Lakers revamped their frontcourt by adding defensive-minded big men in Roy Hibbert, Robert Upshaw and Brandon Bass. They also drafted power forward Larry Nance Jr. with the 27th pick and signed Jonathan Holmes.
Hibbert will provide much-needed rim protection for a Lakers team that was second-to-last in defensive efficiency last season. According to NBA.com/Stats, Hibbert was a top four rim protector last season, allowing just 42.6 percent at the rim. The Pacers were eight in defensive rating last season in large part due to the big man, which is impressive considering how their best perimeter defenders missed a huge chunk of last season. It’ll be interesting to see how much of a difference Hibbert makes for the Lakers defensively.
In the backcourt, LA added Lou Williams to bolster the second unit. Williams won the Sixth Man of the Year award last season with the Raptors, and LA is hoping he continues his trend of instant offense off the bench. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Williams is an efficient scorer due to his ability to get to the free throw line and make three-pointers. Thus, despite his low field goal percentage of 40 percent, Williams managed a commendable 56.4 true shooting percentage. Scott has a tough task ahead of him trying to find minutes for everyone in the backcourt.
Player To Watch: Julius Randle
Heart-breaking news has recently surfaced about ex-Laker and NBA champion Lamar Odom, who’s fighting for his life in a hospital in Vegas after being found unconscious. Odom was one of the few big men who possessed not only an incredibly high basketball IQ but also guard-like skills. His game was akin to that of Randle. Randle’s ability to rebound the ball and go coast-to-coast as a 6’9″ power forward evoke fond memories of Odom’s tenure in the NBA.
The agility, ball-handling and court vision that Randle displays when initiating fast breaks is a vital weapon for the team, and it coined the social media hashtag, #RandlesHandles. Randle, who’s averaging 13 points, six rebounds and three assists, has arguably been the Lakers’ best player during the preseason.
Randle isn’t just a finesse player, however. His teammates have described him as a “beast” and an “Ox” because of his combination of strength and speed. Randle is virtually unstoppable when he unleashes his quick first step to his left off the dribble. It’s a move he looks to employ most times out of the triple threat. After catching the ball, he likes to square up his man before bolting to the basket. This move allows the youngster to generate quality looks not just for himself, but his teammates as well. Once Randle causes the defense to collapse, he’s adept at kicking the ball out to an open shooter.
Odom and Randle are alike in terms of their skill sets as big men, but Odom wasn’t quite the hefty athlete that Randle is. Randle’s physique is what prompted Bryant to compare Randle to another accomplished big man:
Kobe called Julius Randle "Lamar Odom in Zach Randolph's body."
— Mike Trudell (@LakersReporter) October 7, 2015
Defenders tend to bounce off Randle’s robust stature when he dashes to the hoop. It truly is a rare occurrence to find a player who’s built like a beast and possesses a transcendently high basketball IQ and exceptional court vision. Nonetheless, Randle still has room for improvement. His jumper is a little shaky, and he still looks uncomfortable going to his right. His quick first step will give him space to shoot the mid-range jumper. It’s just a matter of knocking it down more consistently. Should Randle rectify his weaknesses, then the sky is the limit for perhaps the Lakers’ most intriguing player.
The Lakers will undoubtedly be a much better team than they were last season, especially if Bryant can remain healthy. In what might be his final hurrah, Bryant will be moving over to the small-forward position, where he will have a mitigated role as Russell and Clarkson initiate the offense. Thus, Bryant’s efficiency numbers are projected to spike since he’ll be able to focus on getting to his spots and capitalizing on scoring opportunities that the offense generates for him. According to Kobe, going from being the primary ball-handler to a spot-up shooter will be a smooth transition for him. He’d much rather be the recipient of a pass instead of the facilitator:
Kobe showed some annoyance on ?'s about playing off ball: "I do not like setting up the offense. I hate it. Phil made me do it years ago"
— Mark Medina (@MarkG_Medina) October 3, 2015
Kobe: "Haven’t played with point guards that are playmakers at heart. D’Angelo is a ridiculous playmaker man. I’d much rather catch & shoot"
— Bill Oram (@billoram) October 3, 2015
So far, it seems as though Bryant will stay within his mitigated role and allow the younger guys to develop, assuming he stays healthy. For most of his career, Kobe has been perceived as a bad teammate and a jerk. That’s mainly because Bryant prioritizes the success of the team and elevating those around him over what people think of him, which is unlike many players in today’s league. However, Bryant has adopted a new role for next season: nurturing the young guys. Bryant has been dispensing advice during practice and games, and his teammates love his transformation as a leader.
There were legitimate concerns about Bryant possibly impeding the development of the Lakers’ young core, but so far he’s done a good job of mollifying those concerns. The Lakers likely won’t lose enough games to keep their top three protected pick this season, but as Bryant put it, “The important thing is these young guys develop.”
That’s what the focus will (hopefully) be for the duration of next season. As aforementioned, the Lakers will be improved defensively with Hibbert anchoring the middle, and the offense should be more efficient given Bryant’s new role and the addition of proven scorers and playmakers. Even still, the Lakers will likely miss the playoffs for the third straight year, which has never happened before in their franchise history. Realistically, the Lakers can win 30-32 games next season, barring injuries. But if Randle, Russell and Clarkson show promise of becoming future All-Stars in the league (which would potentially attract upcoming free agents next summer), then the season will be a huge success for Los Angeles.