The Los Angeles Lakers are coming off their worst season in franchise history, but the future is bright. The toxic coaching of Byron Scott is out and Luke Walton is in, and there’s a quality young core in place. Free agency brought about some questionable deals, yet that doesn’t totally mar what’s being built in Hollywood.
1. Best move of offseason
Taylor Smith: Re-signing Jordan Clarkson for four years, $50 million. It’s hard to believe $12.5 million per year is a bargain, but this summer, it was. With the way crazy contracts were being handed out the Lakers bringing back a 24-year-old that can play both guard spots was a steal. Clarkson has a ways to go as a defender and distributor, but the Lakers can use his scoring presence alongside D’Angelo Russell as a starter or as a sixth man.
Tyriq Butler: The best offseason move was drafting Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 overall pick. Yes, it was a no brainer, considering Ingram and Ben Simmons were clearly the best two players in the draft, but there were rumors the Lakers could possibly package this pick in a deal for a more proven NBA player. I was never a fan of the brass looking to expedite the rebuilding process by way of shipping off younger players and/or draft picks. It is possible to rebuild in a big market, but patience and sound decision-making are both critical.
Ingram was voted by the rookies as the player they thought would have the most successful NBA career, receiving 26.7 percent of the vote ahead of Kris Dunn (who was picked to be the Rookie of the Year). He fills a glaring need on a roster rife with question marks. But it is one with a tremendous upside.
Shane Young: It sounds harsh, but probably none of them. I wouldn’t consider Luke Walton’s hiring as anything surprising, since we knew Byron Scott didn’t have the mentality of grooming a young nucleus in Russell, Randle and Clarkson. Lord knows nobody wanted him associated with Ingram’s first season at age 19. So, the change had to be made regardless.
If we have to choose the best basketball personnel move, it has to be signing Luol Deng. GM Mitch Kupchak may have raised eyebrows by committing four years and an average annual salary of $18 million to someone that turns 35 when the contract matures into its final year, but he could bring the most positives to the team.
He’s exactly what Ingram, Clarkson, Nance and Randle need to see defensively before they can take the next stride into guarding big, skilled 3s and 4s. It’s impossible to quantify, but Deng working with Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson in Miami likely had an effect on making them stronger defenders. Deng will also be better suited to get open corner threes in Los Angeles, in my view, due to more drive-and-kick philosophy from Walton this year.
Kelly Scaletta: I don’t love the fourth year of the Luol Deng contract, but I really like him being brought on board. In many ways he’s the perfect fit for the team in that he’s more of a lead-by-example kind of guy who doesn’t harangue players or cuss them out. “Noble” isn’t a word you’d use to describe a lot of NBA players, but it’s the perfect description for the kind of character Deng has. He should be a tremendous influence on the Lakers’ youth.
Jason Patt: Taking Brandon Ingram No. 2 is obviously a great move, but it was obvious. Re-signing Jordan Clarkson was also a rather obvious move, but getting him at the price they did was a surprise considering he was eligible to sign for much more. While I’m not as high on Clarkson as some, his four-year, $50 million deal should be a steal given he continues to develop at a nice rate.
2. Worst move of offseason
Taylor: Signing Timofey Mozgov for four years, $64 million. This wasn’t only the Lakers’ worst move, it may have been the worst move any team made all summer. This deal was reported shortly after the free-agency period opened, yet it makes no more sense now than it did then. Mozgov was one of the league’s worst centers that saw fairly regular playing time last season as he rushed himself back from an offseason knee procedure.
Who were the Lakers bidding against? Was anyone else clamoring to throw this much money at him? Why potentially block your young players in the rotation with a 30-year-old that may be washed up already? So many questions.
Tyriq: The worst move of the offseason was signing Timofey Mozgov to a four-year $64 million contract. With all the money coming in from the new TV deals NBA teams have more to spend, so it behooves us to look at this deal through that lens, which is why I’m not questioning the yearly salary.
What concerns me is the amount of years they signed him for. Roy Hibbert was such a disaster last season, so it’s hard not to see this as a bit of improvement for a team that lacked an inside presence last year. But being tied to a player in Mozgov, who barely got a chance to break a sweat for the defending champs, for four years is a bit of a head-scratcher.
Shane: Feeling the need to ink Timofey Mozgov for four years, $64 million on the very first night of free agency. It indicated both sides likely already had an agreement prior to the July 1 starting period, which is outrageous on a couple levels. The Lakers must have grown impatient after all the recent years of missing their target free agents, so this quick signing may have had the front office feeling good about itself.
Mozgov for $16 million annually isn’t really the problem. It’s the comparison factor, with Ian Mahinmi (a couple notches greater defensively) available at the same price tag, and Bismack Biyombo also showing willingness to switch destinations by chasing the money. I’d rather have both of those big men than Mozgov in the same price neighborhood. Also, committing four years to a player that has so many ups and downs, and someone that we aren’t sure how his game will develop further in his 30s, is not the wisest move.
Kelly: The way they committed so much money to four years down the road. That’s when they should be seeing their kids “ripen” and ready to harvest. By then, they’ll be needing to re-up those guys and that’s going to be costly. The idea of rebuilding is that when your kids are on the threshold of breaking out, you have a chunk of cash to spend to attract premiere free agents to come and play. The Lakers have been going about this rebuilding thing all wrong ever since Kobe tore his ACL. But to be fair, it’s not like they have much experience in that.
Jason: The Timofey Mozgov contract was baffling when it happened and it only got more baffling as free agency went on and we saw other decent center options get snatched up for much less. For whatever reason, the Lakers wanted Mozgov SO bad that they overpaid for him right as free agency began. They probably could’ve waited and got him for less.
But even if they waited and some other team swooped in, so what? Not paying a 30-year-old center with knee problems coming off a terrible season wouldn’t exactly have been a big loss. Instead, the Lakers felt compelled to not only overpay him, but give him FOUR years. I don’t get it.
3. Offseason grade
Taylor: B+. The Mozgov and Luol Deng contracts were strange, but Mitch Kupchak’s primary focus is on the core of youngsters. Early indications are that the Luke Walton hire was a smart one, especially considering what guys like Russell and Clarkson have already had to say about him. Snagging Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 pick should be a perfect fit in the frontcourt. Ivica Zubac drew comparisons to Marc Gasol during Summer League. This isn’t going to be a good team next season, but they finally seem to be headed in the right direction.
Tyriq: Given everything I’ve outlined as it pertains to the Lakers exuding some level of patience with this process, I’d give them a B for the offseason. The fact remains that they have now struck out in free agency for the fourth consecutive season. And I get it, it’s tough to convince marquee players to come play for a team that have been perpetual losers. But on the flip side, they’ve shown the capability of finally being able to turn this around by keeping the young core together and bringing in veteran leadership to possibly help that process with Luol Deng.
Shane: They earn a B- from me simply for drafting Ingram and not messing up the most important thing regarding the future. Zubac as the backup center — eventually taking a starting role if he reaches his low-post potential — was also a good choice in the draft. They couldn’t get a star free agent, or even a meeting with Durant or Whiteside. That’s not helping the team’s reputation, but they did better than previous years.
Kelly: I still have to give them an A-. They may be kicking the Deng/Mozgov contract can down the road, but overall, they did a lot to help the team. And they seem to have decided on a direction, which is better than the weird thing they did last season.
Jason: The Mozgov deal keeps the Lakers from getting an A, but they still get a solid B in my book. The Luol Deng contract was a bit excessive, but he’s still effective and will provide leadership. The Clarkson deal should be a steal. Firing Byron Scott and hiring Luke Walton is a huge plus. Ingram should be great. The smaller moves were also fine (even Yi!). Now they just need to get rid of Nick Young.
4. Early prediction for 2016-17
Taylor: It shouldn’t be hard for the Lakers to improve upon the 17-win disaster from last season. Kobe Bryant and Byron Scott are (mercifully) gone, and they should be a breath of fresh air next year. I still don’t expect them to come particularly close to sneaking into a playoff spot, but somewhere between 25 and 30 wins is possible. That still probably puts the Lakers near the cellar of the Pacific, but it’s progress nonetheless.
Tyriq: It’s the first time since 1995 that Kobe Bryant won’t be on the roster, so this new era of Los Angeles Lakers basketball officially commences. Realistically, you can expect to see a team that wins more games than they did last year when they set the franchise record for least amount in a season with just 17.
But it’s hard to imagine they’ll be significantly better than they have been the last few years as far as wins and losses go. The Western Conference is tough, we all know that. Their ceiling is probably 23-25 wins. But the biggest improvement you can take notice of is how they look on the court in terms of cohesion, ball movement and schematically. We should be able to see a clear sense of direction both on and off the court. And with D’Angelo Russell in his second year, we can see how he performs without Kobe hijacking possessions and with a new head coach who will almost definitely show much more faith in his game.
Shane: I have Los Angeles at 23-59 for this coming season, which is a six-win improvement from their lamentable 2015-16 showing under Byron Scott. In the West, they should finish no higher than 14th, but it isn’t the end of the world for them. The kids get a chance to show maturity, and the franchise should be able to keep their top-three protected draft pick for 2017, given any bad luck doesn’t hurt the city after their legend retired.
Kelly: I don’t see them winning more than 25 games. There is just so much learning curve here that it’s hard to get past that. They could, very easily, be the worst team in the West again this year.
Jason: The arrow is pointing up and the future is bright…but the Lakers are still going to stink in 2016-17. But something like 25 wins with fun play and clear prospect development would be a huge step in the right direction, even if it placed the team in the cellar yet again.