The Los Angeles Lakers returned only six players from last season’s roster, and with so many new faces, including LeBron James, there were numerous questions about how the team would fit together on and off the court.
Unfortunately, nearly three months into the season, multiple questions remain unanswered. Do to injuries, illness and suspensions, the Lakers have never been at full strength for an extended period of time.
It has undermined their efforts to reach their full potential, and therefore, the biggest unknown is how good this team could be if or when everyone is healthy.
Aside from that one overarching question, there are other issues that will hopefully be answered between now and the end of the season. How they are answered will determine if the front office makes a move at the trade deadline, if the Lakers makes the playoffs, if head coach Luke Walton even finishes the season, and which players will be part of the future after free agency.
5. Will the Lakers get any meaningful contribution this season from their rookies?
The Lakers have relied heavily on their rookies the past few seasons. They played big minutes and nearly all of them were starters at one time or another. Some are still around, but the team gave up rather quickly on others who at one time were thought to be mainstays of the future like D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr.
This season has been different. When the team drafted Moritz Wagner, Isaac Bonga and Svi Mykhailiuk, none was projected to be a starter. However, there was an expectation that Wagner and Mykhailiuk would contribute outside shooting off the bench, a skill at which they excelled in college.
To this point of the season, none of the rookies has received regular playing time, and when they have played, it has not gone well. Mykhailiuk has great form but his three-point shots have not fallen regularly and he appears to struggle with the speed of the NBA game.
Wagner’s season suffered a major setback when he was injured in Summer League, missed the entire preseason and the start of the regular season.
The Lakers could benefit greatly from improved outside shooting, and if the rookies are the ones to make this contribution, it would be a big boost.
4. Can Michael Beasley Be a Difference Maker Off the Bench?
The Lakers have lacked a consistent scoring punch off the bench. They don’t have that big-time shooter who comes in and scores points in bunches, like Lou Williams did a few years ago. Do you think the Lakers could use Williams now?
Enter Michael Beasley, who has played in only 17 games so far. Beasley looked lost in preseason and when the regular season started, when he was out of the rotation entirely. Then he left the team indefinitely to care for his mother, who passed away.
But Beasley is back now and looking strong off the bench. He recently scored 13, 17 and 19 points in three consecutive games. His defense has been better than expected and when he shares the ball, which admittedly is not often, he can make good passes.
If Beasley is back and healthy the rest of the year, he could be a difference-maker.
3. Will the Lakers’ Young Core Finally Play at a High Level Consistently?
The Lakers young core of Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart has yet to show any consistency this season, which is disappointing. Each has had a good game here and there, but they are mostly up one game and down the next.
Typical was Kuzma’s recent 41-point outburst in three quarters. But the game before and the game after that masterpiece, Kuzma was a combined 8-for-38 from the floor.
With James and Rajon Rondo out indefinitely, the Lakers really needed the young core to step up. Ingram had 29 points one game and 10 the next. Ball had 21 points one game and five the next. With the team sinking in the Western Conference standings, the clock is ticking for the Lakers and for the young core in particular. The trade deadline is in less than a month.
When, if ever, will the Lakers see any consistency from their young players? For the good of the team it had better happen soon.
2. Will Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball finally justify their selection as mumber 2 picks in the draft?
History proves that not all number two picks in the NBA draft become stars, but major expectations are still there for any player drafted that high. Until this past summer, the Lakers had the number two pick three years in a row, when they selected Ball, Ingram, and Russell. Ironically, only Russell, who is 22, has resembled a number two pick this year but he’s doing it for a different team.
The question is, with what time is left this season, will either Ingram or Ball make that jump? They are only 21, but Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Ben Simmons and Jamal Murray are all 21or 22. Luca Doncic, the league’s new star, is 19. To date, Ingram and Ball don’t remind anyone of those top young players.
It is not too late, but impressions have been formed and the longer it takes for Ingram and Ball to show they are on their way to becoming elite, the harder it is to shake the impression that they are disappointments.
1. Will the Lakers fall too Far In the standings before James Returns from Injury?
James seemed indestructible his whole career, but he is 34 now, which is the age that Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles tendon. That of course was the beginning of the end for Bryant’s career.
In the blink of an eye, James was hurt on Christmas Day and after missing 11 games so far, soon to be 13, there is no definitive return set. His injury has become a serious blow to the Lakers’ chances to make the playoffs.
The teams above the Lakers in the standings are the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Clippers. The Spurs and Rockets started the season slowly but are now soaring.
Going into the season not many expected the Clippers to make the playoffs, but we are deep enough into the season now that they have proven they are for real. The same with Portland, who will not win any titles but with two great guards and a very good center, they aren’t falling out of the top eight.
At this point, it will take a huge effort and a lot of luck for the Lakers to leap over any of the teams who are currently above them in the Western Conference standings.
Then there are the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves and New Oreleans Pelicans, who were all expected to make the playoffs but started slowly this year. They all are within moving into the playoff picture.
Even the Sacramento Kings are vastly improved and playing with great confidence. All four of these teams have shown signs of turning things around and are winning now at a high clip. Will the Lakers be able to hold off all four for the eighth spot in the West?
The Lakers don’t have to win a title this year, but it would be a profound embarrassment if, after signing the best player in the world, they fail to make the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
It is fair to say Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson would be beyond upset. His wrath could be directed a number of ways and lead to a lot of changes.
Hopefully the team will rebound from a poor stretch since Christmas when they’ve lost seven games in three weeks. After bad losses this year to the Orlando Magic (twice), Memphis Grizzles, New York Knicks, Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets and the latest debacle in losing to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, Walton’s job may really be in jeopardy.
It will be interesting to see if the Lakers’ players can channel the energy and confidence it will take to turn things around and stay in the race until James is able to return.
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