The 2016-2017 NBA season hasn’t been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers. After a blistering start that saw them at .500 at the end of November, the wheels fell off and the team has won just 10 of their next 51 games.
The short-lived burst of success only served to remind everyone of what the Lakers had been missing for the last handful of years. That old familiar buzz was in the air again as rookie head coach Luke Walton’s team gritted their way to surprising victories. For that spell, it felt like basketball finally had returned to Los Angeles.
The Lakers were fun again.
Then, when the calendar flipped to December, it was gone, replaced by blowout losses that have Walton openly questioning whether his team plays hard enough. The marathon of a season is winding down and this Lakers squad doesn’t appear sad to see it go.
Still, despite the struggles, the early success gave us a glimpse of what is possible. It’s time for a little optimism, so let’s take a look at everything the Lakers have going for them.
The Lakers have struggled in free agency in recent years as the likes of Carmelo Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan declined to put on the Golden Armor. Kevin Durant and Hassan Whiteside weren’t even interested in meeting with them, and then when they finally found someone willing to take their money, they overpaid Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, both of whom underwhelmed and are now shut down for the season.
It’s a far cry from the days when Hollywood and the Lakers name were all the bait the team needed.
However, the Lakers did manage to land the hottest name on the coaching market last summer when they agreed to a deal with Golden State Warriors assistant Luke Walton. The team was decisive as then-GM Mitch Kupchak and V.P. of Basketball Operations Jim Buss went after the guy they wanted and landed him shortly after parting ways with former coach Byron Scott.
Walton is the youngest coach in the league and had no official experience running a team, but after filling in admirably for Steve Kerr in Golden State he had earned his reputation as a bright basketball mind with a talent for connecting with players. While Walton hasn’t completely transformed the Lakers overnight, his players all rave about him and his quality as a leader is unquestionable.
The bottom line is that, for a rebuilding team, in Walton they have found the perfect coach to grow right alongside their players. Stability can be key, and the Lakers finally have a coach who could be around for the long haul.
Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka
While Kupchak and Jim Buss weren’t to blame for all for all of the Lakers’ woes, the clock was ticking on Buss’ infamous guarantee and it was clear that the team wasn’t close to returning to contender status. With change already in the air, the damaging contracts given to Deng and Mozgov only drove home the point that it was time for new voices in the Lakers front office.
Jeanie Buss, who holds the power in the organization, pulled the trigger shortly before the trade deadline, jettisoning Buss and Kupchak and signaling the start of a new era in Los Angeles.
She didn’t have to look far to find the new leadership the team needed, enlisting Lakers legend Magic Johnson to be the new President of Basketball Operations and respected agent Rob Pelinka as the team’s General Manager.
This move takes a weakness of the Lakers front office – closing free agent deals – and potentially turns it into a strength. There is arguably no one alive who can better explain to prospective free agents what it’s like to win in Los Angeles than Magic can, and he does it with undeniable passion and charm.
Pelinka, meanwhile, brings league-wide relationships thanks to his years as an agent and has plenty of experience negotiating deals, including Kobe Bryant’s massive final contract. While they may not have much experience running a basketball team, one can’t help but feel a bit better about the team’s decision-making moving forward.
With Johnson and Pelinka joining Walton as decision-makers in the organization, it would appear that the front office overhaul is now complete. It won’t be easy, but the new brain trust will attack the challenge of rebuilding with gusto.
The Kids Are All Right
None of the young Lakers morphed into the franchise-saving superstar the team so badly needs, but that doesn’t mean that progress wasn’t made this season. Consistency was hard to come by, but D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle both had multiple games where they looked like All-Stars, taking over games in their own respective way.
Jordan Clarkson, meanwhile, has been asked to wear many hats already in his young career, from point guard to shooting guard to sixth man and now back to point guard again. He underwhelmed for much of the season, but since the Lou Williams trade we are starting to see reminders of just why everyone was so high on Clarkson after his rookie season.
Second overall pick Brandon Ingram has noticeably improved month-by-month. At least once per game he makes a play that really stands out, whether it be an extendo-arm dunk, surprisingly slick pass, or a pretty turnaround jumper. At just 19, he still has so much potential and room to grow on both sides of the ball that it’s hard not be excited about his development.
Meanwhile, Ivica Zubac is looking like an absolute gem found in the second round. He reminds of a young Marc Gasol with his soft touch at the basket and ability to step out and hit jump shots. Since moving into the starting lineup, the barely 20-year-old Zubac has more than held his own. Like Ingram, there is still plenty of room for growth, but if he can hit his ceiling the Lakers may have stumbled upon their center of the future.
They don’t have a transcendent star (yet), and there are some legitimate concerns over the defensive deficiencies demonstrated by the Lakers young core, but there is real talent to work with here.
A Change In Focus
With Kobe Bryant having ridden off into the sunset, the Lakers have found themselves in a position where they can now solely focus on rebuilding their team around their prized young assets. It’s a slow process, but that’s the way the NBA works now.
Rule changes in the last two Collective Bargaining Agreements have made the draft the best way to acquire young players who will hopefully develop into superstars or can be traded in order to obtain one. The Lakers are in the thick of this process but don’t have anyone ready to ascend to the throne just yet.
Still, the fact that they now have direction is important. The Lakers are no longer stuck in a “win for Kobe” mode, where they can’t truly rebuild because they have to do right by their aging superstar. They shrewdly used cap space to absorb the contract of Jose Calderon last summer and were paid with two second round picks, then in his first act at the helm, Johnson traded away leading scorer Williams in order to obtain a first round pick in this summer’s draft.
Those arrows in the quiver should give Johnson that much more ammunition to work with, whether he uses them in a trade or finds a home-run in the draft.
There is no question that the focus has been placed squarely on the future, and that’s a good thing. League rules may have prevented the Lakers from reloading, but if they get it right, rebuilding around young talent could allow them to eventually put together a team that lasts for a decade.
If the Lakers manage to hold off the hard-charging tank effort of the Phoenix Suns and finish the season in 29th place they will have a 55.8 percent chance of keeping their top-three protected first-round pick out of the clutches of the Philadelphia 76ers for another year. A top three selection could yield the likes of Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, or a handful of other players who make up what is considered to be a very strong draft.
Any one of those players could be a transformative piece, but it feels like Ball is somehow destined to wind up in purple and gold. A Southern California native who is currently leading UCLA in March Madness, it’s almost too perfect for him to be the one to help revive Lakers basketball.
However, the draft lottery stakes are even higher than just one player for the Lakers. If they retain their pick this year the 2019 first round pick they owe to the Orlando Magic instead becomes two second round selections instead. For a team that needs as many assets as possible, keeping their pick this summer and getting back their 2019 pick would be a huge win.
But fate is fickle, and it’s possible that the ping pong balls will not bounce the way Los Angeles needs them to at the lottery on May 16th. Losing the pick this summer, which would mean there would be no silver lining for a terrible season, would be devastating.
The odds are only slightly better than a coin flip, but if the Lakers can retain their pick and add another young talent (or trade for a star), well, that just might be the best reason of all to be optimistic about the future of the franchise.