The Los Angeles Lakers will open training camp next month to prepare for the 2017-18 NBA season. The roster has been bolstered by the addition of several new players who were targeted in the draft and free agency to contribute skillsets that the team was lacking.
This year’s squad will be the youngest in Lakers history, with only three players over the age of 25. The question is, after four consecutive losing seasons, how much better will the Lakers be this year? From a team perspective, three factors will be instrumental in determining their success.
1. Will the Team’s Outside Shooting Be Improved?
The Lakers were not a good outside shooting team last season. To make matters worse, the players with the highest three point percentage, Nick Young (40.4 percent), Lou Williams (38.5) and D’Angelo Russell (35.2), are all gone. Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and others were effective running the break and scoring at the rim but they all struggled to make their outside shots.
If the Lakers are going to improve, a number of players will have to improve their shooting; two or three will have to do so significantly.
The improvement must start with Ingram. He averaged only 9.4 points per game while shooting a very poor 40.2% from the field and 29.4% from three-point range. Yet, this is the player the front office is expecting to average 20 points a game, and be the closer down the stretch in the fourth quarter.
For Ingram to meet the team’s lofty expectations will require an almost unprecedented leap by him from year one to year two. Still, there is room for optimism as Ingram’s stats jumped dramatically after the All-Star break.
He averaged eight points on 36.3 percent shooting before the break but those numbers increased to 13.2 points on 47.5 percent from the field afterwards. In the final 16 games he played where his minutes were not restricted due to an injury, the numbers were 13.9 points on 48.3 percent shooting.
Jordan Clarkson is entering the most important season of his career, one which will decide once and for all if he can be a key piece on a good team or is destined to be no more than a pretty good player on a bad team. He will have to emerge as a much better outside shooter if he wants to be the former and if the Lakers are going to compete for a playoff spot.
Clarkson averaged nearly 15 points a game on a very solid 44.5% shooting from the field last season, but much of his scoring was in the paint where he uses his speed and athleticism to get to the rim and finish with both hands. He made only 32.9% of his three point shots. If he can bring that average up to 35% or better this season it will be a big boost to the Lakers fortunes.
Then there are Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. who both bring something special to the team but so far have displayed almost non-existent outside shooting. At the very least they will need to become consistent mid-range shooters to open things up for the rest of their game.
Should that fail to happen, rookie Kyle Kuzma could begin to take minutes if he plays anything close to the level he showed in Summer League.
Other players who will be challenged to shoot well from outside include rookies Ball, Kuzma, and Josh Hart; free agents Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (who shot only 40% from the field last season for Detroit) and Brook Lopez, who will have to prove his solid three point shooting last year was not a fluke; and Ivica Zubac, who must develop a consistent mid-range game otherwise his future with the team could be in doubt.
2. Did the Front Office Do Enough this Summer to Improve the Defense?
The Lakers had the 17th ranked offense in the NBA last season, averaging 49 percent from the field and 34.6 percent from three-point range. The problem is, they allowed their opponents to shoot 53.6 percent from the field and 37 percent from three-point range.
The Lakers ranked 28th in overall defense and were dead last in certain of the important statistical categories. To show any real improvement this season they will have to get better defensively. The question is, did the front office do enough to address this problem over the summer?
There are four players who were added to the roster in an effort to bolster the defense. One is Caldwell-Pope, who in the first four years of his career showed he was an able and tough wing defender. He will give the Lakers a player to stick on the opposing team’s best guard, something the team has been lacking for years.
Lopez isn’t necessarily a game changer on defense, but he is pretty underrated. Lopez is a slightly better than average defender, which on this Lakers team could make him one of the stalwarts on the defensive end.
Then there are rookies Kuzma and Hart. Kuzma showed flashes in college, but lacked consistency. He looked much improved in Summer League. Hart on the other hand, was Big East co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big East and gives the Lakers another option off the bench should they need to shut down someone.
The new additions are not enough to change the defensive fortunes entirely, so for the team to markedly improve the returning players who were dreadful on the defensive end, particularly Randle, Clarkson and Zubac, will have to get better.
Randle and Clarkson have the quickness and athleticism to be better defenders. In Randle’s case he sometimes displayed a lack of effort on the defensive end, but he met Magic Johnson’s challenge and got in much better shape this summer which should help.
As for Clarkson, he did improve a bit last season but his failure to do even better is harder to explain and may suggest he needs to get stronger. With Zubac it is a question of quickness or a lack thereof, and his conditioning last season was poor.
3. How Will a Roster that was Built for One Year Mesh?
Aside from two 19 year olds, Ball and Ingram, who will be asked to play well beyond their age, any meaningful success the Lakers enjoy this season will in large part be because of the improvement shown by young veterans including KCP, Randle, Clarkson, Nance, and Tyler Ennis.
Each has the potential to have a breakout season but whether they do or not, some or all could be gone a year from now and some may depart by the trade deadline before the season even ends.
More importantly, the players all know it, which has to make the vibe for this season a strange one despite the initial excitement. It is human nature to care more and try harder when you know this is your home and the team is committed to you.
It is common knowledge that the Lakers are willing to jettison anyone and everyone except Ball and Ingram to make room for two max free agents next season. That brings up the question of will the current roster be able to come together as a cohesive group especially as the year wears on and players start to think of their future?
Between the players on expiring contracts, those whose options the team can decline after this season, and those who know they are on the trading block already, there is almost no one left. Traditionally, this leads to insecurity where players care more about their individual statistics than the team’s success.
The Lakers’ Summer League squad was in a similar position but somehow came together and played as a cohesive unit which is why they won it all. Will the team do the same in the regular season?
The coaching staff will have to find a way to make this improved but lame duck roster work. When the excitement of a new season starts that should not be a problem. But it could become an issue, and perhaps a major one, as the season wears on especially if the Lakers are not competing to secure a playoff spot.