No one in the media expects the Los Angeles Lakers to contend for a playoff spot this season. After four consecutive years near the bottom of the standings, and playing in a Western Conference that on paper is stronger than ever, most observers feel the Lakers should be satisfied if they can show modest improvement over their performance last year when they won only 26 games.
Yet, in separate interviews, Lonzo Ball and Larry Nance, Jr. emphasized recently that making the playoffs is the team’s number one goal. The young Lakers, whose projected roster has only three players older than 25, have a quiet confidence heading into training camp in less than two weeks.
The Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs are locks to be among the top seeds in the Western Conference this year. It is hard to imagine the Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder missing the cut in light of their offseason addition of Jimmy Butler and Paul George, respectively. That leaves the Lakers competing for one of the last three playoff spots with the Clippers, Jazz, Nuggets, Pelicans, Trail Blazers, Grizzles, and Mavericks.
The Clippers and Jazz lost their top players this offseason in Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward, so it is impossible to know for sure how it will affect them. The Pelicans added DeMarcus Cousins at the end of last season but it did not make much of a difference, and how much better Paul Millsap will make the Nuggets is debatable. The Trail Blazers feature two dynamic guards but not much else, and the Mavericks drafted Dennis Smith, Jr. and re-signed Nerlens Noel, but will that make a big difference?
Is it even within the realm of possibility that the Lakers could make the playoffs? The answer is yes, but it will take a good deal of luck and for a number of unknowns to break in their favor.
The first thing that must happen is the players have to stay healthy. Fans will remember that the team was off to a solid start last season before they were hit by the injury bug in December which changed everything. As with last year’s squad, the current Lakers have a very thin margin for error, so if any key contributors miss time, it could be another long season.
Second, whether the Lakers exceed expectations and become a playoff contender will depend enormously on Lonzo Ball. If he can do for the purple and gold what he did for the UCLA Bruins last year, and what he showed in Summer League, they may have a chance. Ball must prove he is indeed that rare breed who makes everyone around him better, who makes the game easier for his teammates. That is asking a lot from a rookie, but many believe Ball is not going to be an average first-year player.
Third, the other young players must finally make the big leap that to date has escaped them. Julius Randle must show consistent effort on both ends of the court and become a double-double machine who knocks down outside shots. Jordan Clarkson must improve his outside shooting and play tougher defense. Larry Nance, Jr. has to become more aggressive on the offensive end and find a way to avoid injuries that have limited him to 63 games in each of his first two seasons.
Last year’s rookies Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac must build quickly on their strong play towards the end of last season. Ingram must average around 16 points a game while shooting a much-improved percentage, and he must become the defender, rebounder, and passer of which he seems capable. Zubac must prove he has the quickness and toughness to defend at a high NBA level.
The Lakers added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Brook Lopez on contracts that will expire at the end of this next season. They may not be the elite free agents the front office is angling to sign long-term, but they represent a significant upgrade at their respective positions.
Lopez is a stretch five which the Lakers have never had, and Caldwell-Pope brings defensive toughness on the wing which has been lacking for years. Given their expiring contracts, both could be attractive bargaining chips at the trade deadline for teams who could use one more key piece to contend this season. Will they be playing for the team or for themselves?
In addition to Ball, the Lakers drafted two other players this summer who will need to contribute in a big way for the Lakers to have any chance of sneaking into playoff contention. The team has no one else like Kyle Kuzma – or what he appeared to be in Summer League – and if he continues to play like the steal of the draft it will significantly aid the cause. Josh Hart is a mature, four-year college player who was a champion at Villanova. Like Nance, Jr. accomplished in his first year, Hart is expected to be NBA ready and it would provide a big lift if he can be a tough defender and knock down three-point shots.
Another player who is worth watching is Tyler Ennis. He is entering his fourth NBA season but just turned 23. The front office flirted with veterans like Rajon Rondo and Derek Rose to back up and mentor Lonzo Ball, but it did not work out. Ennis is the only true point guard on the roster other than Ball, so a lot could be asked of him this year that he has never before proven he can provide. He is going to get the chance and if he can deliver it would be huge for the team.
The Lakers have been at or near the bottom of the defensive rankings the past few years. The additions of Caldwell-Pope, Lopez, and possibly rookies Kuzma and Hart, might make things better, but the team will need great improvement on defense from Julius Randle, Clarkson, Ingram, and Zubac in order to make a playoff run.
Finally, there is the question of outside shooting, and more specifically, who is going to score from three-point range.
No one on the roster shot better than 35% last season, which means there are no marksmen on this squad. A few seasons ago the Lakers unexpectedly saw Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Steve Blake, Kent Bazemore and Kendall Marshall all shoot better than 37% from three-point range — Farmar connected on nearly 44%. The Lakers will need three or four players to match that feat this season if they want to make a run at the playoffs.
At the moment, the Lakers are one big ball of potential but there is no way to know who among the young players will meet his potential and when it will happen. The Lakers do indeed have an outside chance to make the playoffs this year but it is going to require luck and a lot of people taking a giant leap forward ahead of schedule.