The Los Angeles Lakers will begin the 2016-17 season when training camp opens on September 26. It was a busy offseason which saw a needed re-shaping of the roster. Important new additions include veterans Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, rookies Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac, and head coach Luke Walton.
A generation ago the offseason meant vacation time for NBA players. That is not the case anymore, as most players work out all year long and use the summer to focus on the weaknesses in their game. By all appearances, the young Lakers were constantly lifting weights and scrimmaging on the court at the Lakers’ training facility.
The question is, will that hard work payoff in marked improvement next season? It is hard to tell accurately from the sporadic video footage to which fans were treated this summer. While no one expects to see the Lakers make the playoffs one season removed from finishing with their worst record in franchise history, when camp opens some important issues should become clear pretty quickly.
1.Has Julius Randle developed an outside shot?
After suffering a season-ending injury in his first NBA game, Randle rebounded last year and averaged a double-double with 11.3 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. He would have scored more points if he could finish better at the rim, especially with his right hand; and even more important, if he could hit mid-range shots so defenders could not stay back to block his path to the rim.
Randle is a very hard worker and, in contrast to when he entered the league, appears to be in fantastic physical shape. He will continue to be relentless on the boards at both ends of the court and will no doubt improve as a defender.
However, whether Randle emerges as a star squarely depends on whether he worked on his outside shooting over the summer and has become much more proficient at making those shots. The answer to this question should become apparent soon after training camp opens when we see whether he has developed a shooter’s “touch” with arc on his shot and is more confident taking it without hesitation.
2.Will D’Angelo Russell Be the Player the Lakers Thought They Drafted?
The front office spoke of Russell in glowing terms after he was drafted last summer, but it became painfully apparent the moment he took the court in Summer League that something was wrong. He was very tentative. He looked lost and overmatched even against lesser opponents. He appeared to be too slow to be an NBA point guard, was not making his shots, and far too many passes led to turnovers.
There was modest improvement as the year progressed and he gained experience, but still, overall, it was a very disappointing rookie season for Russell.
Was it the coaching, the system, or the players around him? Or was it Russell himself? The Lakers invested heavily in him and it is no exaggeration to say that their foreseeable future will depend heavily on whether Russell is at least close to the player they thought they were drafting.
There is reason for optimism. He looked far more confident this summer. He was a prolific scorer and a more vocal and aggressive leader in Summer League. He was a different player (although turnovers continued to be a concern). It should not take long once training camp opens to see if Russell has improved as much as it appeared in the offseason when he was a constant presence at the Lakers’ training facility.
3.Will Luke Walton Make A Real Difference?
NBA games are won by outscoring, out-rebounding, and out-defending one’s opponent. Coaches do not score points, grab rebounds, or block shots. Only the players can do that, and Walton is no longer a player. He is getting a roster that has no stars and is filled with questions that are yet to be answered. Still, there is optimism that his mere presence as head coach will have a positive influence and lead to more wins.
The Lakers’ players over the past few seasons did not appear to be inspired by, or motivated to play hard for, Mike Brown, Mike D’Antoni, or Byron Scott. Scott, in particular, was a good caretaker for Kobe Bryant but a very poor choice to coach a team filled with young players. The result was disastrous.
In contrast, young players seem to love Walton, what he represents, how he communicates, and the system he plans to install. There is something to be said for making basketball fun again and for playing to the strengths on the roster instead of trying to mold the players into something they are not, in order to conform to a pre-determined system that didn’t fit the personnel.
Whether Walton’s impact is real or an illusion should become clear once training camp opens. It is not just about wins, it manifests itself in whether the team plays hard at all times including on the defensive end, and shows pride and determination whether they are winning or losing.
4.Is Anthony Brown an NBA Player?
Brown appeared to be a solid draft choice for the Lakers last year. He had a reputation in college as a tenacious defender and a great three point shooter. His length and athleticism make people think of Kawhi Leonard or Jimmy Butler, but Brown did not deliver as a rookie. In a nutshell, he could not make his outside shots.
Brown could be a very valuable second unit player for the Lakers, but it is entirely dependent on whether his three-point shooting improves dramatically this season. It did not look promising in the Summer League, where he still appeared to be tentative on offense most of the time.
Brown was a regular visitor at the Lakers’ training facility after Summer League ended, but if he does not make an immediate impact once training camp opens, his future with the Lakers and his NBA career could be in jeopardy.
5.Who Will Be The Back-Up Point Guard?
While the front court is filled with options, the back court remains a question mark for the Lakers and received very little attention from the front office this summer. Russell and Clarkson will start, but who will play behind them, especially at the point guard position, remains very unclear. Jose Calderon was not even good enough to earn minutes as a reserve on the Spanish national team this summer, and Marcelo Huertas is a borderline NBA player with a limited skill-set.
Once training camp opens it will be interesting to see how Walton plans on rotating his players in the backcourt especially at the point guard position. It is hard to believe that Calderon or Huertas will play many minutes (or at all) on an improved team, which means Clarkson, Ingram, Brown, and Lou Williams may factor into the equation.
The Lakers are a team filled with unrealized potential, so there are a large number of questions to be answered. Some of the answers will be provided soon after training camp opens. Those answers will play a prominent role in deciding what kind of season the team can expect to have this next year.