This summer has done much to improve the spirits of the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans following the disappointment of last season when the team won a franchise-low 17 games and looked consistently bad in doing it.
The offseason began with the front office making the obvious yet difficult decision to replace head coach Byron Scott with a very popular and promising young Luke Walton. In May, the team secured the second pick in the NBA Draft when it could have lost the selection entirely had it fallen below the third choice in the lottery. In June, it used the pick to select Brandon Ingram, a promising young forward who many believe could become a superstar one day.
When July arrived, the Summer League team played well and Ivica Zubac, an unknown, 19-year-old center from Croatia, unexpectedly emerged as another valuable member of the team’s young core. Fans can now visualize a future starting lineup consisting of D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson at guard, Ingram, and Julius Randle at forward, and Zubac at center, which is an exciting proposition. Finally, Russell, Randle, and Ingram gained valuable experience on the USA Select Team and were complimented by coaches and veterans alike against whom they scrimmaged.
While the Lakers struggled to sign free agents, most fans are sophisticated enough to know by now that the team was not in a realistic position to sign any stars. Timofey Mozgov, Luol Deng, and Jose Calderon are solid veterans who should provide stability, a positive influence in the locker room, and leadership on the court.
The front office has thus far avoided the temptation to break up the young core by trading for players like DeMarcus Cousins or Russell Westbrook. Most Lakers fans would prefer to give Russell, Clarkson, Ingram, Randle, and Zubac, along with 24-year-old Tarik Black, 23-year-old Anthony Brown, and Larry Nance, Jr., a chance to grow together and become the long-term nucleus of a perennial title contender.
Just when spirits were high, and all things seemed possible, ESPN has thrown a glass of freezing cold water in the collective faces of all Lakers fans who were yanked from their pleasant slumber while enjoying a happy dream. In its annual summer projections for the 2016-17 NBA season, ESPN has the Lakers firmly entrenched in last place in the Western Conference. They are projected to win 25 games, which is eight games better than last year but still a sobering thought for fans who have lived through the Lakers horrors of the past few seasons.
It should be noted, much to the chagrin of Lakers supporters, that ESPN has been pretty accurate in predicting the Lakers fortunes the past few years. Fans were offended when the Lakers were ranked 14th out of 15 Western Conference teams last summer and projected to win 25 games. Yet the team proceeded to finish with the worst record in the West with only 17 wins. The year before, they were picked to finish 12th and win 30 games, but they finished with only 26 victories.
The fact is, despite the good vibrations of the past few months, the summer will give way to fall, and the reality will sink in: That ESPN’s projection is accurate based on how things look at the moment. The Lakers are a team of very young players with minimal experience; players with promise who have not achieved anything yet; players who may or may not become stars one day. Unless and until the team is in a position to sign a major free agent (or two), the future is in the hands of the youngsters who will not hit their stride for at least another two years (or more).
The veterans who the team signed this summer, Mozgov, Deng, and Calderon, are not much different on paper than Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass and Lou Williams who were signed as free agents last summer; or Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, and Ed Davis, who were signed the summer before. They are all solid players, but none is skilled enough to be a difference maker in the standings.
Anxious to temper expectations, Coach Walton has already warned that this next season is not about wins and losses; it is about competing hard at both ends of the court, all the time, and about showing improvement. Last year it was expected that the team would start slowly, but it was also expected that after the All-Star break, things would click and there would be marked improvement the second half of the year. Instead, the Lakers were just as disorganized and underwhelming at the end of the season as they were at the beginning, which is what got Scott fired.
There is always a possibility that Walton will make an immediate, profound difference, that the younger players will develop faster than anticipated, and that Deng and Mozgov will be better than they have been portrayed in the media. But that is a longshot.
It is much more likely that Lakers fans will have to remain patient and try to enjoy the process as it unfolds over the next few years. How that jives with Jim Buss’ famous, self-imposed deadline remains to be seen. Likewise, how Walton juggles the playing time of the veterans with the playing time of the young assets when all that matters is that the younger players develop, and the fans don’t care if the others play at all, will present a huge hurdle for the coaching staff.