The Los Angeles Lakers franchise has gone through a major transition which started late last season and continued throughout the summer. If nothing else, there is stability for the first time in a long time, and that’s a positive for any sports franchise.
Jeanie Buss is now in firm control of the organization. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka are in charge of basketball operations. The Lakers have a popular young coach in Luke Walton. D’Angelo Russell, who a mere two years ago was touted as the next face of the franchise, was dispatched to the Brooklyn Nets to make room for the new face of the franchise, Lonzo Ball.
The Lakers tantalized their fans with a championship run in Summer League. Ball was named MVP and another rookie, Kyle Kuzma, was Summer League Championship Game MVP. The organization and the fans were energized, and after four dreary years, it finally seemed like anything was possible.
But preseason did not go exactly as fans hoped. The defense, which has ranked near the bottom of the league the past four years, did not look much different. There was inconsistent outside shooting and too many turnovers.
Another downside was Brandon Ingram did not show the consistency one would have hoped. Furthermore, Ball missed most of the preseason due to a sprained ankle. Without him in the lineup, the Lakers did not score much in transition.
In fact, multiple players are entering the season less than 100 percent, and that could become a factor.
With the regular season beginning for the Lakers on Thursday night, based on what the team has shown so far, what can fans realistically expect to see this year?
For one, Ingram is going to need more time to become the player the front office is expecting. He will continue to improve, and he may become an All-Star one day, but that day is not imminent. It is far-fetched to think that he will lead the team in scoring, as Magic Johnson predicted.
That will put even more pressure on Ball. If he can do for the Lakers what he did for UCLA, the team will be fine this year. But with expectations tempered for Ingram, if Ball does not come through in a big way, it is hard to see the Lakers’ record improving dramatically from last season.
Fans got to see little of Ball in the preseason, thus he is still a mystery to everyone around the league. It is an understatement to say that there is great anticipation to see what Ball is capable of. What is critical is that he remains healthy.
If one thing was clear in the preseason, the Lakers don’t have good options behind him at point guard. That’s crucial considering the team needs to be able to score in transition.
They played the Denver Nuggets twice recently, so fans got an opportunity to see a team that features 3-point shooters galore like Gary Harris, Jamal Murray, Juan Hernangomez, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler, and Nikola Jokic.
The Lakers do not have the personnel to out-shoot good teams, so they will have to outrun them. That requires Ball to be at his best.
There is reason to be excited about the center position if Brook Lopez and Andrew Bogut remain healthy. They are a huge upgrade over the team’s centers in recent years. They complement one another, with Lopez making shots from three-point range and Bogut guarding the basket.
If the duo remains healthy, Ivica Zubac is the odd man out. Just a year ago fans adored Zubac and when he got a chance to play, he did surprisingly well. However, he was unable to recapture the magic this summer or in preseason and would seem to be a distant third on the depth chart right now.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope showed enough to justify his reputation as a very good defender. He will play an important role guarding the opponent’s best guard. But Caldwell-Pope also showed that he is not a consistent shooter.
He may score 15 points one game and six the next. The question is, will his defensive prowess be enough to compensate for a lack of scoring among the Lakers’ starters and their guards in general?
Three years ago Jordan Clarkson was the toast of the town. Now, he is an afterthought, a player who is mostly ignored. With Caldwell-Pope suspended to begin the season, no one is talking about Clarkson starting in his place, although that would seem the obvious choice.
Some expect Clarkson to be traded, and it may happen at some point. But with a backcourt consisting of Ball, Caldwell-Pope, Tyler Ennis, and Josh Hart, if the team is to avoid disaster this season, Clarkson must lead in scoring or come close.
Otherwise, the Lakers will not score enough points to win most nights. Like it or not, Los Angeles has never needed Clarkson more.
The most intriguing question entering the season is who will be the starting power forward. From the preseason, it appears the coaching staff has settled on Larry Nance Jr. for the time being.
The problem is, he does not look different from last year, which means that he makes solid, all-around contributions but does not look to score. For a team that may be starved for points and whose starters as a whole do not shoot well, this could become a problem.
Julius Randle’s standing with the team is just a shade better than Clarkson’s. He had a strong offseason and preseason, at times looking like a man among boys. He is the best rebounder on the team, he can score, he can pass, and he can lead the fast break.
Yet, Randle is facing a double whammy. With other teams giving their best young players massive contract extensions, like Harris of the Nuggets and Andrew Wiggins of the Timberwolves, the Lakers did not offer Randle an extension. Plus, it looks like he will be beginning the season on the bench.
Randle is a good, young player who has only played two full seasons after missing his entire rookie year due to injury. He still struggles against bigger power forwards but has a unique skill set and has shown dominant flashes.
While the front office is still focused on what LeBron James and Paul George might do next summer, it has come at the expense of potentially alienating Randle and Clarkson. They are critical members of the current roster, and both have the talent to excel this year if given the chance.
The reason everyone should be excited is because there are so many unknowns and depending on how the questions are answered, the team could finish with as few as 25 or as many as 40 wins. Is Kuzma the dynamic young player fans have seen thus far? Will Ingram shake off his poor preseason and make a prodigious leap this year?
Will Ball stay healthy, and if so, will he energize the team? Will Randle and Clarkson thrive despite knowing their days may be numbered with the purple and gold? Same for Caldwell-Pope, Lopez and Bogut, who are on one-year deals.
These questions will be answered in the coming days, weeks and months. If everyone remains healthy and plays together as a team, this will be the year that the Lakers finally exhibit real, tangible improvement for the first time in a long time.