The Los Angeles Lakers will officially enter a new era when their 2016-2017 NBA season kicks off on Wednesday night. After two decades in purple and gold, superstar guard Kobe Bryant has retired, turning over the team to the next generation.
The franchise is stepping into uncharted territory after missing the playoffs for three consecutive years, but there is still plenty to be excited about. With nowhere to go but up, here is a look at the top storylines of the year:
The D’Angelo Show
Heading into the summer, there was considerable discussion regarding who would take over Bryant’s vacant throne. Now, with the Las Vegas Summer League and preseason behind us, there is no longer any question: the Lakers are D’Angelo Russell’s team.
The No. 2 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft had an up-and-down rookie season, but that was to be expected given the difficulties of learning the point guard position while navigating the hoopla of the Bryant retirement tour. Offensively, the Lakers often became Kobe-centric with isolation plays on the wing, which isn’t ideal for a pick-and-roll maestro like Russell.
Additionally, Russell’s relationship with then-coach Byron Scott was often strained, with Scott revoking Russell’s starting role mid-season before eventually giving it back. Still, Russell showed promise, and he appears ready to step into a larger role.
At 20 years old, some questions linger about Russell’s maturity, but he is clearly the team’s leader on the floor as well as the best player, and he has the full backing of new coach Luke Walton. Through eight preseason games, Russell is averaging an impressive 17.8 points and 5.4 assists per game while dictating the flow of the offense from the point guard position.
The coming season offers a huge opportunity for Russell to step into the spotlight, and all signs point to him having a breakout year.
Cool Hand Luke
After a 17-win season, it was clear that the Lakers needed a new voice at the helm, and they parted ways with Scott. Acting quickly, they signed Walton to take over head coaching duties while he was still busy helping guide the Golden State Warriors to the NBA Finals.
Walton was the hottest name on the coaching market and presented a perfect fit. He possesses the right temperament to connect with today’s young players, and his progressive offensive schemes should help bring the best out of Russell and the rest of the Lakers’ building blocks. To cap it all off, he spent nine years wearing purple and gold, allowing him to check the “knows what it means to be a Laker” box as well.
As the NBA’s youngest coach, Walton, just like his players, will have his ups and downs. He will lean on his assistants for help when he needs it, but that’s tolerable given the Lakers timetable and the noticeable changes that have already taken place. The vibe around the team has shifted, with positivity and enthusiasm now permeating the organization.
In a piece by William Weinbaum and Steve Delsohn for ESPN, Jeanie Buss recently called Walton “our best free-agent signing in a few years” and it’s hard to argue against that notion.
The Lakers were heavily criticized for their free agency targets this summer, as they gave a four-year contract worth $64 million to Cleveland Cavaliers reserve big man Timofey Mozgov and a four-year deal worth $72 million to veteran forward Luol Deng. That’s a lot of years and dollars to commit to a pair of players on the wrong side of 30, and it can’t be overlooked that Mozgov battled knee issues last season while Deng has roughly a bajillion miles on his odometer.
Additionally, the Lakers swung a trade for 35-year-old Jose Calderon, who the Chicago Bulls needed to jettison in order to clear space for Dwyane Wade. The Calderon deal was certainly a win for Los Angeles thanks to the pair of second-round picks that came along as incentive, but still, it’s another past-his-prime veteran being added to a team with sights set squarely on the future.
They also decided to keep Metta World Peace, waiving 24-year-old swingman Anthony Brown in order to free up a roster spot. World Peace has remade himself as a mentor to the team’s young players, a marker departure from the hot-headed reputation he developed as Ron Artest over a decade ago.
On the surface, these moves are questionable, especially the long-term deals given to Mozgov and Deng. Setting contracts aside for a moment, however, allows one to see the method behind the madness.
All of the veterans the Lakers targeted are known as excellent locker room guys who will set positive examples for the young Lakers both on and off the floor. These aren’t just any random veterans; these are players who know what it takes to succeed in the league and can lead by example. Beyond that, the high-dollar acquisitions also fit surprisingly well.
Mozgov is a mountain of a man who excels at setting screens and clearing space for guards, something that Russell, Clarkson, and the rest of the Lakers’ backcourt will certainly appreciate. Deng, meanwhile, is a low-usage, highly intelligent player who consistently puts himself in the right place at the right time. He will allow the young Lakers to dictate tempo but will act as the training wheels, giving them a steady presence to lean on and kick the ball out to in times of trouble.
The Lakers sought out these veterans not just for what they can personally bring on the court, but also for the positive impact they will have on the development of the team’s young core. Stats don’t always tell the whole story, and if Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and the rest hit their ceilings because of the on and off court presence of the vets, it will be a worthwhile investment.
The silver lining for the past few years of futility has been the arrival of young talent via draft picks. Russell, Ingram, Randle, and Ivica Zubac all found their way into purple and gold because the team lost, and lost a lot.
Unfortunately, the sins of the past still haunt the 16-time NBA champions, and their first-round pick this season is once again only top-three protected. If it falls anywhere between four and 30, it becomes the property of the Philadelphia 76ers.
This is the same scenario that the Lakers were in last year, but this time around, the stakes are even higher. The pick owed to Philadelphia is the final remnants of the ill-fated Steve Nash trade, but the first owed to the Orlando Magic from the Dwight Howard swap still looms on the horizon.
However, this season presents an opportunity to greatly lighten that burden. The details can be a bit complicated, but the bottom line is that if the Lakers surrender their 2017 pick to Philadelphia, then their 2019 first-round pick will go to Orlando.
If they manage to hang onto their protected first rounder again this summer, then the Lakers’ obligation to the Magic changes into two second-rounders. Needless to say, this would be an enormous win for Los Angeles, as they would not only have a top-three pick in a very promising 2017 draft, but they would essentially get back the pick they squandered on Howard.
Tthe Lakers’ young lineup is once again projected to be near the bottom of the league, but unfortunately, the lottery system prevents them from being able to feel any sort of confidence about retaining their pick this year. Even if they have the worst record in the NBA, their odds of landing in the top three would only be 64 percent.
The Lakers will certainly do what they can to win, and Nance recently expressed his vehement opposition to being in the lottery, but as the season wears on, the standings at the bottom of the table are certain to be a story.
The Future Is Now
Let’s not end this preview on a negative. After all, the Lakers have had an air of optimism about them since Walton’s hiring, and while the wins may not be plentiful, the team is all but assured to be better than last year’s bunch.
Russell should be a lot of fun to watch, especially on those nights when his veins are extra icy. Randle can be absolutely breathtaking when he gets out in the open floor, and Jordan Clarkson’s improved three-point shooting and defense promises to make him one of the better value contracts in the league, as well as a consistent threat to go off for 20 points or more. Shockingly, the same can also be said for a resurgent Nick Young.
Ingram will have his moments and should look better and better as the season goes on. Larry Nance Jr. will wow us with some aerial acrobatics, and at some point, Ivica Zubac is going to bring the house down with a sky hook.
This Lakers roster is stocked with young, exciting players with promising futures, and an equally young coach who is considered to be one of the brightest minds in basketball. The torch has been passed. It won’t always be pretty, but there is something satisfying about watching young men grow into the players they are destined to become.
A new era has officially begun, one that respects the past but bravely steps into the future.
Welcome back, Lakers basketball.