With the draft, summer league, and free agency in the rear view mirror, ESPN recently released its annual projection of how many games each NBA team is going to win during the upcoming season. The Los Angeles Lakers were pegged to win 33 games. This would be a seven game improvement over last season, which is a pretty normal jump for re-building teams like the Lakers, but maybe not quite as big a leap as most Lakers fans (and the front office) hope to see.
Indeed, if the Lakers win only 33 games and finish 13th in the Western Conference, as projected, there could be negative consequences. It will be much harder to convince next summer’s top free agents that the team is good enough to gamble on.
It is well known that the Lakers hope to sign two top free agents on max deals next summer. That will leave little or no money to pay anyone else who is not on a rookie contract or playing for the league minimum and could be the death knell for several Lakers players who are earning more.
The last few years, the Lakers were expected to be bad and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many times it felt as if the players took the court with a look in their eyes and body language which telegraphed that they knew they were going to lose. One thing is for sure in the NBA: If you don’t expect to win, you won’t.
However, Magic Johnson, who is about to start his first full season as President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers, is not fooling around. He has brought with him a new strict mantra: The losing is over. Losing is no longer acceptable. If any player does not prepare himself mentally, physically and in every other way to win, he will be gone.
For all these reasons it would not be surprising to see the Lakers exceed expectations next season, perhaps by a lot. This is a team full of players with a lot to lose and a chip on their shoulders, who are fighting for their professional futures. That could work to the Lakers advantage.
One player on the bubble is Julius Randle. The Lakers will have to pay dearly to keep him after next season when he can become a restricted free agent. Depending on how he plays this year, Randle could reportedly earn a long-term contract with a salary as high as $18 million a year. He has had some very good moments in his short career, but if he wants that kind of contract, he’ll have to show a great deal more this season.
It is all or nothing for Randle. This will be his last opportunity to demonstrate to the purple and gold that they should find a way to keep him around. He has taken Johnson seriously, lost weight, and gotten in much better shape. Randle is ready to go all out, but he still must improve on defense and work on finishing with his right hand.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope also has a lot at stake. KCP was expected to stay with the Detroit Pistons, with whom he played the first four seasons of his career, but it didn’t work out that way.
The Pistons reportedly offered Caldwell-Pope a lucrative, long-term deal but he was looking for more. Once the Pistons traded for Avery Bradley they renounced Caldwell-Pope’s rights, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent where he ultimately landed with Los Angeles.
If the Lakers meet their goal of signing two max free agents next summer, there is no realistic way KCP can return after this season. That means he will be auditioning all year for his next contract, and given the deal he already declined with Detroit, he obviously has big aspirations for that contract.
To accomplish the goal, KCP must have a big year and in particular do much better than his 40% shooting average of a year ago, which happens to be his career average as well.
Brook Lopez is in the same position. He is expected to play a prominent role for the Lakers this year on an expiring contract that will pay him over $22 million. As a member of the Brooklyn Nets he was practically invisible on a national scale, but this season he will get a chance to play in a very high profile environment. The 29 year-old Lopez will be playing for his next contract and that means he should be very motivated.
Much has been written about Jordan Clarkson’s status with the team. He has been mentioned in endless trade rumors this summer, and with three more years and about $37 million remaining on his contract, he is an obvious target to move should the Lakers reach their goal in free agency next summer.
Clarkson knows he has to show he can play defense as well as improve his three-point shooting and ball movement this next year. Clarkson has had a chip on his shoulder since he first entered the league, and starting his fourth season, he knows this is a pivotal year where he will emerge either as a big time contributor on a good team or just another average player.
Lopez, KCP, Clarkson and Randle should all be highly motivated this year, but they are not the only Lakers with something important to prove.
Luol Deng’s stature has fallen off a cliff since he signed with the Lakers before last season. His inexplicable four-year, $72 million contract drew immediate ridicule and was the final straw that cost Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak their jobs. More importantly, Deng played poorly and is stuck on a very young roster with a team that is rebuilding where he simply does not fit.
This is not what Deng envisioned when he joined the Lakers, or what he wants at this stage of his solid career. Deng is only 32, and if he wants to escape the purgatory in which he finds himself, he will have to assert himself to prove to other NBA clubs that he is still a good and valuable player.
Brandon Ingram is another player who should be highly motivated this season. The league’s number two draft pick from a year ago, he was compared favorably to Kevin Durant and some pundits suggested he could eventually be better than Ben Simmons, the number one selection who went to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Fans and the media will always want to compare Ingram to Simmons, who missed the entire year with an injury but will be back in the fall and presumably ready to compete with his new teammate Marquelle Fultz and the Lakers’ Lonzo Ball for rookie-of-the-year honors.
Ingram failed to earn First Team All-Rookie honors last season, which is expected of someone who went second in the draft. He struggled to score all year, and his outside shot was completely missing in action for the entire season although it did improve modestly after the All-Star break along with the rest of his game. He is well aware that he has a lot to prove this year.
Ingram has reportedly worked like a maniac this summer to improve his shooting and his overall game. Magic Johnson has all but said that he and Ball are the future of the team, and he is counting on both excelling quickly so that when they sign two max players next summer, there will be four stars on the roster which will enable the team to challenge for a championship. Ingram is going to fight with everything he’s got to hold up his end of the bargain.
The list of players with something to prove goes on and on. Ivica Zubac saw his dream of starting this year end when the team traded for Lopez, but the latter is on a one-year deal only and Zubac’s contract for the following season is non-guaranteed so he has one year to prove that he can step in next season and take over the position long term.
Last, but certainly not least, there is Lonzo Ball, the most talked about NBA rookie in many years. The spotlight will never leave Ball this year, opponents will be out to bully him, and his own father has already set the bar absurdly high. Through it all, Ball remains remarkably calm but no one should be fooled: He knows the bullseye is on his back and he wants to win badly.
The bottom line is that this is not an ordinary season for most members of the 2017-18 Lakers. It should be a highly motivated group of players in a very unusual season where everything is up in the air waiting for free agency in 2018 when the front office wants to completely re-shape the roster. For the existing players, some are trying to prove they deserve to come back, some are playing for their next big contract offer from another team, and some are trying to prove they belong (or still belong) in the league.
ESPN has been maddeningly accurate in its projections for the Lakers the past few years, much to the chagrin of the fans. This time, with all that is at stake for the players individually and collectively, do not be surprised if the team exceeds expectations and makes a bigger than expected jump.