The 2017-18 NBA season has been a time of highs and lows for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team got off to a poor start but turned things around and played exciting, winning basketball for most of January, February and early March.
Just as it seemed the Lakers had turned a corner and were moving forward with confidence, a combination of roster changes and injuries derailed their progress. It’s led to losses against inferior opponents and a fifth consecutive season in which they were eliminated from playoff contention.
When the regular season concludes Wednesday, the question may be asked, what did the past six months really mean for the Lakers’ future? It may take the summer to answer that question, and in the end the answer may not be what most people expect.
To decide what was actually accomplished, it is important to define the team’s goal when the season began. Most assumed it was to develop the young core. But evidence suggests that was not the actual agenda.
If the season was all about the young core, why did Julius Randle begin the year on the bench? Why did it take so long for Josh Hart to get meaningful playing time? Why did the Lakers sign Andrew Bogut, and why did Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant play in the G League all year instead of with the Lakers?
Kyle Kuzma recently played 46 minutes in a tough overtime loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. When asked if it was difficult playing so many minutes, he responded, “It’s better than playing 20 off the bench.”
Despite setting records in what was arguably the best December performance by any rookie in Lakers history, Kuzma was relegated to the second unit in early January and for the next two months had a dramatically reduced role.
Why have Kentavious Caldwell Pope and Brook Lopez, who are on expiring contracts and not likely to return to the Lakers next season, been in the starting lineup all year? If this season was really about developing the young core, shouldn’t Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kuzma, Randle, and even Zubac been starting together at some point?
Travis Wear has been a pleasant surprise this past month on both ends of the court. The Lakers could have used him the past few games, but where has he been? Instead, the Lakers have been playing 34 year old Channing Frye, who has a marginal chance of returning to the team next season.
Then there is the question of trading Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. Just a few months before Nance was traded, Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson called him the team’s “secret weapon.”
At the time he was sent to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Clarkson’s 732 bench points ranked second in the NBA behind the Clippers’ Lou Williams. Clarkson was averaging more points per game (14.5) than any other player who played 25 or fewer minutes a game.
Nance and Clarkson made the difference between a second unit that was one of the league’s best and one that is among the league’s worst. The Lakers invested three years in both, and they were still young at 25.
Yet, the front office was willing to forego the positivity and progress the team had made in January and February just to ensure that if per chance they need Clarkson’s $12 million salary to pay LeBron James this summer, it will be available.
If the picture was not clear before, it should be coming into focus now. This season was never really about the young core. It was about using the allure of the young core as bait to attract the real prize: LeBron James.
The Lakers are not willing to wait five years for Ball and Ingram to turn 25 when they may finally be mature enough to lead the team on a serious playoff run.
The front office assembled a team this year that featured three 20-year-olds (Ball, Ingram and Zubac), two other rookies (Kuzma and Hart), a slew of players on expiring contracts, and only three players over the age of 25.
There was no adequate backup point guard, and in a league that is all about three point shooting, there were few players on the roster who could score consistently from outside. Did anyone really think that this team, as constituted, could compete for a playoff spot?
To the contrary, Johnson told the media last May – and he meant it – that it was not about the coming season, it was about the summer of 2018 (when James, George, and DeMarcus Cousins would be unrestricted free agents). After trading Clarkson and Nance, he reiterated, “I wouldn’t have made the move if I wasn’t confident,” in reference to luring superstars to Los Angeles.
The true goal this season was merely to bide time until the summer of 2018. This was a roster built to last one year only, which is why nothing that happened this season will have much impact on the Lakers’ future.
Unless you consider that the young core, in part due to injuries, did not play well enough for long enough to be all that enticing to the top free agents who want to win championships immediately.
Johnson never planned to build around Ball, Ingram, Kuzma and Randle. He planned to build around James and George, and players of that ilk. If the young players fit with the veteran stars, they’ll stay. If they don’t, they’ll likely go.
The Lakers have had an entertaining season and for that the fans are appreciative. Many fans would agree to endure another season of losing in order to watch the young core grow, but Johnson knows that the league is brimming with young talent and it is unclear if the Lakers’ young players are really any better than those in Philadelphia, Denver, Utah, Sacramento, Boston, Minnesota, and Phoenix.
The front office is not willing to wait around to find out. If Johnson has his way, there will be a whole new roster next season. In that event, this season will have served little purpose other than treating fans to a group of young players with heart and grit who came together and played two months of winning basketball, the first time that has happened for the Lakers in a long time.