The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.
Last season: 26-56, missed the playoffs.
I know what you did last summer: The Lakers had the lottery gods smile on them and were able to draft Lonzo Ball at No. 2, but that was far from the only move they made. They traded Timofey Mozgov and his massive contract, plus DeAngelo Russell to Brooklyn and got back primarily Brook Lopez. The Lakers also added Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart in the draft, then were able to snag Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency on a one-year contract. Veteran Corey Brewer is now a Laker and will come off the bench. The Lakers also lost Nick Young to the Warriors.
THREE QUESTIONS THE LAKERS MUST ANSWER:
1) The Lonzo Ball effect is real, but can he score enough for it to thrive and really change the Lakers culture? Ball is one of those guys who has “it.” Not only do other players want to play with him, when they are on the court with him his run-the-floor, pass-first ethos infects everyone. Big men get out in transition knowing they will get rewarded. Guys make the extra pass. Luke Walton has a point guard in Ball who could bring the Warriors’ feel and style to Staples Center. The Lakers just feel different this season.
However, Ball has to score some to make it all work. He is always going to look to pass first, but teams are going to play him to do that and dare him to shoot — not just wide open jumpers, but on the drive. They are going to try to force him into floaters and midrange shots that are not yet a comfortable part of his arsenal. Ball has to hit some threes (which he is capable of doing, despite the funky release), and learn to score better at the rim when he attacks, he has to be a threat to score for his passing to have the desired effect.
Ball was not a heavy usage guy in college, and that’s not likely to change now — if he gets up to scoring a fairly efficient 10 points per game average this season that would be a win. The good news is as Summer League wore on teams more and more played him to pass, he adjusted and became more confident as a scorer (he had one 30-point game). That’s Summer League, and NBA defenders are longer, more athletic, and smarter, but if Ball can show that kind of development on the offensive end over the course of an NBA season it will be a great sign.
2) Is anyone going to play any defense? Last season, the Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 110.6 points per 100 possessions. The season before, the Lakers were dead last in the NBA in defense (109.3). The season before that, the Lakers were 29th in the NBA in defense (108). The season before that the Lakers were 28th in the NBA in defense (107.9).
See a pattern here? The Lakers can run the court and whip the ball around on clever passes all they want, if they can’t get stops it’s all moot. With young players such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Kuzma getting heavy minutes this season the Lakers are not going to be great defensively, but they have to start getting better.
Some of the roster changes this summer will help with that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a strong defender on the wing, and in a contract year he will be motivated to improve his reputation on that end (because wing defenders who can shoot threes get PAID). Brook Lopez isn’t a high-flying rim protector, he’s in trouble trying to defend in space if there is a switch off a pick, but he’s smart in the paint about being in the right place at the right time. He will help the Lakers’ paint defense.
Any culture change on defense will have to start with Luke Walton and the coaching staff — if the Lakers want to be a team that runs, they have to get stops. Walton has to make defense a priority and pull guys not hustling on that end. Then the players have to buy in, play the system, and put in the work — and if the Lakers do all that they probably still are bottom 10 in defense this season. But they need to start to see a change or nothing else will work.
3) How do Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and the rest of the potential Lakers young core develop? If the dreams of Lakers fans and management — landing two big-time free agents next summer — are going to come true, the team has to do two things. First, clear out the cap space (which will likely involve dumping the Luol Deng contract before July 1, which would require sending out a sweetener like Randle or Nance or another nice young player in the trade).
The other thing is the young core of players on the roster has to develop to the point that “Superstar X” looks at the Lakers and thinks he can win there. Lonzo Ball and the culture change is just part of that, the other guys have to develop as well. Those players have the skills to be NBA players, but can they translate that into production on the court?
Brandon Ingram is at the top of the list of guys to watch. He has gotten stronger, he is more confident and aggressive — and he is shooting 26.7 percent this preseason. Small sample size and it’s preseason, but it’s a concern. He struggled with this last season, and his shots need to start going in (his form has always looked good). His defense needs to improve as well.
Beyond that, can Julius Randle (a better defender than he gets credit for) develop to the next level on offense and be able to be a threat stepping away from the basket. Kuzma has been a surprise both at Summer League and through the preseason with his hustle and suddenly sharp three-point shooting, will that continue or is his shooting a fluke? Can Zubac get stronger, develop a more diversified post game, and find a role as an old-school center on a running team? And the list goes on and on. Historically, the Lakers as an organization have never been great at developing talent (as opposed to the Spurs, for example) because they didn’t need to be, but in the modern NBA they have to figure it out. We’ll see if the Lakers can live up to that challenge.