The Los Angeles Lakers began 2016-17 season surrounded by optimism, and it wasn’t unjustified. The retirement of Kobe Bryant, his body failing him, left room for the young talents the team piled up in the last few years. Luke Walton taking over the coaching spot after two years of Byron Scott was a blessing and brought balance in the locker room as well as more up-to-date ideas on offense. The Deng and Mozgov signings, despite doubts on their health, brought two veterans and consummate professionals in the locker to keep things in check and avoid public drama, like the Russell-Young-Azalea affair the team went through last year. Someone even dared talk about playoffs.
The 10-10 record in the first 20 games seemed to support the most optimistic takes but with a 17-35 after 52 games, better than the 11-41 the Lakers were sitting at last year but clearly not enough to reach the playoffs. Managements knows it, Luke Walton knows it, and the Lakers found themselves fighting once again for a chance at the #1 pick in the draft. Considering the players at roster right now, it might be for the best.
It starts with the Russell-Randle pairing. The ex Ohio State guard often proved he can be a core piece for the team, but it is hard to project him as the franchise player of the future. He has great court vision, as expected, he can shoot from distance, attack the paint and manage the pick&roll, and he proved as much in the game against the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday.
It was only one game, of course. On Tuesday he had a double-double with 22 points, 7 rebounds and 10 assists, and followed by 17 points, 11 assists, 7 rebounds and 7 turnovers in a loss against the Wizards. Right now he seems to be in a similar situation to that of Kyrie Irving in his first years with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The main difference is that Irving is more talented but was surrounded by inferior talent.
Speaking of, Julius Randle is a de facto second year player – he injured a leg a few minutes into his rookie year and did not play again – and is somewhat similar to Draymond Green as an under-7-feet frontcourt player who can handle the ball and run pick&rolls (with Green it only happens when Curry and Durant are out). The problem with this pairing is defense, especially in the effort department, and coach Walton kept both of them out in the fourth quarter on some occasions because they were playing soft.
As for Brandon Ingram, he is a 19-year-old who needs to improve who is way too skinny to play in the Nba. That’s without considering he needs to improve on everything else, like every other rookie. But he is good, and he might be the player of the future for the Lakers. That’s a distant future, considering how far back he is. The wing spots in the Nba are the territory of athletic monsters, and he is not ready. This is also why coach Walton took the smart decision to develop other areas of his game and don’t focus on the scoring as much. He has the potential to be a positionless player who can create for teammates and defend 4 positions on the floor. Things are not working to perfection right now, but things like this
do happen, and you can see how Ingram uses the pick, stops when he needs to, hesitate with his dribble to freeze the defense and then throws the lob for the rolling man. He is now hitting the rookie wall. Opponents scouted his game by now, and he already played more minutes this season than in his full year with Duke.
There are two more young pieces for the Lakers to rely on, Larry Nance Jr and Ivica Zubac. The former showed in his first year flashes of athleticism and defense, as well as the potential for a reliable jumper. He worked on it in the summer, and that shot is now much better, although still inconsistent. The feeling is that, sooner or later, it will be a threat from the elbows and corners and will be able to stretch the floor for the guards. The one question that will determine his future in L.A. is his fit with Randle. The potential is huge, with two players slightly undersized but athletic enough to defend against anyone and stretch the floor on the other side, but as of right now, the pairing is simply not working. It might depend on their young age or not, but the answer should come quickly.
Zubac came over as an unknown. At 7-1, the Croatian center was supposed to have good hands and feet and, despite being raw, be an important piece for the future. One of the reasons to sign Mozgov was tutoring Zubac in his development. He spent half of the season in D-League and cracked the rotation in the last few weeks, in part because of injuries to other bigs, in part because the Lakers probably gave up pursuing the rights to be swept by the Warriors in the first round. In the 12 minutes per game coach Walton is playing him he did well, proving he is a good scorer and playmaker in the short-roll and good rebounder in limited time (3.9 rebounds per game). In the video above, you can see a couple of plays in pick&roll situation, in the video below the full highlights of his career high 17 points against the Nuggets.
Defense is a problem as per usual with rookies, but Zubac might be the long term answer at center for the Lakers. A 3-man frontcourt rotation with Randle and Larry Nance Jr is a good and versatile mix of size and skills, but none of them, nor Ingram nor Russell, showed the clear potential to be THE player.
That’s why the feeling with the Lakers is that they are more focused on the 2017 draft than on the regular season, and that’s quite obvious considering the pool of talent available next June. If the Lakers had to add Lonzo Ball or Markelle Fultz to such a talented roster (with Russell moving at the shooting guard spot long term) their potential would be off-the-charts. Besides, having Luke Walton as the coach for the future should make it easier for the youngsters to adjust to a complicated system like the one the ex-GSW assistant coach is implementing.
But there is a wrinkle. If the Lakers end up outside of the top-3 in the draft, their pick will go to the Philadelpha 76ers. That’s the limbo in which the team is moving right now. The management must find the player around which it is possible to build a championship team, the kind of player that can take Bryant’s place, and that player is not at roster right now. On the other hand, if they had to lose the pick, it might be a lost season without anything to make the suffering and grumbling of the fans worthwhile.
Losing for the sake of losing is not a good idea when there are players at roster that might be real pieces for the future (Sam Hinkie’s 76ers never lost on purpose, the players played hard and lost because they were not Nba-worthy players) and the Brooklyn Nets seems to much ahead of everyone in the run for the worst record in the Nba. The feeling is that, this season like last season, judgment on the Lakers should be based on the results of the lottery night next May. The time the team will play in June will come, but it will take a while.