Culture of Hoops

2015-16 NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Keith Allison/Flickr.

Last Year’s Record: 21-61
Key Losses: Ed Davis, Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Xavier Henry, Carlos Boozer, Wesley Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Ronnie Price
Key Additions: D’Angelo Russell, Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, Brandon Bass, Larry Nance Jr., Marcelo Huertas, Anthony Brown

1. What significant moves were made during the offseason?

The Los Angeles Lakers may be the targets of league-wide snickering, the types of jabs and jeers that accompany the agonizing fall of an arrogant giant, but the organization managed to take offseason lemons and mix up something a touch sweeter. They didn’t pick up the pieces necessary to make a championship run; they filled out the roster with the right combination of youthful potential and veteran leadership to jumpstart the rebuilding process.

It all started at the draft, where the Lakers shocked the league by selecting D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 pick instead of the widely assumed Jahlil Okafor. While it is insanely early to judge the wisdom of the move, Russell has already shown glimpses of the court vision, ball-handling, and passing ability that led Mitch Kupchak and company to believe he could become the next great point guard– only time will tell if they were right. The Lakers later selected Larry Nance Jr. with the No. 27 pick and Anthony Brown with No. 34, bringing in two more athletic bodies with the potential to crack the rotation.

After swinging and missing on the biggest free agents, the Lakers went under the radar and traded for Roy Hibbert, a defensive specialist whose stock had fallen enough to convince the Indiana Pacers that he was only worth a second-round pick. Even if he doesn’t return to his full form, Hibbert was a steal and he can hopefully provide the imposing post presence that the Lakers so desperately needed last season.

As for the motley crew of free agents from last year’s disaster, the Lakers let Jeremy Lin, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, and the other castaways follow the path of Earl Clark and Jodie Meeks and seek out inflated contracts in greener pastures. Of that lot, Davis was the only keeper, but with the addition of Hibbert and Julius Randle back healthy, Davis wasn’t figured to get many minutes anyway.

To round out the roster, the Lakers signed reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams for instant points off the bench, veteran board bully Brandon Bass to shore up the front-court rotation, and beloved international icon Metta World Peace to supply endless entertainment, school the youngins at practice, and maybe even play a few games.

2. What are the team’s biggest strengths?
In terms of attracting an audience, the Lakers are banking on nostalgia for the end of the Kobe Bryant era and enough young, fun guns to put on an offensive show. Kobe seems rejuvenated by the new recruits and they defer to him with total reverence, making for an odd combination of fast-paced offensive sets and far too many passes to an isolating Kobe. At the very least, every game should bring high-flying highlights and a measure of magnetic enthusiasm.
In addition to the new picks, the Lakers will have Randle returning to deliver the rookie season he was so mercilessly robbed of last year. After offseason buzz around his workouts with Metta and an impressive preseason showing, Randle looks poised to barrel through opponents like a more bullish and less graceful Lamar Odom. (Sidenote: Lamar, we love you and wish you the best)

Past the firepower, the Lakers are hoping that Hibbert can remind the league why he was once considered for Defensive Player of the Year. We’re still a long way from declaring defense an organizational strength, but it’s progress.

3. What are the team’s biggest weaknesses?
To take the easy joke off the table, there’s only one ball. With Kobe, Williams, and swag-king Nick Young all chomping at the bit for shots, the dream of a smooth-running offense may deteriorate into a staggering series of contested isolations.

Even if everyone buys into the system, the remaining minutes will mostly be doled out to first and second-year players that have a long way to go before they anchor a contending rotation. Jordan Clarkson looks to build momentum off of his terrific rookie season, but there is a significant amount of polish left to apply. The same can be said for Randle and the true rookies: they are simply too young to expect too much. They need time to develop chemistry and adjust to the NBA level, and any hope of a serious playoff push is borderline delusional.

Overall, the Lakers’ biggest weakness will carry over from last season: defense. Hibbert will help, but how much? How many possessions will Kobe hustle? Can Young and Williams be anything but black holes? How long will it take the young bucks to raise their guards? At this point, the Lakers have far more questions about defense than answers, which doesn’t exactly bode well.

Finally, the elephant in the room: Byron Scott. Right now, I have two theories: he is a truly bad coach incapable of maintaining a reasonable rotation, or he purposefully started Robert Sacre last season in an attempt to tank for a higher draft pick. I’m not sure there’s a middle ground, so I can only hope that Mitch’s whispers kept Scott’s schemes nice and non-sensical, and now that he has some new toys and no reason to lose, he will return to the sideline prowess that once won him Coach of the Year honors. If he stays stagnant, the Lakers will grit through another season or two before cutting him loose and selecting another poor choice for the position. For those counting at home, an unsuccessful Scott tenure would cap off a three-coach streak of (politely) ill-timed or (bluntly) horrific hiring decisions.

4. What are the goals for this team?
In short, don’t embarrass themselves. No one expects a ring this year, and rightfully so. The best the Lakers can do is nurture the young talent, tally up enough wins to ingrain them into the right culture, and provide the highlights and smiles necessary to appease the fanbase. The top-three protected draft pick is almost assuredly going to the Philadelphia 76ers, so any talk of tanking is preposterous. It may not be pretty, but the Lakers will need to force themselves into the lower-middle class of the beastly Western Conference if they have any hope of turning this ship around and attracting the starry free agents (come home Westbrook!) in upcoming offseasons.

5. Kobe?
It wouldn’t be a proper Lakers preview if we didn’t go full bore into Mr. Bryant. The first consideration, of course, is what Kobe has left in the tank. We won’t know until the season hits full swing, but depending on his health and how he adjusts his game, this could be his final ride or his transition into an over-talented role player, a la Paul Pierce. If he comes back strong, keeps his minutes low, and lets the youngins do most of the ball-handling, I could see him signing another one or two-year deal at the end of the season. If he swings for the fences, misses significant athleticism, and doesn’t mesh with the next generation, I could see him walking away.

Not to get too heavy, but what Kobe does next could decide the immediate fate of the franchise. Either way, the Lakers have the young prospects needed to gradually climb towards contention, but if Kobe can embrace a lesser role and prolong his career, he could speed up the rebuilding process by completing an attractive enough package to lure the Kevin Durants and RUSSELL WESTBROOKS of the next two free agency classes. Many of those players grew up watching Kobe win titles, and the prospect of saddling up and helping him take one last shot at glory may be enticement enough to assemble the next super-team.

As long as Kobe is on the court, I will watch every game I can and celebrate the career of an all-time great, and my personal favorite, player. My highest, and perhaps most delusional hope, is that he has the health and adaptability required to contend for one more ring. No matter what happens, I’m thankful for every thrilling title and staggering athletic spectacle that comprised his illustrious career.
Kobe? Kobe.

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