The Los Angeles Lakers are the in post-Kobe Bryant era, and while the team appears to be far off from reaching the postseason, let alone competing for a title, there is some understandable optimism springing for the club after three lackluster seasons.
A renewed youth movement may invigorate the Lakers in 2016-17 under new head coach Luke Walton. There was an emphasis on defense and getting Bryant his shots under former coach Byron Scott, but the roster has once again seen big changes and this time there is a new attitude to go with it.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited about the upcoming season, and it has to do with a changing of the guard. Bryant shot just 35.8 percent from the field and was taking nearly 17 shots a game. It got ugly at times, with Bryant shooting 2-15 in a loss to the Detroit Pistons, and 1-14 in a blowout defeat to the Golden State Warriors. With Bryant gone, the rest of the roster has a chance to spread their wings, and Walton should help facilitate the maturing roster.
Walton, who won two titles with the Lakers as a player and served as an assistant coach with the Warriors’ two trips to the finals, looks like the ideal coach to lead this young group. Walton, who at age 36 is the youngest active coach in the NBA, was part of a Warriors’ coaching staff that oversaw a relatively young squad in love with outside shooting. Heaving lots of shots from three-point range has not been a formula most clubs embrace, but the Warriors won the title in 2014-15 and set the all-time wins record (73) last season.
As the Lakers went with a young coach, they also made a young roster even younger. General manager Mitch Kupchak drafted forward Brandon Ingram with the No. 2 overall pick, and promising Croatian big man Ivica Zubac with the No. 32 selection. Ingram just turned 20 last week and Zubac is only 19.
Ingram is expected to be a legitimate outside threat. At Duke, he knocked down 80 shots from beyond the arc in 36 games. Though Ingram had some struggles with his outside shot in summer league, his stroke is often smooth and effortless.
With a 7'3 wingspan and a tall, lanky frame, Ingram is a unique player and may already be the face of the franchise. He is a natural small forward, but often looks far more comfortable facing the basket from beyond 15 feet than he does backing in small opponents. The North Carolina native is skilled at creating his own shot and his game continues to evolve. One scout described Ingram as a “matchup nightmare.”
Ingram joins previous Lakers lottery picks D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle on a roster that will likely play an up-tempo style under Walton. With so many players under the age of 25, it makes sense to run and mix up the playbook.
Russell focused on his outside shot in the offseason, and is coming off an impressive summer league, though it’s another part of his game that excites experts. Rick Pitino once described Russell as the best passer he’s seen since Magic Johnson, and now the 20-year-old will have more opportunities to rack up assists with young players eager to score.
When the Lakers drafted Randle in 2014, there was hope he would mature into a version of Warriors star Draymond Green. Now, it will be Walton, who coached Green for two seasons, looking over Randle’s progression. Randle finished his final full month of the 2015-16 season strong, scoring 12.9 points per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. He told the Los Angeles Daily News in April that he wants to be “great.”
“I’ll come back better than I can imagine next year,” Randle, 21, told the Daily News. “There’s a lot of areas in my game I can work on. I’ll leave it up to myself to get better in those areas this summer.”
Perhaps the most important returning starter is Jordan Clarkson, who is back with a new contract and after finishing second in scoring behind Bryant. The 24-year-old signed a four-year deal worth $50 million in the summer and is expected to once again lead the Lakers in scoring. While the comparisons to Russell Westbrook always seemed unfair, Clarkson is a polished player with a fluid outside shot and he excels in the open court.
All of this up-and-coming talent may not translate to success anytime soon. The Warriors are expected to cruise to the best record in the West, and the San Antonio Spurs are still a top contender. After the Warriors and Spurs, the playoff teams are likely to consist of the Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and perhaps even the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans, and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Yet one potential playoff team stands out: the Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Lakers appear to be looking at the Timberwolves model. After several years of ineptitude, the Timberwolves are one of the top young teams in the league with former Rookie of the Year award winners Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Minnesota also has 25-year-old point guard Ricky Rubio, athletic swingman Zach LaVine to go along with incoming rookie Kris Dunn.
The Wolves are finally expected to finally reach the postseason after losing to the Lakers in the 2004 Western Conference Finals. Laker fans are not willing to wait over a dozen years to reach the playoffs, but this roster already looks like the wait won’t last very long. In the meantime, the Lakers should be entertaining with so much athleticism on the roster.
But the wait will last at least one season. The Lakers have 500-1 odds to win the NBA title, the same as the Charlotte Hornets, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings. Things could get sloppy with so many young players and so little experience.
Free agency certainly didn’t do the Lakers any favors this offseason. Kupchak failed to lure in local product DeMar DeRozan, let alone superstar Kevin Durant. Instead, the Lakers settled for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, two steady players but without a high ceiling at ages 31 and 30, respectively. Kupchak also traded for veteran guard Jose Calderon, who turns 35 in three weeks. While Deng, Mozgov and Calderon should provide a lift, Walton is expected to play his young players to build towards a contender in upcoming seasons.
The NBA’s top teams are often composed of veterans, and the Lakers don’t have any star players with years of wisdom. Lou Williams, 29, enters his 12th season and scored 15.3 points per game last season, but he can’t be expected to carry a team. It’s unclear what the future is for Nick Young and Metta World Peace, as well as newcomer Yi Jianlian, who is back in the NBA after four years in China.
The Lakers can reasonably expect to win over 30 games next season but reaching the playoffs is a longshot. In some ways, the improvement on the 17-win season is bad news, as their lottery pick would go to Philadelphia unless the ping-pong balls find a way to keep them within the first three picks.
Nevertheless, the Lakers look like a team on the rise. It's hard for find another team with as many young players who can develop into All-Stars than this current Lakers squad. Ingram, Clarkson, Russell and Randle could be Laker starters for quite some time, and Walton will have some quality young role players like Larry Nance Jr. and Zubac, who seemed to have plenty of fun blocking young players in summer league.
How all these pieces fit together will fall on Walton's shoulders. In the press conference for his hiring, Walton addressed the Lakers’ new attitude with such a youthful roster.
"We're going to put our stamp on the culture that we want, and it's going to be joy," Walton said.
"Our players are going to like coming into practice every day. We're going to play a brand of basketball that the L.A. fans will appreciate. We're going to compete.”