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2017-18 NBA Preview: The Big Baller Lakers

AP - Rex Shutterstock

For the first time in the past handful of seasons, the Lakers are going to be fun and exciting this year as all eyes will turn to Lonzo Ball.

Last season was yet another rough season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Stuck between two realities, L.A. tried to usher in a new era while simultaneously holding onto dysfunctional remnants of the past. Replacing Byron Scott with Luke Walton brought some much-needed energy, and second overall pick Brandon Ingram showed promise by the end of the year, but the overall results stayed stagnant.

The 2016-2017 Lakers were a poor shooting team, a horrible passing one, and couldn’t protect the rim to save their lives. Their 23rd-ranked offense was downright promising compared to their league-worst defense, which gave up 113 points per 100 possessions.

Los Angeles finished the year 26-56, second worst in the West. Thirty of their 56 losses came by double figures, and they had the worst point differential (-6.29) in the entire league. For most of the year, they were on pace to finish at the bottom of the West, but they weren’t even good at tanking and ended the year by winning five of their final six games.

It was clear changes needed to be made for the Lakers to leave the league’s basement, but they didn’t wait until summer to get started. In February, long after their season had been lost, Laker President and Majority Owner Jeanie Buss blew up the front office by firing long-time GM Mitch Kupchak and President of Basketball Operations (and older brother) Jim Buss.

After the 2013 passing of legendary owner Dr. Jerry Buss, Jim Buss famously promised the Lakers would be contending for a West title “within three to four years.” With the deadline passed and the franchise further from that goal than ever, Buss and Kupchak’s terminations were justified and probably overdue. They had lost the confidence of the fans, media, and ultimately Jeanie Buss herself, who took the opportunity to shape the franchise how she saw fit.

With that freedom, Buss went big. To replace Kupchak she chose the prominent agent Rob Pelinka, and to fill her brother’s role, she chose living legend Magic Johnson. If the Lakers needed a new image, turning Jim Buss into Magic Johnson is about as good as you could get, and they entered the offseason with renewed and somewhat justified optimism.

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Sergio Estrada - USA TODAY Sports

Offseason Reset

After only about four months on the job, Magic and Pelinka made a splash with their first big move in charge of the Lakers. On Jun. 20, the Lakers traded 21-year-old D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov to the Brooklyn Nets for Brook Lopez and the 27th pick in the draft.

On its face, a rebuilding team trading away a second overall pick after just two seasons for a 29-year-old center doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it was an important move for the franchise. Russell’s infamous Snapchat incident will probably be remembered as rock-bottom for the worst period in franchise history, and tying him to an albatross of a contract in return for a still useful player and a first rounder was a necessary rip of the Band-Aid.

Lopez on his own is still a good player and a massive upgrade at center, but that 27th pick could prove to be even more valuable.

A shocking pick on draft day, the relatively unknown and unheralded Kyle Kuzma of the University of Utah will play significant minutes for L.A. this season. He has shown flashes in Summer League and preseason as a potential gem of this draft, but even if he is in contention for an All-Rookie team, everyone’s eyes will be on another Laker rookie.

As a pure on-the-court entity, Lonzo Ball is fantastic. He has the athleticism, passing ability, and feel for the game to become a revolutionary basketball talent. Off the court, he and his family have in many ways already become revolutionary. It’s not often that a player’s father is as well known as he is, but, like it or not, the Lavar Ball sideshow is now a part of the NBA.

It takes a special rookie to turn his team’s fortunes around in their first year, but Ball has a great chance to make that happen. While he’s not yet the MVP-caliber player his father would like you to believe he is, Ball will walk into L.A. as the guaranteed day one starting point guard for the Lakers, and will grow with the eyes of the league watching his every move.

With Ball soaking up all the attention, the Lakers somewhat quietly brought in veterans Andrew Bogut and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope on one-year deals. Bogut broke his leg just seconds into his tenure in Cleveland, and will have to prove he can stay on the court before he’s considered a viable member of the rotation going forward.

The way Pelinka talked about KCP when he signed, you would think Kevin Durant fell into their laps, but it remains to be seen if that praise is justified. Caldwell-Pope will be their best perimeter defender and one of the top scorers, but has never scored more than 14.5 points per game nor shot above 35% from three, and may struggle with the increased offensive burden.

Finally, the Lakers also lost some front-court depth this offseason in Tarik Black and Thomas Robinson. On the perimeter, Nick Young’s departure to Golden State will hurt a team lacking perimeter shooting and the loss of David Nwaba will further deplete an already defensively-challenged team, but the Lakers anticipate Ball and Caldwell-Pope can fill most of that lost production.

2017-18 Predictions

Going into the season, the Lakers’ depth chart should resemble something close to this:

StarterLonzo BallKentavious Caldwell-PopeBrandon IngramJulius RandleBrook Lopez
BackupTyler EnnisJordan ClarksonLuol Deng
Larry Nance Jr.
Ivica Zubac
Third String
Josh Hart
Corey BrewerKyle Kuzma
Andrew Bogut

This Lakers season isn’t about winning and losing as much as it is about growth, but they still have to go out and compete. Their projected record of 33-49 is higher than it has been in recent seasons, but it still only puts them in the 13th or 14 seed in the West.

For the first time in a while, however, the Lakers don’t have any incentive to be bad. Their 2018 pick will either go to Boston or Philly depending on how the lottery shakes out, which means we should see full effort for the entire season. The keys will be handed to Ball from day one, and we all will get to see how he responds to such a burden placed on his shoulders at such a young age.

Outside of the Ball family, Lakers fans should think as much about next season as about this one. Every move Pelinka and Magic made this summer was built around flexibility for next summer and their ability to sign a guy like Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins, or even LeBron James. For many reasons, this Laker season is about looking forward and not reminiscing about the past, and for the first time in a while, that future looks bright.

Edited by Emily Berman, Coleman Gray.

Which player currently on the Lakers roster scored the most points last season?
Created 10/4/17
  1. Brook Lopez
  2. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
  3. Brandon Ingram
  4. Julius Randle

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