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The Lakers are on their way back slowly but surely. After two seasons in the tank, perhaps both figuratively and literally, they have two young stars and a top five center to make a push for the playoffs in the Western Conference. A push meaning they won’t make it but they should make strides this season. What the Lakers lack in veteran leadership and talent they make up for in youth. With one of the youngest rosters in the NBA they have nowhere to go but up. Of the cards the Lakers hold, the best one this season is options. Brooke Lopez comes off the books and Paul George wants to be there. With that in their back pocket, it is important for this team to build an identity leading into next summer. The team will likely match whatever offer sheet is on the table for Julius Randle, further solidifying the roster. In a copycat league, Luke Walton may be able to bring what he learned up north to Los Angeles.
The league is primed with young talent. You have Karl-Anthony Towns and Andre Wiggins in Minnesota, Ben Simmons and Markell Fultz in Philly, and now Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram in Los Angeles. The Lakers need to be the team that takes the next step this season. Are they a playoff team? No, but they can be the team that challenges and plays hard this season. Given the talent they possess they should not be a team in the early lottery.
The Lakers have struggled in the post Kobe Bryant era to find an identity but have acquired some key pieces in the process. They are core of young talent with promise for the future. Julius Randle remains a mainstay in the rotation going into a contract year with the team. Swapping point guards this summer in trade that sent former number two pick D’Angelo Russell to Brooklyn and drafting Lonzo Ball was key. And then you have Brandon Ingram. Brandon Ingram is a peculiar player. At 6’9" with a 7’3" wingspan, he possesses the ability to back down defenders as well as shoot over the top. His shooting must improve this season after a rookie campaign shooting 40% from the field, 29% from three, and 62% from the line. At his height, the ability to handle like a guard and long enough to defend a stretch four has drawn the obvious KD comparison. But, the next step for Brandon Ingram is, can he become a menace defensively and become a better perimeter scorer? With his length, he can be a force on both the glass as well as with his on-ball defense.
Lonzo has been handed the keys to a franchise that knows winning. Expectations will be high for him being the number two overall pick and with the hype associated with his father. He is an elite passer with the ability to score and a knack for leadership. In a league that is dominated by point guards, he will have a tough match-up every night which should accelerate his development.
The Lakers picked up Brooke Lopez for likely a year dumping Timofey Mozgof’s absurd $60 plus million contract with the ability to let Brooke walk after the season, freeing up cap space in the Paul George and Lebron James sweepstakes. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka have made it clear that they will do everything necessary to make sure Paul George specifically is wearing purple and gold come next season, including tampering.
The team played their first preseason game the other night and contrary to anticipation, they looked formidable against a resurgent Timberwolves team for at least a half of play. After watching, they will be a team that is fun to watch on their way to a fourth straight lottery this season.
The Timberwolves are a team, like the Lakers, that have drafted well and made significant moves to assure the future of the franchise. Karl Anthony Towns has grown into arguably the best five in the league next to Boogie Cousins and Andrew Wiggins looks prepped to begin his march towards perennial all-star status. The Timberwolves have figured it out. Sprinkle seasoned veterans around a core of young talented players and you can make noise. At this point the franchise has gained respect around the league without doing anything of significance in the process, keeping the fans interested and the front office employed.
The Lakers are in a similar situation in that they have options. Options in the form of a 6’8" swingman residing in Oklahoma City for the short term and a draft pick likely in the lottery. So, what do the Lakers need? The team finished 17th in the league in team scoring at 104.6 points per game, yet still finished at the bottom of the Western Conference. The Lakers also finished in the bottom third in rebounding, assists, and shooting percentage. They lost Lou Williams to the team down the hall and Swaggy P is ring chasing in Oakland.
What the Lakers need most is defense. The Warriors win with flash and threes but they are also one of the best defensive units in the league. The Lakers, on the other hand, finished dead last in defensive efficiency last season. While they could put points on the board they could not stop anyone. They will need to get big minutes from Julius Randle in a contract year for any chance at the eight seed. With that said the future is still bright for this team. Luke Walton is bringing the style of play and culture he learned under Steve Kerr that led to two straight finals appearances. The Lakers have the players to play that style of play with the addition of Lonzo Ball but the question is, can they make enough shots and develop a defensive identity?
What is important for this Lakers squad is to perform well-enough to convince free agents to want to play with them. The allure of Los Angeles is not necessarily enough anymore. There should be no mistakes made for what this season is about, the Lakers are playing for Paul George. George is playing what is likely his first and final season in a Thunder uniform and given the Lakers have whiffed the last few summers on free agents, they need to show signs of a team on the rise to attract George this summer. Is the current roster a playoff team? No. Realistically, this team sits at around 35 wins. But with a young core and the prospect of George this summer, they are set to build around the future. Before they can do that, they must first find out who they are in the post Kobe Bryant era.