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Three questions the Los Angeles Lakers must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 26-56, missed the playoffs.

I know what you did last summer: The Lakers had the lottery gods smile on them and were able to draft Lonzo Ball at No. 2, but that was far from the only move they made. They traded Timofey Mozgov and his massive contract, plus DeAngelo Russell to Brooklyn and got back primarily Brook Lopez. The Lakers also added Kyle Kuzma, Thomas Bryant and Josh Hart in the draft, then were able to snag Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency on a one-year contract. Veteran Corey Brewer is now a Laker and will come off the bench. The Lakers also lost Nick Young to the Warriors.

THREE QUESTIONS THE LAKERS MUST ANSWER:


1) The Lonzo Ball effect is real, but can he score enough for it to thrive and really change the Lakers culture?
Ball is one of those guys who has “it.” Not only do other players want to play with him, when they are on the court with him his run-the-floor, pass-first ethos infects everyone. Big men get out in transition knowing they will get rewarded. Guys make the extra pass. Luke Walton has a point guard in Ball who could bring the Warriors’ feel and style to Staples Center. The Lakers just feel different this season.

However, Ball has to score some to make it all work. He is always going to look to pass first, but teams are going to play him to do that and dare him to shoot — not just wide open jumpers, but on the drive. They are going to try to force him into floaters and midrange shots that are not yet a comfortable part of his arsenal. Ball has to hit some threes (which he is capable of doing, despite the funky release), and learn to score better at the rim when he attacks, he has to be a threat to score for his passing to have the desired effect.

Ball was not a heavy usage guy in college, and that’s not likely to change now — if he gets up to scoring a fairly efficient 10 points per game average this season that would be a win. The good news is as Summer League wore on teams more and more played him to pass, he adjusted and became more confident as a scorer (he had one 30-point game). That’s Summer League, and NBA defenders are longer, more athletic, and smarter, but if Ball can show that kind of development on the offensive end over the course of an NBA season it will be a great sign.

2) Is anyone going to play any defense? Last season, the Lakers had the worst defense in the NBA, giving up 110.6 points per 100 possessions. The season before, the Lakers were dead last in the NBA in defense (109.3). The season before that, the Lakers were 29th in the NBA in defense (108). The season before that the Lakers were 28th in the NBA in defense (107.9).

See a pattern here? The Lakers can run the court and whip the ball around on clever passes all they want, if they can’t get stops it’s all moot. With young players such as Ball, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, and Kyle Kuzma getting heavy minutes this season the Lakers are not going to be great defensively, but they have to start getting better.

Some of the roster changes this summer will help with that. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a strong defender on the wing, and in a contract year he will be motivated to improve his reputation on that end (because wing defenders who can shoot threes get PAID). Brook Lopez isn’t a high-flying rim protector, he’s in trouble trying to defend in space if there is a switch off a pick, but he’s smart in the paint about being in the right place at the right time. He will help the Lakers’ paint defense.

Any culture change on defense will have to start with Luke Walton and the coaching staff — if the Lakers want to be a team that runs, they have to get stops. Walton has to make defense a priority and pull guys not hustling on that end. Then the players have to buy in, play the system, and put in the work — and if the Lakers do all that they probably still are bottom 10 in defense this season. But they need to start to see a change or nothing else will work.

3) How do Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma, Ivica Zubac, and the rest of the potential Lakers young core develop? If the dreams of Lakers fans and management — landing two big-time free agents next summer — are going to come true, the team has to do two things. First, clear out the cap space (which will likely involve dumping the Luol Deng contract before July 1, which would require sending out a sweetener like Randle or Nance or another nice young player in the trade).

The other thing is the young core of players on the roster has to develop to the point that “Superstar X” looks at the Lakers and thinks he can win there. Lonzo Ball and the culture change is just part of that, the other guys have to develop as well. Those players have the skills to be NBA players, but can they translate that into production on the court?

Brandon Ingram is at the top of the list of guys to watch. He has gotten stronger, he is more confident and aggressive — and he is shooting 26.7 percent this preseason. Small sample size and it’s preseason, but it’s a concern. He struggled with this last season, and his shots need to start going in (his form has always looked good). His defense needs to improve as well.

Beyond that, can Julius Randle (a better defender than he gets credit for) develop to the next level on offense and be able to be a threat stepping away from the basket. Kuzma has been a surprise both at Summer League and through the preseason with his hustle and suddenly sharp three-point shooting, will that continue or is his shooting a fluke? Can Zubac get stronger, develop a more diversified post game, and find a role as an old-school center on a running team? And the list goes on and on. Historically, the Lakers as an organization have never been great at developing talent (as opposed to the Spurs, for example) because they didn’t need to be, but in the modern NBA they have to figure it out. We’ll see if the Lakers can live up to that challenge.

Reports: Lakers to sign Andrew Bogut to one-year deal

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Brook Lopez will start at center for the Lakers. Behind him, they have a couple young players they want to groom, Ivica Zubac and Thomas Bryant.

Those youngsters just got bumped a notch down the ladder — Andrew Bogut is about to become a Laker. Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports broke the news, and other reports have confirmed it.

Lakers’ coach Luke Walton coached Bogut at Golden State, and that connection helped get him to Los Angeles when Boston, Minnesota, and Cleveland were also trying to land his services. Bogut gets the system Walton wants to run and wants to be part of this new Lakers team.

The question with Bogut is always health. He can be a solid defensive big in the paint and is a good passer, but last season he broke his tibia in his first game with the Cavaliers, the latest in a long line of health concerns. Bogut’s doctors have cleared him to play.

The Lakers also add a solid veteran presence to help mentor those young bigs (although if Bogut is taking minutes from them it seems counterproductive). Bogut can show Zubac and Bryant the art of setting the best illegal screens in the league (he’s a master, Lonzo Ball will love him). We’ll see how many minutes Bogut gets when it matters.

This one-year deal gives the Lakers another potential trade chip and does not mess with their cap space next summer, when they want to clear out room and go after two max free agents (which will mean dumping the contract of Luol Deng, likely with Julius Randle or someone as a sweetener, to get the space). For Bogut, stay healthy and play well and he might come back on a minimum contract to a stacked Lakers team next season.

Report: Lakers confident they can trade Jordan Clarkson to clear cap space next summer

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The Lakers have made little secret of their desire to chase – maybe even two – max free agents next summer. LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Paul George and DeMarcus Cousins could all be available.

Three Two big problems:

The Lakers unloaded Mozgov’s long-term deal on the Nets, but Deng (guaranteed $54 million over the  next three years) and Clarkson (guaranteed $37.5 over the next three years) remain as impediments to cap space.

LeBron and Westbrook can each earn 35% of the salary cap. George and Cousins can each earn 30% of the salary cap. So, to lure two of them, the Lakers will need 60%-70% of the cap available.

If the Lakers renounce all their free agents – including Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Julius Randle – and dump Deng, their percentage of the cap available projects to be about 63%.

But that wouldn’t be enough for a max duo that includes LeBron and/or Westbrook. And it’d take a significant sweetener for another team to take Deng.

On the other hand, trading Clarkson would likely be far easier. If the Lakers dump him and stretch Deng, they’d project to have 67% of the cap available. With Ivica Zubac‘s 2018-19 salary unguaranteed and Thomas Bryant‘s behind a team option, that’s within striking distance of 70% – especially considering the exact salary cap won’t be determined until next summer. For now, we’re relying on estimates.

How viable is that path?

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

One person within the organization who isn’t permitted to speak publicly on the subject told Bleacher Report the team is confident it can move Clarkson if needed to open space.

The implication seems to be the Lakers believe they could give away Clarkson without attaching a sweetener.

I’m skeptical.

Even next summer, Clarkson will still be owed $12,500,000 and $13,437,500 the following two seasons. That’s a lot in a tighter cap environment.

Clarkson can get to his spots inside the arc, but he doesn’t draw enough fouls or make enough 3-pointers. It’s tough to score efficiently while so reliant on 2-point jumpers. Clarkson is also a poor defender, and he hasn’t maintain the distributing ability he showed as a rookie.

He could rehab his value with a strong season – especially if he plays more point guard, where the Lakers have just Lonzo Ball and Tyler Ennis.

Still, I think the most likely question is: How much must the Lakers attach to Clarkson to dump him? The odds are against them being able to give him away without also surrendering positive assets.

If Clarkson plays well enough that the Lakers must include only moderate assets to dump him and the salary cap lands high enough that unloading Clarkson plus stretching Deng leaves 70% of the cap open, that’d be a massive win for the Lakers.

Then, they “just” have to convince two of LeBron, Westbrook, George and Cousins to come to Los Angeles.

Report: Lakers signing Thomas Bryant to two-year contract with team option

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The Lakers have negotiated just a few contracts this summer – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tyler Ennis and now Thomas Bryant.

The deals all have something in common: no guarantees beyond 2018, when the Lakers are expected to pursue free agents like Paul George and LeBron James.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Lakers still had the room exception, so they could’ve offered more than the minimum. They might have had to get Bryant to bypass the required tender, a one-year contract – surely guaranteed at the minimum – teams must extend to maintain draft rights to a second-round pick.

Bryant entered the draft a year too late. After looking like first rounder last year, he returned to Indiana and saw his stock slip. He’d have reason to bargain for more compensation.

Brook Lopez is clearly the Lakers’ top center, but there are minutes available behind him. Bryant will join Ivica Zubac in the effort to prove they play hard enough and have enough skill to overcome their lack of athleticism.