PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
The Lakers will be improved, but will they be any good?
Plenty of NBA fans (not to mention people around the league) are in the schadenfreude camp of enjoying the Lakers’ struggles.
But I can give you 19 reasons even those “haters” want the Lakers to be better this season — that’s the number of times they are in a nationally televised game. Seventh most in the league. The same number as the Houston Rockets, and more than Anthony Davis’ Pelicans, the Heat, and the Grizzlies. Even more than the Knicks and Mavericks combined.
You’re going to have to watch them. You want them to be at least entertaining.
And they will be.
The Lakers have assembled some of the best isolation loving, ball dominating, wing gunners the league has to offer — Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, and Nick Young. Considering his Summer League performance, Jordan Clarkson seems to want to join that group, too. Beyond them, there are some legitimate young players worth watching in D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle (Clarkson wants to be in this group, too).
No doubt the Lakers have some offensive firepower — they are fearlessly going to fire away from whatever old-school sets Byron Scott draws up (this roster is fairly well suited to that style). Kobe is not going to go quietly into that good night. The Lakers are going to put up some points. They will entertain.
But will they be any good?
To be fair, the real answer to that question depends on how you choose to define “good.” If you’re a smart Lakers fan and define that as “better than last season” and “the young players show signs of growth and development” then the answer should be yes.
These Lakers will be better than the 21-win, franchise-worst team that took the court last season. Adding veterans like Williams, Brandon Bass and Roy Hibbert will ensure that. Plus we should all hope that Kobe stays healthy, his minutes are kept in check, and he is himself again — we are witnessing the end of the career of one of the best ever to play the game and we should savor that.
However, if you’re going to define “good” as the Lakers making the playoffs — or even being in the hunt — then the answer is no. The Lakers are not going to be that good (even in the East I’d have serious doubts, but in the stacked West no way). The Lakers are not going to improve 25+ games this season, which is what it would take to sniff the postseason. They likely are 10-12 games better.
The problems will come on the defensive end, where the Lakers were 29th in the NBA last season allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. The Lakers are pointing to Hibbert being the difference on defense, providing some rim protection that has been lacking in Los Angeles since the handful of games when Andrew Bynum decided to care about basketball.
No doubt Hibbert will help the Laker defense, but not as much as some think. He is slow of foot, and in an increasingly small-ball NBA he can be exposed as you pull him away from the basket and force him to cover pick-and-rolls or guard guys out on the perimeter. If you remember the Hibbert that was a defensive force in Indiana remember this as well — that team had three high-quality perimeter defenders in Paul George, Lance Stephenson, and George Hill. Those guys played in a smart, well-executed system where they would funnel penetration to where Hibbert was already stationed, basically running ball handlers into a brick wall. The Lakers don’t have that kind of perimeter protection to help Hibbert, especially if they play the youngsters heavy minutes like they should (Kobe, at 37 and with his previous injuries, is not that guy anymore). Hibbert can be an elite rim protector, but him alone on an island in the paint doesn’t solve that many problems.
The Lakers should not be focusing on the playoffs anyway, only one question should guide every Lakers decisions this season:
How do we develop Russell, Randle and Clarkson?
The Lakers are a rebuilding team, and those three should be key parts of the future. Russell is the highest draft pick the Lakers have had since James Worthy, but by his own admission not a guy whose athleticism is going to overwhelm at this level. Russell has to beat guys with his vision, his IQ, with his mind. That’s going to take some time to develop and adjust at this level — he should improve as the season wears on, but there will be rough patches. Russell and Clarkson need to learn how to play together and share playmaking responsibilities. Randle needs to develop a diversity of offensive moves.
The Lakers learned some hard lessons this past summer about what it’s going to take to recruit the next free agent superstar to Los Angeles — they can’t just sell the city, the glamour, endorsement opportunities, and the brand anymore. That will not get it done. They need to sell basketball, too. Guys can live in Los Angeles in the off-season, and in a social media world they can reach out to fans and bring in the endorsements whether they live in Los Angeles or Oklahoma City.
But after striking out with the big names, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak did a solid job of trying to walk the line between winning more now, not being embarrassing, and making sure this team was rebuilding for the future. It’s a tough balance to find, but he did well with that mandate. The Lakers have plenty of flexibility for the future (but they will not keep their first-round pick for next season without some lottery help, it is only top three protected, and now belongs to the Sixers).
The Lakers will be better with this roster. They certainly will be entertaining with all those shooters and just one basketball.
But the Lakers will not be good yet. What matters is they take steps in that direction.