Last season for the Los Angeles Lakers was a somewhat strange one. Kobe Bryant announced his retirement, D’Angelo Russell had the cell phone incident with Nick Young (aka Swaggy P) and head coach⎻former head coach now⎻Bryon Scott did not seem to quite know how to handle it. In fairness, trying to balance playing time for the young guys mixed with making sure fans around the league get the chance to see the legendary “Black Mamba” was a task that would be difficult for any coach in that sort of position.
Fast forward to April 13, 2015. Bryant’s last NBA game. The Lakers narrowly defeat the Utah Jazz 101-96 led by No. 24 dropping 60 points. What a way to call it a career.
With Bryant’s time with the Lakers out of the way, his contract off the books, what were the Lakers do? Do they try and go big and invest in trying to secure a superstar caliber free agent or do they stay patient with their young guys who may or may not possess superstar potential? The Lakers “decided” to remain patient and hopeful that the young nucleus of Jordan Clarkson, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and No. 2 draft pick Brandon Ingram can return the Lakers to greatness. And I say “decided’ because it’s almost like they had no choice due to the fact that free agents like Kevin Durant elected not even to meet with the organization to hear any kind of sales pitch.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ Julius Randle (30) celebrates after hitting the game-winning shot against the Miami Heat in overtime at Staples Center in Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The Lakers won, 102-100, in OT. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Mix that core of young players with decent free agent signings of veteran players like Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, what can Lakers fans expect for the 2016-2017 season?
Maybe a championship is kind of a far stretch (and I’m a pretty optimistic guy). Perhaps even a playoff berth is a bit of a stretch. Lakers fans can at least expect the team to be competitive and a high 30 to low 40-game win season is realistic.
The hiring of Luke Walton was a very good start. He brings championship experience both as a player and as an assistant coach. Under the tutelage of Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr, along with playing with teammates like Kobe Bryant, Walton has the chance to mentor and develop the players on this team and have them play a more uptempo offense that features better ball movement and less isolation plays.
The Los Angeles Lakers’ new head coach Luke Walton answers reporters’ questions during a news conference on Tuesday, June 20, 2016, at the team’s training facility in El Segundo, Calif. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Draft pick No. 2 Brandon Ingram also looks to be a star in the making. Ingram has drawn comparisons to 2013-2014 NBA MVP Kevin Durant not only in the way his body is built but also their style of play. He has the opportunity to challenge fellow draftees Ben Simmons and Kris Dunn for Rookie of the Year and if the team can somehow manage to gel well early enough in the year and not wait until midseason, Ingram has the chance to help the Lakers make a realistic playoff push toward the end of the regular season.
Los Angeles Lakers draft picks Brandon Ingram, left, and Ivica Zubac, right, with team owner Jim Buss, are introduced at a news conference in El Segundo, Calif., on Tuesday, July 5, 2016. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
All this also depends on the development of Clarkson, Randle and Russell. If these players can continue to grow not only as players but as mature individuals, they have the ability and the talent to be great.
Russell, Ingram, Nance Jr. and 2nd round draft pick Ivica Zubac all played for the Lakers Summer League team. Russell and Nance Jr. showed strong play and were two of the best players during Summer League play. Ingram showed flashes of why he was taken at No. 2 during the draft but he still has a ways to go. Big man Zubac looks to be a surprise for L.A. and can prove to be a good find.
Veterans like Lou Williams, Deng and Mozgov will serve as good mentors and will provide the team with tough play and decent scoring.
Playing in the Western conference will be tough. Teams only seem to get better every year. Sure the Spurs lost Duncan to retirement, but they still have Lamarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili and they also added Pau Gasol this season. The Warriors made the biggest “splash” this summer by convincing Durant to leave Oklahoma City and move to the bay area to join the Warriors. Those are just two of the power teams in the West and that alone seems like a task seemingly impossible for a young team like the Lakers to overcome. Do they have what it takes to compete with teams like the Clippers, Blazers, Rockets, Thunder, Grizzlies and Mavericks? Maybe. They certainly have the potential but sometimes it takes more than potential to produce results. Walton and his staff have a lot of work to do and the Buss family and Lakers Nation must show patience and not be too quick to pull the trigger if they wish to see another championship banner be lifted into the rafters of Staples Center.
Prediction: Wins 40, Losses 42 (9th in the Western Conference)