The Good, the Bad, and the Crazy
With the coming of the King, Vegas gives the Lakers the second best odds to win next year’s NBA title at 7–2 (tied with the Boston Celtics). That’s ahead of the 65-win Houston Rockets and Philadelphia’s superstar tandem of Simmons and Embiid.
But it wouldn’t be the Lakers, and it wouldn’t be the Fourth of July if there weren’t some pyrotechnics added to spice things up. So much stuff has happened since Lebron’s announcement to sign with the Lakers that it took me over a week to unwrap everything.
Looking forward, we need to understand the franchise’s future in terms of the front office, coaching staff, players, and finally, how it all comes together on the floor next season.
With that in mind, I created this overview as a Lakers FAQ.
Part One — the Front Office
Q: How badly did Magic tamper with players this season?
A: He flagrantly broke the rules on a consistent basis, just like every other player and General Manager have done for the last decade. This may come as a shock to some people, but there is no Santa Claus, and win-at-all-cost NBA executives do not follow the rules. Just look at the number of deals that were announced at 12:01 AM on the first day of free agency. The players and front offices had to be talking over terms for days if not weeks in order to hammer out these deals. The only difference was that Magic’s actions could benefit the Lakers, who are perhaps the most hated franchise in the NBA.
Q: What grade should Magic and Pelinka get for their performance so far?
A: In spite of the strange signings, the Front Office has to get an A-, and here’s why:
- Lebron James is a Laker and the team is not only relevant, but an outside threat to win a title. (While most people would repeat this point four more times and end the answer there, I will go much deeper.)
- Magic and Pelinka have proven to be excellent talent evaluators. They got rid of four players who did not fit the Lakers’ ShowTime 2.0 system in (No D) Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, and Larry Nance, along with the Mozgov contract. No matter how much I liked certain aspects of three young guys, none of them will ever be the kind of two-way players necessary to get floor time in an important playoff series. Russell’s lack of athleticism and desire to play defense, and Mozgov’s lack of mobility guaranteed that the Lakers would forever be the worst defense in the NBA, in a league dominated by incredible guard play and the high pick and roll. Clarkson’s poor defense and inconsistent 3-point shooting made him a good bench scorer, but his ball dominant style forced the Lakers to play two completely different offensive systems last season, making it impossible to develop team continuity. Finally, Nance’s hesitancy on offense killed the team, and his rim protection and team defense were surpassed by Julius Randle, making him obsolescent. (More about Randle below.)
- The Front Office hit home runs in last year’s draft. I’ve already made a good case for saying Kyle Kuzma was the best offensive player in the rookie class of 2017, and he was the fourth best rookie overall, making the NBA Rookie 1st Team. Say what you will about his shooting, but Lonzo Ball was in the top 10 among point guards in every other category — assists, rebounds, steals, blocks. And he his basketball IQ is off the charts. As a rookie, he had a better assist to turnover ratio than six of the eight players who had more assists per game than him: Westbrook, Wall, James, Harden, Simmons, and Green. He was on the all-NBA Rookie second team. Josh Hart became a solid 3-and-D player who was so good as a rookie he made fans forget about the Lakers’ $17 million shooting guard.
- Magic and Pelinka’s understanding of the ShowTime 2.0 system made them feel they could let go of Julius Randle. Letting go of Randle is why I give them an A-, but they thought that Randle’s best role on the team as a small ball center would be greatly diminished because that role would be filled by Lebron James. (This might turn out to be a mistake.) In a perfect world, they would have signed Randle, and started him in certain games so Lebron never played in back-to-back games. In addition, the Lakers drafted a more mobile center who stretch the floor in Moe Wagner. He’s not as strong in the post as Brook Lopez, but he can run the floor, which will make the Lakers’ transition game even more fearsome.
Q: If Lebron needs to be surrounded by shooters, why sign Rondo and Stephenson?
A: The front office wanted to do two things this off-season:
- Improve the team’s 3-point shooting through trades and the draft. Through trades, free agency and waivers, the Lakers improved their 3-point shooting by subtraction as they got rid of all their worst shooters aside from Ball. The Lakers have five core players who are at league average or above: Lebron (.367); Ingram (.390); KCP (.383); Kuzma (.366); and Hart (.396). In addition, draft picks Wagner and Mykhailiuk, are good 3-point shooters. They’re not Golden State, but if Lonzo can just improve to below average (.333), they will shoot significantly better than 34.7% as a team next season (second from the worst in the NBA). In addition, with Lebron James getting so much attention when he has the ball, the Lakers will end up with more wide open shots.
- Toughen the team profile and mentor the young players. People forget that even Magic Johnson made some painful adjustments to the NBA (he was once nicknamed “Tragic Johnson), but he doesn’t. He’s aware of the process for young players to become great young players. Signing Rondo will push Lonzo every day in practice and toughen him up. If Lonzo can earn the starting point guard job, he will have earned it. The only thing I understand about signing Stephenson is that Lakers tradition of signing one tough guy. Kobe got Matt Barnes and Ron Artest. Magic had Michael Cooper and Kurt Rambis. I’m not convinced if this is a great move because Lance is one of the strangest dudes who ever laced ’em up in the NBA.
Q: Now that Lebron James is a Laker, and based on the signings of non-shooters like Rondo and Stephenson, is he now the real GM of the team? Or is he shooting for a less important job, like President?
A: When you are talking to prospective superstars like Lebron (see tampering answer above), you have explain your vision of the team’s future and get them to buy into that plan. Here are the three reasons why Magic and Pelinka are still running the team:
- Lebron has stated his desire to not have the sole responsibility of taking the ball up the floor, running the offense, and taking a beating in the paint where he drives in to score or create shots for teammates. In signing Rondo and Stephenson, they’ve got two more guys who can create off the dribble (although the Lance Dance is one that often leads nowhere), to join guys like Ingram and Kuzma, and a genius passer in Lonzo.
- By signing a 4-year deal, Lebron cannot hold the team hostage like he did with Dan Gilbert. When Magic had a press conference a few days before Lebron’s announcement, he talked about a two Summer plan to sign star players and rebuild the team. He spoke with the kind of confidence of someone who already knows a certain unknown player (who also happens to be in the top 5 of all time) is headed to the City of Angels.
- By signing one year deals, the team keeps its cap flexibility to sign another free agent All-Star next season, without giving up the young core. I think that is really important, because in the past the Cavs made desperate deals to have the chance to win immediately. If the Lakers give away their best young players to get Kawhi Leonard or some other All-Star, they would be mortgaging the future. With Lebron on the Lakers, it is an absolute certainty that other good players will sign with the team next year. (A new narrative has begun circulating around the NBA that players don’t want to play with Lebron because of his relationship with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas. But is playing with the best player in the game easy for anyone? Michael Jordan helped run All-Star Horace Grant out of town and punched Steve Kerr. Kobe was impossible for many players to get along with. Winning is the ultimate aphrodisiac.)
Part Two—the Coaching Staff
Q: Now that Lebron James is a Laker, what happens to Luke Walton?
A: Nothing. He will have the same job security of any other coach who is suddenly expected to win a title. Hiring Luke Walton was the best decision ever made by Jimmy Buss and Mitch Kupchak, as he is part of the Lakers family, but also coached at Golden State. With the Warriors the dominant team of the decade, the most obvious way to beat them is to know everything there is to know about their system, so Walton’s work installing the Warriors’ system in L.A. is the perfect path to follow. I’ve written extensively on how the Lakers now stress defense, sharing the ball and running the floor.
This is basically ShowTime 2.0 with more 3-pointers. Walton has done a great job, so far, but kept his message simple to help the young players focus on the top priorities. Can he improve in other facets of coaching, like teaching an offensive system, or coming up with legendary ATOs (out of bound plays after time outs)? That remains to be seen.
Q: How will Luke Walton handle all the strong personalities added to the Lakers’ roster?
A: He’s had a season of having to deal with Lavar Ball. Could there be anything worse than that? After Lavar said that Luke lost the attention of the team, the Lakers went on a 20–6 run. Isaiah Thomas came in and made some noise about wanting to start, but he did a decent job of sounding like a team player for the rest of his short tenure with the Lakers.
Luke is not a top 5 coach yet, but his relationship with the players and keeping them motivated is one of his strongest qualities, and vitally important for teams that are title contenders.
Q: Do the Lakers have the staff to develop raw players the way the Spurs did with Kawhi Leonard?
A: Based on the way Brandon Ingram improved after his rookie season, I’d say yes. But we’ll definitely know more when Lonzo Ball takes the court next season. If Ball comes back with the ability to hit his free throws, he’ll have the foundation to become the transcendent player Magic thinks he can become.
(After I wrote this sentence, on the Lakers-76ers Summer League broadcast, Doris Burke relayed coach Brett Brown’s comments about having Ben Simmons build the foundation at the free throw line and moving back from there so he could shoot a 3-pointer. In Lonzo’s case, it’s really the opposite. If he can hit free throws, he’ll build more confidence to finish at the rim, making him a much bigger offensive threat.)
The bottom line is if Ball can make free throws, he’ll have the confidence to attack the rim instead of always looking to pass, which will result in more baskets and free throws. Given how badly he performed in these areas, making modest progress could result in scoring 14–15 points per game to go along with his 7 rebounds and 7 assists. For comparison, Ben Simmons averaged 15.8/8.2/8.1.
Part Three—The future of the young core
Q: Will the Lakers move their young players for a star like Kawhi Leonard, and if so, who is most likely to be traded?
A: I think the Lakers will try to keep the young core together for at least this season to see how much further they need to go in order to compete with the Warriors. Here are my predictions for each player:
- Kyle Kuzma — untouchable. He is represented by Rich Paul, Lebron’s agent, and we’ve seen how Lebron’s guys are always treated right.
- Brandon Ingram — untouchable. He is the one guy from the old regime that Magic mentored last year, saying Ingram should be the Lakers’ best scorer. Based on his progress this year, and the big games Ingram had against the Warriors and the Spurs, he looks like a sure thing future All-Star.
- Lonzo Ball — doubtful. The way Magic built up Ball after the draft last year, it’s hard to believe he would change course after one year. The front office told Ball he has to become physically stronger, both to avoid injuries and to be able to absorb contact and finish at the rim. If Ball shows the same kind of work ethic as Ingram and Kuzma, he’ll stick with the team. On the negative side, his trade value has decreased as other teams don’t want the Lavar Ball headaches.
- Josh Hart — available. Hart has talked about his goals of improving his handle and becoming a more dynamic shot creator. In the Vegas Summer League against the 76ers, he showed some leadership qualities and led both teams in scoring with 24 points on 50% shooting on 3-pointers. Hart looked like a mini-Lebron on his drives to the basket, by creating contact against the opposing centers and then finishing at the rim.
Q: What’s the key area that each of the returning young Lakers needs to improve?
A: Brandon Ingram needs a pull-up jumper from the free throw line to go with his ability to finish; Kyle Kuzma needs off-ball team defense; Lonzo Ball needs to absorb contact and finish at the rim; Hart (as described above) needs to be able to create his own shot.
Q: What’s the future role of the Lakers’ newest draft picks?
A: Both Wagner and Mykhailiuk showed a lot more than shooting touch. Wagner is slotted in so far as the Lakers’ only real sretch big man, so he will get a lot of Brook Lopez’ minutes if Lopez doesn’t resign with the Lakers.
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has been this season’s Kyle Kuzma. He has a sweet shooting stroke and made 50% (4 of 8) on his 3-pointers and 9 rebounds. I think he could get some minutes off the bench this season as the Lakers need good 3-point shooting.
Part Four—How the pieces fit together
Q: How will Lonzo’s poor 3-point shooting affect the team’s half court offense?
A: Either he improves his shooting, or Rondo will represent an upgrade. (The reality is Golden State’s Draymond Green (.301) and Andre Igoudala (.282) were not so great either, but the Lakers don’t have Curry, Durant.)
- Lonzo Ball’s 3-point shooting: If we throw out the first twenty games of 2017 (when Lonzo clearly had problems handling NBA-level defense and all the pressure created by his dad and the media), Ball shot about 33% from beyond the arc. If he can match that level or improve on it slightly (34–35%, which is still below league average), he will be a viable point guard and floor spacer for Lebron to dominate the Lakers’ half court sets.
- For the last four seasons, Rajon Rondo has been a league average 3-point shooter (.333-.376).
Q: What are the biggest skills LeBron will bring to the team this year?
A: There are three areas where LeBron’s presence will completely change the Lakers: closing; gravity; and transition.
First, LeBron is a great closer who can dominate the end of close games. Last year, I counted about 16 games the Lakers where they either blew a fourth quarter lead, or couldn’t neutralize the opponent’s best player. This won’t be the case next season. Over his career, Lebron James has added between 13 and 18 wins the first year he joins a team. With this team, it might be more.
Second, LeBron is a magnet on the court, drawing the attention of every defensive player. Whether he penetrates and passes to teammates for open 3-pointers, or finds players back cutting to the rim while their defenders turn their heads, the Lakers’ half court offense will improve significantly.
Third, Lebron James is one of the most efficient transition players in the world, and his ability to finish at the rim will make the Lakers even more dominant in transition.
With LeBron showing the young guys (especially Lonzo) how to finish, the Lakers will not only score at a higher rate, they will earn more free throws and commit less turnovers.
Every fast break that results in points is one less turnover that gives the other team the chance to run the other way, resulting in the team giving up two more points off of turnovers than they scored.
For a deeper statistical dive into how the Lakers might improve this year with the additions of LeBron and another great passer in Rondo, please check out:
Q: How will Lebron’s age and energy limitations affect the team’s style of play?
A: That is the $64,000 question, and nobody can predict, so I will present three scenarios:
#1 The Good: Lebron accepts the Way of the Warrior(s). If Lebron James would accept playing only 32 minutes a game, but play defense and run the floor, the Lakers could make a big step in catching up to the Warriors and Rockets.
Here’s a line-up that shows how these players match up with the Hampton Five, with their 3-point shooting percentages in parentheses:
Lebron(.367) > Draymond Green (.301)
Ingram (.390) < Kevin Durant (.419)
KCP (.383) < Klay Thompson (.440)
Ball (.330*) < Curry (.423)
Kuzma (.366)/Hart (.396) > Igoudala (.282)
The Lakers have just as much length, can switch defensively, and have four players who shot above league average. The Warriors had two players who shot way below league average during the regular season.
If the Lakers can keep games close in the fourth quarter, Lebron will be unstoppable finishing at the rim, or the Warriors give up tons of open 3-pointers. It’s the same formula he used in Cleveland, but the problem was the Cavs’ defense was atrocious and Lebron had to play 45+ minutes.
On the other hand, the Lakers will have the length and skill to switch everything and force Golden State into the same position they were in against Houston, where Durant and Curry had to create shots in isolation, which is a far less efficient style of offense. I’m sure Curry and Durant will embarrass Ball and Kuzma, but every fall away jumper and contested 3-pointer is a huge victory, compared to an easy lay up, or a wide open 3-pointer.
These games could be amazing next year, and the Lakers could be legitimate contenders.
#2 The Bad: Lebron turns the Lakers back into the Cavs. If Lebron plays at his normal slow pace, the Lakers might as well run a two platoon system with the old guys as starters, and the young guys as the bench mob. The team will still be a playoff team, but no where near as dangerous as a team built to play the Warriors’ game. And if the Lakers fall into this trap, they will stifle the growth of the young players, which also hurts the team’s long term ceiling.
The worst thing is not the decreased possibility of finally winning a championship; every other team deals with this reality while the Warriors dynasty continues. The real problem is that the team won’t be as fun to watch.
What made the kids so great this year was they way they fought in every game. The didn’t have the skill or experience and made far too many errors, but the team showed a path way that led to future success.
If this year’s Lakers turns into the Cavs, I’ll be very disappointed, regardless of whether they win more games in the short term.
#3 The Crazy: the inmates take over the asylum. This was my initial reaction to the free agency signings. I even wrote different lyrics to that old song “The Monster Mash”.
However, craziness in L.A doesn’t just stop with a meme or a funny song. Here are a few nightmare scenarios that could sink the Lakers’ season:
- The Rondo Reversal. Everyone knows that when you grow up hating a team, you never forgive or forget. Michael Cooper and Jerry West refuse to wear green to this very day. Steve Nash “magnanimously” chose the Lakers over the Knicks as a sign and trade partner, costing the Lakers four draft picks and a gignatic hole in their salary cap. Well, we’ve already seen Rondo almost get in a fight with Isaiah Thomas because Thomas (a former Celtic) might have taken away some attention from Paul Pierce’s retirement ceremony on the night of the Boston-Cleveland game. If Rondo is going crazy over some perceived slight from a guy who played with the Celtics, can we really trust that this guy doesn’t still bleed green? Is Los Angeles headed to watch another remake of the Manchurian Candidate?
- Lancing with the Stars. Lance Stephenson becomes so enamored with Hollywood celebrities that he takes method acting classes led by Jack Nicholson. One day, after a particularly frustrating practice session against Kyle Kuzma, Lance decides to take out his anger on Kuzma’s car in the parking lot. Unable to find a gold club, Lance grabs the skinniest thing he can find, which unfortunately happens to be Brandon Ingram’s leg.
- Greg Popovich smiles and warmly embraces the Lakers. This is, by far, the most frightening, but least likely possibility. Worried about losing Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs make a sweetheart deal the Lakers can’t turn down, offering their star player in exchange for Ingram and a first round draft pick and the contract of Luol Deng. Leonard never regains his form, Ingram becomes the multiple All-Star many of us expect, and the Spurs rejuvenate Deng in the same way they reincarnated the corpses of Richard Jefferson, Boris Diaw, and Rudy Gay.
- Lebron goes to Hollywood. And never comes back. After a brilliant first season, in which the Lakers reach the Western Conference Finals, but fall to the Warriors in 7 games, Lebron James finally gets the green light to shoot Space Jam 2 in the summer of 2019. Unfortunately, the actors cast in the role of the aliens are in fact aliens. They steal Lebron James’ talent, and he plays out the rest of his contract as a ball stopping, uninterested defender who jacks up seven 3-pointers a game at the abysmal rate of 28.5%, while yelling at the young players in practice that they’re “soft like Charmin.” OMG, not another sequel.
Q: How many games will the Lakers win this season?
A: As of July 5th, the over-under on the Lakers wins for next season is 52.5. They cited the fact that when LeBron rejoined the Cavs in 2014, they went from 33 wins to 53 wins. Assuming LeBron will still be playing at an elite level this season, what factors would determine which team has the higher ceiling?
- Kyrie Irving was already an All-Star, while the Lakers’ young core still have big upside. Advantage, Lakers.
- Cleveland signed another All-Star in Kevin Love. The Lakers best new signing is probably Rondo. Advantage, Cavs.
- Cleveland hired a new coach who had never coached in the NBA. Luke is in his third year and built trust in his system and in the young players. Advantage, Lakers
- Cleveland had to dump Dion Waiters in mid season, and signed Shumpert and JR Smith. The Lakers roster should be more stable because the only big piece being added is LeBron (hopefully). Advantage, Lakers?
- The Cavs played Mozgov. The Lakers don’t have Mozgov. Advantage, Lakers!
- Cleveland plays in the Eastern Conference. Advantage, Cavs. Advantage, Cavs. Advantage, Cavs. Advantage, Cavs. Advantage, Cavs.
Given the bloody gauntlet that is the Western Conference, and my hope that the Lakers keep LeBron under 32 minutes per game, I don’t think the Lakers will hit the over.
Prediction: the Lakers win 50 games next season, good for the #4 seed in the West.