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The 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers won’t be playoff-relevant, and they might not be much better than last season’s 56-loss bunch.
But another thing they shouldn’t be is boring, particularly with their revamped starting lineup. The opening group will likely be 60 percent new, and all five members bring their own intrigue.
Rookie Lonzo Ball will command the most attention of the quintet, although sophomore Brandon Ingram’s development will be just as important to watch. The svelte Julius Randle will either have a new contract extension to validate or one to go earn. And newcomers Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope will add their own wrinkles as a 7-foot sniper and uber-flexible defender, respectively.
Excitement is inevitable, but what else should Lakers Nation expect for the upcoming campaign? We’re glad you asked, since we’ve prepared this trusty list of realistic expectations for the restyled starters.
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For all the links between Ball and the Lakers, he might be wearing purple and gold for the simplest reason: He thrives in the pace-and-space style they want to run.
“We want to get the ball moving and push the pace, and that’s what Ball’s a genius at,” Lakers head coach Luke Walton said, per ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes.
The Lakers were already running last season (sixth-fastest pace), but their 24th-ranked offense wasn’t exactly explosive. A dearth of shooting didn’t help (22nd in three-point percentage), but a lack of cohesion was more damaging. They had the seventh-worst transition attack and fifth-lowest assist percentage.
Ball can help improve all of the above. He quarterbacked the nation’s second-ranked offense last season, per KenPom.com, while striping 41.2 percent of his long-range looks. His 7.6 assists per game were nearly three more than his predecessor averaged (4.8, D’Angelo Russell), and his look-ahead passes helped ignite LA’s summer leaguers.
But this isn’t just about Ball. The addition of Lopez provides a new avenue to offensive spacing, as the 7-footer suddenly added three-point shooting to his game in 2016-17 (134 makes at a 34.6-percent clip). Caldwell-Pope just capped his best shooting campaign, and his dogged defense could generate more fast-break chances.
Internally, Randle will benefit from another year under Walton’s guidance. Randle bumped almost all of his offensive numbers during their first season together, including sizable spikes in field-goal shooting (48.8 percent from 42.9) and assists (3.6 from 1.8). And Ingram has obvious bounce-back potential after posting the worst true shooting percentage of any player to log 2,000-plus minutes (47.4).
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The Lakers haven’t had a 20-points-per-game scorer since Kobe Bryant cleared 22 a night in 2014-15. Lopez could snap that streak, considering he has topped the mark in three of the last four seasons.
But that’s far from a guarantee. More than anything, the 29-year-old is in LA because he’s playing on an expiring contract. And if the Lakers don’t view him as a long-term keeper—they’re dreaming a tad bigger at the moment—they could distribute more of his minutes and touches to their youngsters over the course of the 2017-18 season.
If Lopez doesn’t carry the scoring torch, it’s hard to tell who will. For everything Ball does well inside the lines, consistent point production isn’t a major strength. To that end, the No. 2 pick wasn’t the first—or even second—scoring option on last season’s UCLA Bruins.
“[Lonzo] would be a great complementary piece to some of the stars rumored to be coming to L.A. in the near future. The question is how he will fare if forced to be the primary option should none of those guys end up coming,” The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote.
Ball will have big scoring nights, but they’ll be sporadic. And, assuming Lopez isn’t given free rein, that seems likely to be a pattern with these starters.
Caldwell-Pope had more single-digit scoring efforts last season (27) than 20-point outbursts (20). Randle makes a bigger impact as a setup man than a scorer. And Ingram, who won’t turn 20 until September, remains a work in progress.
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The Lakers always seemed likely to find some defensive improvement this offseason, even if it was only of the things-can’t-get-any-worse variety.
L.A. was abysmal at that end last season. It not only trailed everyone in defensive efficiency, it posted the Association’s worst defensive rating of the 2010s.
The young nucleus gaining awareness and experience was sure to help on its own. But the front office’s work will accelerate the improvements.
Ahead of the draft, the Lakers added their interior anchor in Lopez. The 7-footer averaged 2.0 blocks per 36 minutes and held opponents to 47.0 percent shooting at the rim, numbers which should have his new squad salivating after it finished second-worst in opponents’ restricted-area makes (18.7 per game) and shooting percentage (65.5).
Caldwell-Pope could make an even bigger impact. The 6’5″ swingman has the physical gifts and mental makeup needed to ace multiple defensive assignments.
“We needed a 2-guard and a special 2-guard that can play both sides of the ball but also has a high basketball IQ, bring some toughness to the team and the floor,” president of basketball operations Magic Johnson said, per NBC Los Angeles’ Shahan Ahmed. “He can guard the 1 position, the 2 position, the 3 position, almost like Michael Cooper in a sense.”
Lopez and Caldwell-Pope are clearly better than what the Lakers had, but this starting five still appears less-than-stellar on defense. They shouldn’t be worst-in-the-league bad, but they might be close to it.
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No matter where Caldwell-Pope landed in free agency, he was going to be asked for floor-spacing and defensive versatility. But only a handful of teams outside of L.A. would have added leadership to the 24-year-old’s to-do list.
“I’m laughing. You’re old at five years in the league,” Johnson said at KCP’s introductory press conference, per Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times.
Two of the Lakers’ projected starters won’t be able to legally down an adult beverage at any point this season (Ingram and Ball). Another is a young 22-year-old in NBA years since his rookie campaign was reduced to a single 14-minute appearance by a broken leg (Randle).
So, that’s how newcomers Caldwell-Pope and Lopez find themselves already shouldering leadership duties. That’s not always the smoothest transition to make, especially while working on an expiring deal.
It’s not even clear how much the Lakers should want that duo to lead. Their stay in Hollywood could be short-lived. But Ball and Ingram are long-term keepers until proven otherwise—and Randle might be in that mix—so it would be encouraging to see growth in their voices and influence.
Regardless of how the leadership structure ultimately shakes out, it will be a bumpy path to that point, either from the vets settling in or the youngsters finding their footing. And since this squad is four years removed from a winning season, any obstacles have the potential to derail the operation.
The best-case scenario campaign doesn’t include a playoff berth, but it does serve as an important teaching tool in the budding ballers’ development. The worst-case version looks a lot like last season, with neither side of the floor coming together and no prospect establishing himself as a can’t-miss commodity.
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Field-goal percentage: 44.6%
Three-point percentage: 34.9%
Field-goal percentage: 41.0%
Three-point percentage: 36.7%
Field-goal percentage: 44.3%
Three-point percentage: 33.8%
Field-goal percentage: 48.4%
Three-point percentage: 29.2%
Field-goal percentage: 49.2%
Three-point percentage: 35.4%
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Sports Reference or NBA.com.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.