Ding dong, the witch is retired, to paraphrase a song from a famous movie. Kobe Bryant is gone, off in retirement, and the Los Angeles Lakers are finally free to rebuild and start improving, with Luke Walton overseeing the project from the sidelines, and the young core of D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram and Julius Randle will try to put the most illustrious NBA franchise back where it’s used to being.
The wind of change in Los Angeles mean that the Lakers no longer care first about giving Bryant a comfortable send off to his career, and actually focused on developing their players and winning basketball games. Even if another lottery pick wouldn’t hurt, the Lakers have cap space for next year, and enough young talent to think about winning now. Playoffs? First thing on the table will be making the talent of Russell, Clarkson and Ingram put in a good collaboration, while some patched up work in terms of filling roles and bringing in veterans performs better than the signings look.
The Lakers have missed the playoffs three years in a row, winning 27, 21 and 17 games. They were at their worst, coincidentally, when Bryant played his most games in a season since the 2012-2013 attempt at building a super team that ended badly, rupturing the team and sending it on the way to tanking heaven, instead of long term contention. Mike D’Antoni was fired, Byron Scott was hired, and the road to losing and high draft picks was filled with awful coaching, two huge egos and the attempt to hold back anyone from stealing the show out of the aging hands of Kobe Bryant.
Besides Ingram being picked with the 2nd overall selection, the Lakers have some high hopes for Ivica Zubac, their second round pick, a 19-year old Croatian who was born in Bosnia. But it’s not just about youth in Lakerland, who also believe Larry Nance Jr. can take another step forward in his second year.
The Lakers added Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov through free agency, which some see as a dumb, future-crippling kind of moves (especially Mozgov), but teams need veteran presence. The Lakers needed a center, and Deng is a great player to have. The price? The NBA salary cap rose, and there’s nothing to do about it. Market value changes accordingly. The Lakers also got Jose Calderon, but he’s not expected to play much, and might be traded at some point, as he’s reached that point of his career when no one actually wants him around for too long. Marcelo Huertas, Lou Williams and Nick Young (who the Lakers would love to get rid of) fill up the space of veterans who might not actually be that useful to the team.
Best Case Scenario
Fun. More than a playoff spot, the Lakers looking like they enjoy playing with each other, and establishing a basis for the next two or three seasons. Walton is a rookie head coach, and will need to prove that he can do the job, even when he’s not giving orders to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Making the trio of Russell, Clarkson and Ingram develop an understanding when it comes to handling the ball, spacing for each other and shooting will not just be great for this season of revival, but could be the first step towards establishing the Lakers own big three, which all came from the draft, and not chasing free agents that don’t want to sign. The Lakers will want to make the playoffs; tanking is no longer their M.O. of getting better. But winning more than 30 games and cementing their young stars roles, for now and the future, will probably be the first thing on the shortlist of things to do.
Worst Case Scenario
That the job will be too big for Walton. That Russell, Ingram and Clarkson don’t find a way to make it work together. That Mozgov looks washed up, and so does Deng. That Lou Williams gets too much time on the floor and with the ball. Same goes for Nick Young. Bottom line? Anything that suggests that last year, with Bryant ball hogging the ball and stopping players from improving around him, was actually a better season for the Lakers.