Los Angeles Lakers – 17-65
Key Additions: Luke Walton (signed five year deal as head coach), Timofey Mozgov -C(FA – 4 years,$64.00M), Luol Deng -F(FA – 4 years,$72.00M), Yi Jianlian -F(FA – 1 year,$8.00M), Brandon Ingram -F(Draft – 1st Round Pick, #2 overall), Ivica Zubac – C(Draft – 2nd round pick, #32 overall)
Departures: Kobe Bryant, Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert
If you were to ask a relatively casual observer who the worst team in the NBA last season was, they’d probably say Philadelphia without a second thought. When they came out to an all-time worst 1-30 start to the season, many believed the Sixers may break the all time losses record. They were looked at as possibly the worst collection of talent in modern NBA history. So who was the one team that they did manage to beat during those first 31 injury-riddled games? Even if you didn’t know the answer, you’re first guess is probably right. Why, of course, it’s the Los Angeles Lakers. In that legendary contest held in Philadelphia on December 1, 2015, Kobe Bryant shot 7-26 and the Sixers somehow ended up having six players in double figures, on their way to a double digit victory. The reason I bring that up is of course to illustrate just how bad the Lakers were last year but as we know, a lot can happen in the variance of a single game. “It’s a make or miss league” is common coach-speak. The Sixers almost beat the Warriors and the Lakers actually did get a win against Golden State last season but still it’s a pretty effective way to show just how miserable things were for the Lakers. After all, the Lakers only won one more game than Philadelphia and their point differential was similar. At least Philly ranked 25th in defense. The Lakers were dead last on that end and were also 29th in offense, the only team in the league to rank that low on both sides of the ball. After that, I don’t even need to add much macro analysis about the individual players of the team and will only point Julius Randle out as an especially dangerous combination of low IQ and meager effort on the defensive end. That’s a pairing of traits that really hurts your chances when the stakes are as high as they are on a nightly basis in the NBA, and the fact that he is a front court player only makes it worse.
I don’t intend to pile on the poor Lakers, but they obviously had no where to go but up this off season. Of course, they’ve struck out with some of the bigger free agent targets the last few summers but this is still a storied franchise in a top-notch market and with plenty of cap space. Yet somehow they managed to make the worst signing of this summer, when they inked Timofey Mozgov to a 4 year/$64 million deal. Mozgov is a pure center, who seems to have rapidly lost most of his athletic ability over the past season, has a troubling injury history and some stamina issues to boot. He has never averaged double figures in points or rebounds in any single season, and only started more then 48 games once, in 2014-15, which will almost surely go down as the best season of his career. He was very good in the 2015 playoffs after Kevin Love went down and was part of the core that really helped the Cavaliers transform their identity on the fly during that finals run. Jerome James comes to mind, among several others, as a center signed to a large deal based on one strong playoff run and rarely, if ever, have signings of that nature worked out. It would be one thing if Mozgov was a promising young big in his early 20s, but he turned 30 this summer. Keep in mind, that most of the performances that Mozgov built his reputation around also happened with LeBron James on his team. As promising as D’Angelo Russell looks as a playmaker, he has no where near LeBron’s ability to set up teammates with perfectly timed passes at exactly the right spots. Even if Mozgov does stay healthy and even if he does somehow miraculously manage to play as well as he did during that magical post season run, he is still not that huge of an addition and there is almost zero percent chance this contract doesn’t get worse and worse as he continues to age. It’s not like there weren’t any other centers available either. Bismack Biyombo signed for a similar deal with the Magic and at least with him, you’d be paying for a more recent playoff run. Bioyombo is six years younger then Mozgov as well. Festus Ezeli has an even more alarming injury history, but he is three years younger and looked like a significantly better player then Mozgov when the two actually played last year. Oh and he signed for just $16 million for two years, with a non-guarantee in the second season to boot. This deal is perplexingly terrible from every angle, and even as bad as some of the Lakers’ recent off seasons have been, (Kobe Bryant’s last extension is considered the worst contract of at least the last six years by many cap experts) the Lakers continue to baffle the NBA community with their puzzling contract decisions.
The Lakers chose Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac in the 2016 draft and along with D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, they form a young core that gives fans hope of a brighter future. This is the first time since the Lakers added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in 2012 that I’m even mildly excited to see this team play heading into the season. Of course in 2012 things didn’t go like many of us thought they would, but the expectations aren’t high this season. It would simply be nice to see these young guys to continue to show flashes of progress and continue to improve over the course of the next year. I’m not as high on Ingram as others were coming in to the draft but there is no doubt his combination of shooting and length is very handy in the modern pro game. I’m not sure he will ever be a number one option on a successful team but that role is already reserved for Russell. Luke Walton was also a good hire. He lead the Warriors to the best start ever in Steve Kerr’s absence and seemed fairly calm despite the heavy pressure that came with his unexpected plunge into the head coaching position for the defending champs. It’s always tough to evaluate a coach without the advantage of behind the scenes insight and access to the team and Walton did play some questionable line ups at times. Overall though, you gotta give him some credit for the Warrior’s unprecedented success and a lot of the triangle influenced stuff that they’ve been running the past two seasons reminds me of the type of actions Walton loved when he played for the Lakers under Phil Jackson. I’m guessing that he had a hand in drawing some of those up.
That being said, the Lakers are still far away from being competitive. The talented players are too inexperienced and the veterans don’t have much talent, Walton will only be able to do so much. There are questions about Julius Randle’s future and just how good he really will be. The emergence of Larry Nance Jr. and the possibility of Ingram getting some time at the power forward position give them a number of options to mull over as this season goes on. They clearly need to make a change in the front office, as well. The rumors of Phil Jackson opting out of his Knicks contract in the summer of 2017 and coming on to be GM of the Lakers are getting louder and more frequent. I’m still not sure Jeanie Buss has the aptitude necessary to take the reins out of her brother’s hands and even if she does, is hiring Jackson even the right move? Either way, we’ll probably find out the answer to these questions soon enough as the Lakers seem destined to once again battle the Celtics(via Nets) and 76ers for the highest chances in the draft lottery. At least, they might keep their pick for yet another year, as it’s top 3 protected.