NBA Season Preview: Lonzo-Led Lakers

Kicking off the first annual “NBA Season Preview” for every single NBA team is the Los Angeles Lakers. The toughest to do for a Celtics fan, I’m happy this is the first team I am writing about so I can get it out of the way. But hear me out, I can’t wait for the return of the Celtics/Lakers rivalry.

The Lakers made plenty of noise towards the end of the regular season, as well as during the offseason. Kicking off with wild rumors of Paul George letting his then team, the Indiana Pacers, know that he anticipates leaving for the Los Angeles Lakers in 2018. Now traded to the Thunder, the Lakers missed their shot at acquiring George via trade. If the Thunder do as well as people expect them to, why would he leave a great situation for a team that’s still rebuilding? Regarding signing a superstar or two, Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka said,

“And then the final plan, Magic [Johnson] and I did a trade to allow us to have double-max cap room a July from now, so with our platform we’re really hopeful that we can add maybe a superstar or two to this young core and have the best of both worlds.”

Paul George will surely still be on the Lakers’ radar, whether the Lakers are on George’s radar or not. The second superstar the Lakers wish to get is LeBron James. We can save this for another time as it does not pertain to the Lakers’ upcoming season, but it’s something to keep an eye on. Just because LeBron or George won’t be in Lakers’ gear this season, doesn’t mean it won’t ever happen. I’m sure both players will keep a close eye on how the young Lakers perform this upcoming season.

Now instead of talking about hypotheticals, let’s talk about the reality of what the Lakers are doing. Lonzo Ball is the future of the Lakers organization. After being selected 2nd overall in the 2017 Draft, Magic Johnson made it very clear that this team will be revolving around Lonzo and the young roster. Magic Johnson traded point guard D’Angelo Russell so Lonzo can take full point guard duties.

“Brooklyn got two really good players. Especially D’Angelo. He’s a special talent, and we know one thing that D’Angelo can do: He can score that basketball … I needed a guy who could get everybody involved and look pass first … It’s going to work out great for Brooklyn because they got two starters basically, and they can build around an incredible talent in D’Angelo Russell, and we can do the same thing here with our incredible young rookie in Lonzo Ball,” Johnson said.

Coming from one of the greatest points guards to ever play the game of basketball, Lonzo’s confidence needs to be through the roof. To play for the Lakers’ organization, you need to have confidence that you are the best on the court. I’m sure Lonzo will have no problem believing that, especially when his father, Lavar, is spitting nonsense and talking as high as he possibly can about his son(s). Along with drafting Lonzo, the Lakers drafted his father as well. Wherever Lonzo goes, Lavar goes. Lavar will continue to act and talk the way he does, but as long as Lonzo performs well on the court, management will not have a care for whatever Lavar says and does.

In the Russell trade, though, the Lakers acquired center Brook Lopez. The 7-foot center put up 20 points last season for the Nets, and shot the ball exceptionally well, where he shot a career-high 35% from three-point range. The 29-year-old will be an unrestricted free agent next offseason, and right now it’s unknown if he’ll return to Los Angeles or not. The Lakers top priority will be to sign two superstars, but if those plans fall through, Brook may find his way back in purple and gold. Lopez has been haunted with injuries in the past, so his performance this season can factor into whether he’ll be brought back, whether they sign superstars or not. For the time being, he can be a great mentor for the young guys and have a chance to shine during his contract year.

The NBA Summer League is a time and place where rookies and some players looking to make a comeback showcase their talents. Not only was the organization pleased with their team winning the Summer League championship, but they were more than pleased by the performances from their late first-round pick Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma put on a show in Summer League. He dropped 31 points on 5-10 shooting from downtown one game. He dropped 13 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a steal in another game, and put up 30 points and 10 rebounds in the championship game, where he walked away as Summer League Finals MVP. Kuzma is the prime example of a player who got a chance to showcase his talents, and will now be rewarded with playing time during the season because of it. Lonzo Ball also won Summer League MVP, so the Lakers’ rookie duo did alright for themselves. Drafting Lonzo Ball was inevitable, but drafting Kuzma late in the first round may have been the Lakers’ biggest victory. They hit the jackpot on a versatile wing who can play the three and four. The Lakers envisioned Lonzo being a star, but now are confident that Kuzma may be the same in the years to come.

Although he only played one game, Brandon Ingram proved enough in his solo game to the Lakers’ organization that he’s ready to take a huge step further as a team leader. Magic Johnson expects Ingram to lead the team in points next season, which would be a huge responsibility for the second year player. There was a lot of hype surround Ingram coming into the NBA, and now that he’s got his feet wet, he may be ready to take that next step.

The “big name” free agent the Lakers signed this year was Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The shooting guard who spent his previous four seasons in Detroit signed a one-year deal worth nearly $18M. Pope is in the same position as Brook Lopez. The Lakers only signed him to a one year deal so they can save cap for next offseason when they go after bigger names in free agency. The Lakers gave Pope a good amount of money this season and the chance to ball out during his contract year. If the Lakers miss out on free agents next offseason, Pope may come back to LA, but this signing seems to just be a one-year rental.

As much as Lakers’ fans will hate to hear it, Lonzo Ball will not carry this team to the playoffs. The idea of Lonzo making the Lakers relevant again and bringing them back to the playoffs sounds cool and all, but not in the loaded Western Conference. Lonzo, Caldwell-Pope, Ingram, Julius Randle, Lopez, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr., and Ivica Zubac is not a playoff team. I’m not saying this because the Celtics own their first-round pick next year to some degree, I’m saying this because it’s true. Too many teams in the West got stronger, and the Lakers didn’t really improve all that much. Drafting Lonzo and freeing up a major amount of cap for the next offseason was a step in the right direction, but they’re very, very young and still at least one year away from returning to the playoffs. Lonzo Ball will be great, but not “carrying the Lakers to the playoffs in his rookie year” great. Give it time Lakers’ fans, and trust the process. There are many reasons to be optimistic of this team’s success in the future. Their time is coming.

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