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The NBA offseason has brought many changes to rosters, coaching staffs, and the list of championship contenders. As we draw closer to opening night, it’s time to move our focus from the potential impact of each offseason event and onto the broader issues that figure to define this season. The BDL 25 takes stock of, uh, 25 key storylines to get you up to speed on where the most fascinating teams, players, and people stand on the brink of 2016-17.
For the first time since 1995, the Los Angeles Lakers will open a season without Kobe Bryant on the roster. While Bryant’s talents had faded considerably by the time he rode off into the sunset with 60 points on 50 shots last April, the five-time champion’s impact on the franchise remained immense. The team’s tactics and strategies revolved around him well past the point of reasonableness, and many wondered if the franchise’s concessions to Kobe’s ego held back the roster’s few high-lottery draft picks. The Lakers of the last few seasons were caught between priorities, committed to seeing an icon retire with his respect intact but nevertheless hoping to install a young core that could ease the transition into the next era. It didn’t work well at all.
In a very basic way, then, the 2016-17 Lakers season should be enjoyable if only due to its accompanying sense of relief. With Kobe out of the picture, the Lakers can commit themselves to the future with little fear of upsetting a fan base that just saw them set a franchise record for losses in each of the past two campaigns. The future is bright if only because it can’t be any darker as what came before it. The mere possibility of something better has created excitement around the franchise.
That’s not to say it’s entirely unwarranted. The Lakers had a mostly positive offseason, nabbing hot coaching prospect Luke Walton from the Golden State Warriors’ bench to replace the laughably old-school Byron Scott. The 36-year-old Walton was far from an experienced assistant but brings the Warriors’ ballyhooed spirit of innovation and the pedigree of having won back-to-back titles with the Lakers as a player in 2009 and 2010. If nothing else, Walton will bring fresh ideas and get some time to prove himself. No Lakers coach in recent memory (and perhaps their entire history) has ever been afforded so much patience.
The news got substantially better on lottery night when the Lakers learned that they would hold on to their top-three protected pick and select second, where they landed Duke forward Brandon Ingram. The rail-thin 6-foot-9 shooter turned 19 on Sept. 2 and holds enough promise that our Ben Rohrbach has already called him the team’s best player. That designation could be a little premature, but it speaks to how good Ingram could be. If previous No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell develops into a top-level point guard alongside him, then the Lakers will have a star tandem to carry them back to contention. (Especially if Russell stops kissing his coach’s butt.)
That’s a hell of an “if,” though, because the Lakers still have a very long way to go. Russell’s up-and-down rookie season can be explained away in part by the fact that Scott kept him in his doghouse for no apparent reason, but it’s nevertheless the case that the 20-year-old is still learning how to play his position and has yet to put together a run of more than a few impressive games. Ingram’s success is similarly uncertain, and it’s possible to argue that his profile suits more players who haven’t panned out than it does those who have. The remainder of the roster is low on high-potential talent, with forward Julius Randle looking like the only other prospect with a great chance to become a top-three player on a perennial playoff team. Others could surprise, but many teams have guys as promising as Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac. The veterans on hand are either well past their primes or largely ineffective, and early free-agency deals for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov have the team set to pay more than $130 million combined over the next four years.
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In other words, the Lakers could look like one of the league’s most exciting young teams only because they lacked any sense of wonder at all in the preceding few years. Kobe’s last few years were downright exhausting, with everyone from announcers to opponents acting as if the legend was still an elite player even when all evidence suggested otherwise. It was a bizarre, simultaneously grim and hilarious experience, the kind that tends to exhaust all other possibilities. The excitement of this season will be tied to a sense of discovery, to the idea that Russell, Ingram, and the team as a whole have not yet revealed themselves. They will be fun because we don’t know what we will get.
If that sounds like an especially intangible positive, it’s likely because the tangible ones will be few and far between. The Lakers are not going to be good, and possibly not just because a young team needs time to jell. The defense has gaping holes at nearly every spot in the floor, with the quickly aging Mozgov likely being expected to serve as the last line of defense several dozen times per game. They’re going to give up lots of points, occasionally score enough to make it interesting, and usually lose comfortably. The best-case scenario is that Russell and Ingram look like future stars and the team still loses enough to hold onto another top-three protected pick that could go to the Philadelphia 76ers. Don’t expect to see Jack Nicholson in his courtside seat too often.
It’s up to Lakers fans to decide if that’s OK. The most consistently successful franchise in NBA history could very well lose 60 games for a third straight season, and that’s a failure that hurts no matter the context. Simply put, there could be a point at which the patience wears thin and everyone tires of the losing and demands a better product. The Lakers haven’t gone through a full-scale rebuilding process in many decades. What’s to say the front office and everyone else around the team won’t get impatient?
The Lakers have plenty of promise, but there’s a worry that a team used to success could put too much pressure on the likes of Russell, Ingram, and Walton before they show that they’re worthy of such expectations. This team has the potential to be very fun. But everyone around the Lakers has to forget the past and allow them room to breathe.
Previously, on BDL 25:
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