Whatever else the 2015-16 Los Angeles Lakers might’ve been went out the window the second Kobe Bryant published that poem.
Granted, it’s not like a couple of pups, Roy Hibbert and The Nick Young-Lou Williams Experience was going to return the Lake Show to the playoffs. (There’s a reason we tapped them to finish with one of the West’s worst records last year.) But as soon as the Mamba made it clear that two decades of grinding and the season–ending injuries that scuttled his mid-30s had caused his monomaniacal desire to wane, and as soon as coach Byron Scott made it clear that there was no plane of existence in which he would punish Kobe’s basketballular transgressions, we knew what was coming. All that remained was the Viking funeral.
Wins, losses, development, growth: everything else was incidental, a sidebar to the main story of an organization, city, league and sport bidding farewell to one of its most iconic figures. It was a rough read. It did have one hell of a kicker, though.
Unshackled from Kobe and coming off the worst three-year stretch in team history, the Lakers look to put pen to paper on a new chapter. A franchise whose past has largely been defined by massive, sweeping power moves now begins a step-by-step rebuilding project, led by a new link-to-the-past coach and a brash young point guard who butted heads with the last dude who occupied the bench.
Whether Luke Walton and D’Angelo Russell can form the foundation of the next competitive iteration of the Lakers remains to be seen … but that’s the whole point. After several seasons of guaranteed crumminess capped by a campaign drenched in inevitability, the Lakers once again have the whiff of potential energy. Now it’s time to get kinetic.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Byron lamented Lakers' dependence on isolation vs. Blazers. But Kobe's "got 20 years in this league … so he has that privilege."
— Bill Oram (@billoram) November 23, 2015
Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak on Kobe: "It's really hard to go forward until he's no longer here.” https://t.co/EAlQwEvUEn
— Baxter Holmes (@BaxterHolmes) January 6, 2016
Did the summer help at all?
Even if all the Lakers did was move on from Kobe, the on-court answer might still be yes. Just about every efficiency-focused performance metric you can find — Real Plus-Minus, Value Over Replacement Player, Box Plus-Minus, Player-Tracking Plus-Minus, you name it — rated Bryant as a net negative last year, and it’s tough to overcome one of those when everything else revolves around it.
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He posted the league’s fourth-highest usage rate (the percentage of a team’s offensive possessions a player finishes with either a shot attempt, a foul drawn or a turnover) despite shooting a career-low 35.8 percent from the floor. He was a glaring defensive liability nearly every night, unable to deter younger wing players. The Lakers were terrible no matter how you slice the numbers, as you’d expect from a 17-65 team, but they were nearly 10 points per 100 possessions better when Kobe sat than when he played. Reallocating his minutes and touches to players who stand a better chance of holding up defensively and/or taking higher-quality shots would go a long way toward helping the Lakers climb out of the crawl space in which they’ve established residence.
And yet …
Unable to even land meetings with top free agents like Kevin Durant and L.A. native DeMar DeRozan, the Lakers looked elsewhere in free agency. They kicked off a summer season of sticker shock by opening the July 1 bonanza with a stunning four-year, $64 million deal for 30-year-old center Timofey Mozgov, and followed that up with a four-year, $72 million pact to bring in 31-year-old forward Luol Deng.
If you’re thinking that’s a lot of scratch for two non-stars on the wrong side of 30, and especially for one who fell all the way out of the title-winning Cavs’ rotation last year, you’re not alone. But Mozgov’s just a year removed from playing a major two-way role in the middle as a board-crashing rim-protector in Cleveland, and Deng found new life as a small-ball power forward in Miami last year; if healthy, they should be upgrades over last year’s Hibbert and Kobe. Along with trade-import point guard Jose Calderon and ex-Walton teammate Metta World Peace (provided he can earn a roster spot in training camp), Deng and Mozgov will be expected to provide production and leadership for a team whose most important players all have fewer than three years of NBA experience.
The Lakers also locked up Russell’s backcourt partner, inking top returning scorer Jordan Clarkson to a four-year, $50 million contract. Clarkson’s fellow restricted free agents, center Tarik Black and point guard Marcelo Huertas, come back to fill out the bench, joined by Chinese forward Yi Jianlian and well-traveled Kansas product Thomas Robinson, a couple of former lottery picks and current lottery tickets brought in by general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Kupchak’s biggest moves, though, came before free agency.
Replacing the retrograde Byron Scott with Walton allows the Lakers to maintain a tether to their storied past — Luke spent eight-plus seasons in forum blue and gold, coming off the bench for the teams that won back-to-back titles in 2008-09 and 2009-10 — while co-opting the Silicon Valley shine that comes with hiring the lead assistant of the juggernaut Golden State Warriors.
Walton took over as Golden State’s interim head coach when back surgery waylaid Steve Kerr to start last season, piloting the Dubs to a record-setting 24-0 start and a 39-4 overall record before Kerr’s return to the bench. The job figures to be much more difficult now that he won’t lead the NBA’s best roster, but with everyone understanding that the Lakers are closer to the beginning of a rebuild than its end, Walton will have plenty of freedom to figure it out as he goes along — and, after the Lakers finished 29th in points scored per possession and dead last in points allowed per possession last year, plenty of room for improvement.
Joining Walton as the summer’s prize addition is No. 2 overall draft pick Brandon Ingram. Some talent evaluators considered the 6-foot-9, 190-pound wing a superior prospect to 2016 top choice Ben Simmons, owing to his youth (14 months younger than Simmons), his condor-like 7-foot-3 wingspan, and the sweet shooting stroke that saw him hit 41 percent of his college 3-pointers at Duke.
The 19-year-old has a long way to go to fill out his reedy frame for the pounding of the NBA’s schedule and competition, and Walton’s going to bring Ingram off the bench to start the season. But Ingram’s got plenty of upside as a versatile multi-positional contributor — as a floor-spacing shooter, a supplementary ball-handler and playmaker, a long-armed and quick-footed defender capable of switching assignments — and gives the Lakers another high-potential prospective cornerstone.
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Potential breakout stud:
Russell, who’s eager to turn the page on a “Looney Tunes” rookie season headlined by a ludicrous tabloid scandal and who all summer long has seemed “child racing downstairs to open presents on Christmas morning”-level excited about the shift from Scott to Walton, his alleged video-game fave.
While we remember D’Angelo’s maiden NBA voyage more for his Snapchat surveillance than his work on the court, he joined LeBron James and Kyrie Irving as just the third teenager ever to average at least 13 points, three assists, three rebounds and a steal per game, and there’s reason to believe Russell can take a step forward.
Russell played more than 1,100 minutes separated from Kobe last year, according to NBAwowy.com, and he really took the reins of the offense in those minutes, using just under 28 percent of L.A.’s offensive possessions. (That would’ve been a top-20 mark over the full season, nearing the share of the offense John Wall commanded in Washington.) The No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft averaged 18.7 points and 4.7 assists per 36 minutes of non-Kobe floor time; as The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor notes, with the exception of his individual scoring efficiency numbers, Russell’s production went up just about across the board when he got to run the show. And that was while he was at the controls of a fairly staid, isolation-heavy offense, as opposed to the more free-flowing, ball-and-player-movement-dependent scheme Walton’s expected to bring over from Golden State, which seems like a perfect fit for his court vision and passing panache.
Coming off an impressive Summer League showing, Russell’s going to get the opportunity to prove he can be this team’s leader, and the steady diet of point-producing opportunities — including some as an off-ball spot-up shooter — that come with it. The Lakers seem to be putting Russell in a better position to succeed this year, with Calderon and Huertas available as sounding-board mentors, a hopefully healthy Mozgov setting screens and diving in the pick-and-roll, Deng serving as a steadying presence on the wing, and young bigs Julius Randle (whom you’d like to see establish himself as a more consistent scoring threat in his second full season) and Larry Nance Jr. ready to run with him and rumble to the rim in transition. A more comfortable context and the confidence that comes from being confirmed as The Guy could unleash the playmaking gifts that made Russell such a tantalizing prospect coming out of Ohio State.
Plenty of top point guards have said that Year 2 was when the light really went on for them, when the game slowed down and they started to understand how to manipulate opposing defenses and unlock their teammates. If the daring lefty can follow suit, showing increased consistency as a table-setter while producing more frequent flashes of brilliance like the ones he showed against Brooklyn and Sacramento, he could cement himself as the kind of bankable star who can kickstart the reboot of Hollywood’s premier franchise.
Russell shines as L.A.’s offensive engine. Walton installs the basics of workable systems on both ends of the floor, making the Lakers a bit more functional now while laying the groundwork for greater growth. He tries to bring Ingram along slowly, but the kid just keeps flashing whenever he hits the floor, earning starter’s minutes by season’s end.
Most importantly: none of that gets in the way of the Lakers finishing with one of the league’s two worst records. That would help their chances of once again stiffing the Philadelphia 76ers by keeping the first-round pick they owe Philly through a pair of past deals, and give Walton another top-flight prospect to mold.
If everything falls apart:
Russell collapses under the weight of the offensive load and Ingram never finds his footing, casting serious doubt as to whether there’s a real foundational piece on this roster. Mozgov and Deng look cooked from Jump Street, making their already iffy contracts look downright brutal. The team looks just as disorganized, punchless and permissive under Walton as it did under Scott … only this time the Ping-Pong balls don’t bounce L.A.’s way, costing the Lakers a high lottery pick as patience wears thin and palace intrigue looms after a fourth straight dismal season.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
21-61, 14th in the Western Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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