The Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs in 2018.
I repeat, the Los Angeles Lakers will make the playoffs in 2018.
This brash prediction will be a surprise to some, and will elicit laughter from others. Over the course of the past four seasons, the franchise has compiled a combined record of 91-237. This doesn’t exactly scream “postseason contender” — especially when taking into account that the team lost both of its leading scorers (Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell) from a season ago.
Duly, the Lakers will be playing in a loaded Western Conference — where stars such as Paul George, Paul Millsap, and Jimmy Butler have since migrated over from the East.
So why will the Lakers make the playoffs?
For one, the team will be in Year Two of the Luke Walton experiment. The former Lakers player has already proven to be an endearing figure to both the media and his own squad. His noted developmental skills with the Golden State Warriors should translate over to his current crop of players. As is the case with virtually everything in life, one will become better in their specific craft with another year of experience.
It’s also the second year in the system (and league) for Brandon Ingram. The long-armed forward from Duke had a somewhat underwhelming rookie campaign — averaging 9.4 PPG and 4.0 RPG on 40.2-percent from the field. Ingram’s slight frame necessitated a smaller role than the Lakers would’ve hoped for (starting 40 of a possible 82 games).
With that said, Ingram’s level of play increased considerably over the second half of the season. The forward averaged 13.5 PPG on an impressive 51.7-percent from the floor during the month of March. He became more confident as both a scorer and as a facilitator. Walton would often employ him at the ‘point forward’ position as a means to enhance his involvement with the ball in his hands. Ingram played the opening game of the Lakers’ Summer League season. Looking noticeably bigger, he put up a team-high 26 points in the loss to the Clippers. Ingram was by far the best player on the floor — showing aggressiveness and an added sense of intensity. Look for him to be a big candidate for a breakout season.
The frontcourt of Ingram, Julius Randle, and Brook Lopez should be a much-improved unit from last year’s group — which routinely featured the likes of Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson, and Timofey Mozgov.
Randle has completely transformed his body during the offseason — becoming leaner and even more explosive. Randle had career highs in points (13.2), assists (3.6), and field-goal percentage (48.8) a season ago. With more of a pass-first point guard currently in the starting line-up (more on Lonzo Ball later), Randle could see an even bigger increase across the board this upcoming year. Additionally, any improvement on his jumper will make him even more dangerous.
With Mozgov/Black on the floor, the Lakers simply did not have enough spacing to run the offense Walton would’ve liked. The presence of those two clogged the lanes, making it difficult for Randle, Ingram, and the guards to penetrate. It also lessened the opportunity to have mismatches out on the floor.
The addition of Lopez was a shrewd move by the front office. For one, the former Stanford star is an incredibly likable person. His skills as a leader have been noted, and will be welcomed with open arms for this young team. Lopez also can help to work with the younger players on how to become a true professional.
On the court, Lopez gives Los Angeles a legitimate post presence for the first time since the Pau Gasol-Andrew Bynum era. He averaged 20.5 points a game last season for the Brooklyn Nets. His skill-level around the basket will offer the Lakers an outlet for getting an easy basket. Most impressively, he shot a respectable 34.6-percent from three-point range. This aspect should help to keep the floor spread for Walton’s free-flowing offense (and also for Randle’s ability to create and attack the rim).
The Lakers also shored up the shooting guard position — as they inked Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to a 1-year/$18 million deal. Formerly of Detroit, KCP is a considerable upgrade both as a defender and also in terms of athleticism. He’s also a sneaky-good shooter — nailing 35.0-percent of his three-point attempts. Best of all, the 24-year-old will come off the books next summer — thus preserving the Lakers’ precious cap space.
And then…there’s Lonzo Ball. We can talk about the collection of young players LA accrued during this summer’s NBA Draft. Kyle Kuzma is an interesting player as a stretchy four with good athleticism. Josh Hart also possesses traits (toughness, high character) that have been desperately needed within the team. Thomas Bryant has been somewhat of a pleasant surprise as the potential third-team center.
However, it all starts and ends with the uber-talented point guard from UCLA. He is the engine of this potentially playoff-bound team. Ball struggled immensely in his opening game — going 2-of-15 for five points. Lonzo failed to keep his man out of the lane on the defensive end of the floor, and settled for far too many threes. It certainly was not his best effort. The vultures circling around this lackluster effort were quick to bash his performance.
In his second contest, Ball registered a triple-double (11-11-11) — something he inexplicably never did during his time in college. His ability to manipulate the basketball was truly on display. If it weren’t for his teammates missing wide-open shots, Ball could’ve easily registered 15 or 16 assists.
He won’t be asked to score the basketball — particularly with Randle, Lopez, and Ingram commanding a large chunk of the shots. Truthfully, this suits Ball just fine. He’ll be tasked with pushing the tempo, slinging the ball around the court, and putting his teammates in position to score the basketball. It’s a far cry from Russell — whom was clearly more concerned with shooting the ball as opposed to involving the other players on the court.
When looking at the conference, the Lakers should be better than Phoenix, Sacramento, and Dallas. New Orleans will be a toss-up — though the potentially combustible pairing of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis could lead the Pelicans into a rebuild (aka blowing the team up with a trade of one of their star big men).
Assuming New Orleans continues to float in utter mediocrity, the Lakers will be competing against the likes of Memphis, Portland, Denver, Minnesota, and Utah for a spot. While the top five seeds seem very solidified (Golden State, San Antonio, Houston, Oklahoma City, Los Angeles Clippers), everything else beyond that is a relative crapshoot.
This year’s team is long across the board — as the projected starters go 6’6″ (Ball), 6’5″ (Caldwell-Pope), 6’9″ (Ingram), 6’9″ (Randle), and 7’0″ (Lopez). It’s also a versatile bunch, with four of the players possessing the ability to bring the ball up and initiate the offense. If the Lakers can add Rajon Rondo to the mix, it would give the team yet another ball-handler — in addition to a veteran leader for Ball.
For the first time in seemingly five years, things appear to be on the right track. Both Ingram and Randle will have breakout years, Lopez will be a borderline 20-and-10 player, Caldwell-Pope will play out of his mind for a rich contract next season, and Ball will demonstrate why his passing skills and basketball I.Q. are transcendent.
In the process, the Lakers will sneak in as a playoff team in the rugged Western Conference.
Image Source: SB Nation