Will the Los Angeles Lakers Be Better Than Expected Next Season?

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Will the Los Angeles Lakers Be Better Than Expected Next Season?
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Looking at the Los Angeles Lakers' offseason, their intentions are clear: preserve money, grind out 2014-15 and entrust future standing to free agency.

Figuring out what such cap conservation means for 2014-15 itself is less explicit.

The lines between who they are and who they're trying to be are blurred—obscured by dual ambitions that are merging out of necessity and deliberate manipulation rather than natural preference.

Kobe Bryant stands on one side of the fence, his win-now edict still reverberating throughout Staples Center. The Lakers are at a different point in their development, trying to plan for a future that spans longer than two years and therefore longer than Bryant's shelf life.

Somehow, the Lakers have managed to appease Bryant today without conceding tomorrow's wiggle room. And yet their ability to juggle both has offered minimal clarity.

Are they supposed to be bad? Mediocre? Good? Are they tanking?

Are we underselling their ceiling, mocking and devaluing deft patchwork that reflects more than consciously slipshod thinking?

Will the Lakers, against initial judgment, be better than expected next season?

 

Scoping Out the Roster

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For all we don't know about the Lakers, we know they're not tanking. Their offseason is not what tanking looks like—especially considering how hard they would have to tank.

In order to increase the value of their first-round draft pick, they have to keep it; to keep it, they need to land a top-five selection, otherwise it's sent to the Phoenix Suns

Finishing with the second-worst or absolute worst record in the NBA is the only way they ensure its retention. If they do any better, they're at the mercy of lottery odds, which weren't so kind to them this past year, when they wound up dropping one spot in the order. 

There is no chance of the Lakers being Philadelphia 76ers bad. Or Orlando Magic confusing. Not after the moves they made.

Bringing in Jeremy Lin, Carlos Boozer, Ed Davis and Julius Randle doesn't make the Lakers title contenders. Nor does re-signing Jordan Hill and Nick Young. But it doesn't make them tankers, either.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Boozer and Lin both contributed to top-four conference teams last year. Go back to 2012-13, and the Lakers have three starters—Bryant, Lin and Boozer—who helped headline postseason squads. Throw in, say, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill, and we're not looking at an insuperable juggernaut. But it's also not as bad as those who dare entertain tanking would imply.

Perception is everything, as Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver makes clear while sizing up the Lakers' offseason:

Eight months later, that vaunted cap space and optimism produced a scattering of Carmelo Anthony rumors, zero shot at landing LeBron James, a total whiff in landing an A-list, B-list or even C-list free agent, the departure of Pau Gasol without compensation, a vast overpayment of Jordan Hill, an unfortunate four-year contract for Nick Young, a headline-grabbing but not earth-shattering play for Jeremy Lin, and a nonsensical but still totally predictable amnesty claim of Carlos Boozer. Considering L.A. had been selling its fans on the power of its 2015 cap space since Dwight Howard's departure, that haul looks like a "Make it up as you go along" disaster that has simultaneously created positional log jams and giant holes.

This is what happens when measuring the Lakers' actual roster against what it could have been. Trading for Lin pales in comparison to signing LeBron James. Boozer isn't Chris Bosh. Johnson is not Carmelo Anthony.

Evaluating their offseason in those terms is fine. The Lakers whiffed on the biggest names. They couldn't even retain Pau Gasol, who turned down a two-year offer to stay in Los Angeles, per Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski.

Things could be better. There is no refuting that. But we cannot pretend the Lakers are tramping toward involuntary implosion. Their offseason does nothing to suggest they're worse than last year. They added veterans who will keep them competitive.

Come opening night, if Boozer and Lin are affixed to the bench and Randle and Davis are given free reign, the conversation can change. For now, the Lakers aren't who some say they are.

 

On-Court Warts

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What the Lakers actually are is a tactical puzzle after hiring Byron Scott.

Replacing D'Antoni with Scott quickly became the only move for the Lakers to make. Not only is the coaching well dry of the flashy names they typically covet, but Scott is a former Laker himself and can be sold to fans as someone with deep-seated ties to the organization.

He's also Kobe-approved.

Hiring Scott was the sensible move, plain and simple, as SB Nation's Tom Ziller clarifies:

So that's where the Lakers find themselves: making a typical NBA coaching carousel hire in a wholly atypical offseason, picking up an undervalued, affordable coach despite being able to afford basically any coach the franchise wants. Fit is a huge part of any coaching hire, but we really have no idea what sort of team Scott will be dealt this season until we know more about Kobe Bryant's health, and the 2015-16 season is even more mysterious at this point. But on its merits alone, this is a fine decision for a team in purgatory. No coach was going to solve the Lakers' conundrum this season, and it's unlikely Byron Scott will make things any worse.

Gauging Scott's on-court value is more difficult. 

Can he do more than maintain the status quo? That's a system-fit question that cannot be definitively answered until it's transitioned from concept to practice.

Before watching these Lakers play, though, there are advantages to be seen in Scott's coaching devices. 

Unlike D'Antoni, he runs a moderately paced offensive system that should maximize the talents and mask the physical limitations of Bryant, Boozer and Nash. Like D'Antoni, he values strong point guard play, mostly in the form of pick-and-pop and drive-and-kick opportunities.

Pick-and-rolls accounted for 20.7 percent of offensive plays on average through his three-year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). Spot-up shots accounted for a similar 19.7 percent.

Nash and Lin give Scott two movement-savvy point guards who can thrive within the ebb and flow of his flagship ideals. Bryant—courtesy of the middling pace at which Scott's teams play—can even serve as a pseudo floor general, provided he's wearing his point guard cap.

What makes the fit so questionable—and disturbing—is Scott's lack of offensive success. Only two of Scott's teams have ranked in the top half of offensive efficiency, and just one of those scored its way to a top-10 finish.

Infogr.am.

And it's not as if Scott hasn't had the opportunity to work with elite offensive talents. He's coached some of the greatest offensive minds of the last 10 years, from Jason Kidd to Chris Paul to Kyrie Irving.

Although there have been some exceptions, his teams generally fall short of offensive expectations. When he guided the then-New Jersey Nets to consecutive NBA Finals, their offense failed to rank higher than 17th in efficiency.

What's to become of an offense built around the past-his-prime Bryant? The still-jump-shot-challenged Lin? The 40-year-old, injury-prone Nash? A core comprising inexperienced participants like Davis, Randle and Kelly?

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images
Are the Lakers built to succeed under Scott?

More difficult still, the Lakers aren't constructed to succeed the way Scott's teams normally do. He's a defensive-minded sideline-wanderer who places stock in effort, execution and accountability.

"He [Bryant] told me he was working out with Wesley [Johnson] and Nick [Young]," Scott detailed, via ESPN Los Angeles' Ramona Shelburne. "I told them that sounded great, but they 'better be ready to play some defense.'"

The Lakers ranked 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions last season. Opponents found the net on 46.7 percent of their field-goal attempts, per Synergy. They have no legitimate—established or otherwise—rim protector. Their best perimeter defender is Johnson, the top-four-pick-turned-flameout who has yet to prove himself more valuable than a specialist.

They are not going to be a good defensive team.

Scott is more likely to pull a rabbit out of his suit jacket pocket than he is to drastically improve the Lakers' defense. We've seen what he can do when given the right personnel, but the Lakers don't have the right personnel.

Comparatively, we've also seen what happens when he isn't blessed with strong defenders, specifically in Cleveland, where the Cavaliers ranked in the bottom five of defensive efficiency for three successive seasons. Scott's time with them, as NBA.com's John Schuhmann artfully argues, is a red flag:

You could look at those Cleveland rosters (2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13) and note their youth and lack of talent. Indeed, Scott didn’t have much to work with. But bottom five for three straight years speaks for itself. Scott had a No. 1 defense in New Jersey and top 10 defenses twice with the Hornets, but he wasn’t able to coach the young Cavs up. Under Mike Brown last season, Cleveland jumped from 27th to 17th in defensive efficiency.

None of that means Scott is defensively ignorant. He's left every team he's coached in better shape on that end. But that doesn't mean he's a defensive magician, either. 

Whatever aces he's holding up his sleeve won't be enough to completely save what is still a bottom-10 defense.

 

Remaining Variables

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Too much about the Lakers' immediate future is outside their control.

In-house health will play a huge role in determining where they lie within their division and the Western Conference. Scott's predictable offense puts them at a disadvantage, but if Bryant can play like it's 2012-13, he alleviates most of the concerns.

But can he stay healthy enough to make a contribution? Pushing 36, can he be the cornerstone of a playoff team, or even a good team?

"It's my job to go out there next season and lay it all out there on the line and get us to that elite level," he said, via ESPN.com.

If that's actually what the Lakers will ask of him, then Bryant has work to do.

The Western Conference isn't the Eastern Conference. There is balance, but it's a brutal balance. 

Seven of the West's eight teams ranked in the top half of both offensive and defensive efficiency last season. Two of those seven clubs—the Minnesota Timberwolves and Phoenix Suns—did not make the playoffs.

Of the three playoff teams—the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks—that didn't finish in the top half of both offensive and defensive efficiency, all of them were elite on one end. The Grizzlies were a top-seven defensive team—they were even better when Marc Gasol returned from injury—and the Mavericks and Blazers fielded top-three offenses.

Great teams are still great. Good clubs are better. Various lottery organizations have improved.

Gerald Herbert/Associated Press
Can Kobe lead the Lakers through a conference headlined by elite teams like the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers?

For the Lakers to be better than expected—not even a playoff team; just better than expected—they need to be elite in one area of the game, lest the ultra-competitive Western Conference swallow them whole. Problem is, the Lakers aren't built to defend, Scott isn't a brilliant offensive mind and their most valuable scorer, Bryant, has appeared in six games since April 2013.

Where will the Lakers finish out west in 2014-15?

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Are the Lakers going to be better than expected? That depends on how people view them.

Those expecting them to tank the season away will be sorely mistaken. Those hoping for an improbably enchanted playoff run will be equally disappointed. 

Those thinking the Lakers will be marginally better than last year are on the right track, because that's what they are: slightly more talented, walking a slippery slope, one injury away from another season-long fiasco, one Kobe Bryant renaissance shy of exceeding minimal expectations.

 

*Stats via Basketball-Reference and Synergy Sports (subscription required) unless otherwise noted. 

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