5 Realistic Predictions for Los Angeles Lakers' Stretch Run
The current state of affairs for the Los Angeles Lakers is explained fairly easily and with few surprises. The team has been bringing up the rear of the Western Division for the entire season and is ensconced in a forward-looking, youth-driven rebuild.
Heading into the stretch run, there are two major focal points—the last games of Kobe Bryant’s brilliant career as he heads into retirement, and the progress of rookies and second-year players.
Predictions at this late stage come with a healthy dose of reality—to wish for a playoff berth, for instance, would be fantasy at best. And with the trade deadline now past and a full complement of 15 bodies, there won’t be any changes to the roster.
All that said, the season isn’t yet over and there are objectives to be examined. After three straight years of missing the postseason, this is an organization that needs to start improving in a hurry.
But the road back to redemption won’t be easy. With a current record of 11-49, the team with all the championship hardware has plunged to an all-time low. Wholesale changes may be looming large.
Another Trip to the Lottery
If there’s one thing that takes some of the sting away from a losing season, it’s a trip to the annual NBA Draft lottery.
The Lakers have a top-three protected draft pick—a carry-over from last year’s top-five protected selection that was (and still is) owed to the Philadelphia 76ers. Philly obtained the rights to the pick through a trade with the Phoenix Suns. It all began when the Lakers obtained Steve Nash from the Suns during the summer of 2012.
Such is the serpentine nature of draft-trade chips which are so often bartered back and forth, with enough caveats attached to perplex even the most seasoned observers.
L.A. moved up during the lottery drawing last June, choosing D’Angelo Russell with the No. 2 pick. This year, management will again have to sweat the ping-pong balls, since finishing as one of the three worst teams in the league doesn’t guarantee that they’ll hang onto that pick.
The Purple and Gold currently hold the Association's second-worst record, three games ahead of the 76ers. If the lottery were to be held tomorrow, the Lakers would have a good chance of not only keeping their pick, but potentially moving into the top spot.
If that were to happen, most prognosticators would select Ben Simmons, a 6’10” combo forward from LSU who has been described as the best transition player to come along since LeBron James.
Right behind Simmons is Brandon Ingram—a 6’9” small forward from Duke who can play a tough, physical game—attributes that would fit well with the Lakers and their young core.
And if the Lakers slip to third, Jaylen Brown of California is a strong two-way wing who could help fill a position of need.
At this late stage of a woeful season, the Lakers have an unenviable task—playing competitively in order to develop young players and build their confidence, but hopefully not damaging their lottery odds.
Kobe Bryant Will Have a 40-point Night
Bryant limped into his 20th and final season with the Lakers after a litany of injuries that caused him to miss 123 out of 164 games during his previous two campaigns.
The 37-year-old would be sold for scrap metal if he was a car. But regardless of all the wear and tear—not to mention already missing 11 of 60 games this season with various maladies—Bryant has the team’s highest scoring average at 17.1 points per game.
He’ll probably put up 40 at some point during the Lakers’ stretch run.
Bryant is currently nursing a sore right shoulder—the same one that was surgically repaired last year. But regardless, this is a guy who already scored 38 points against the Minnesota Timberwolves on February 2 and notched two other 30-plus games earlier in the season.
With time ticking down on his glorious career, the league’s third all-time leading scorer is due to go off on some mind-bending number explosions before he hangs it up for good.
Bryant may be older than Methuselah, but he still possesses those wicked jab-step skills, and there are nights when he is able to dial up his three-point accuracy as well.
Los Angeles will be facing off against some of the worst defensive teams in the NBA over their final 22 games, including the Brooklyn Nets, Denver Nuggets, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans. You can bet the Mamba will light one of them up.
The five-time champion, and owner of too many other honors to easily list, will soon be a part of the Lakers’ past—a memory of a better time when the wins came like clockwork. But rest assured that he’ll cement that legacy with at least one more throwback performance before he exits stage left.
The Newbie Watch Intensifies
Lakers head coach Byron Scott hasn’t always given his young charges consistent roles or playing time this season. But the stretch drive will bring a greater focus on their development and evaluation process.
Jordan Clarkson is the exception, having already proved himself during 38 starts last season and 58 starts so far during his sophomore campaign. Averaging 15.6 points, 4.0 boards and 2.6 assists in a team-high 32.4 minutes per game, the 6’5” combo guard has proven that his Cinderella rookie season wasn’t a fluke.
After missing all but 14 minutes of his rookie year with a broken leg, Julius Randle was expected to be prominently featured this time around. Instead, Scott shifted the 6’9” power forward back and forth between the first and second teams. Randle will likely start the rest of the way and is almost assured of claiming the first double-double average for the Lakers since Dwight Howard’s sole season in 2012-13.
Similarly, Russell has started just 26 of 58 games as a rook. The prized No. 2 draft pick is now back with the first unit and is showing increased production to go with the extra minutes.
“I have more freedom and a longer leash,” Russell said recently, per Mark Medina of the Los Angeles Daily News. “Earlier in the year, it was no leash.”
The 19-year-old has averaged 17 points and 5.25 assists in 31.5 minutes over the last four games since returning to the starting lineup. The stretch run isn't much of a sample size, however, for determining whether he can be the Lakers point guard of the future.
Larry Nance Jr., chosen as the Lakers’ No. 27, replaced Randle in the starting lineup for 22 games before straining his surgically repaired right knee. Per Shahan Ahmed of NBC Los Angeles, Scott will limit the rookie’s minutes to between 15 and 18 minutes, “until I know he’s 110 percent.”
Second-round rookie wing Anthony Brown, as well second-year center/forward Tarik Black, received sporadic opportunities while shuffling back-and-forth between the D-League and the main roster this season. Those minutes will likely increase over the final 22 games.
Team Free-Agent Evaluations Will Be Completed
The Lakers will have a number of free agents this summer and choices have to be made. And while the final stretch run will serve to cement management’s evaluation process, it’s not too early to predict who goes and who stays.
First, let’s just go ahead and say goodbye to Bryant—the free agent won’t be signing with another team, nor is there any chance of him returning to the Lakers. His retirement letter on The Players’ Tribunal made that perfectly clear.
Big Roy Hibbert has put up career-worst numbers since arriving in Lakerland last summer via a trade with the Indiana Pacers. His positive locker room presence has been appreciated, but the former All-Star won’t be invited back.
Like fellow vets Bryant and Hibbert, Metta World Peace will also be an unrestricted free agent. While his mentoring of fellow players such as Randle has been a plus, it’s hard to imagine management handing the 36-year-old another player contract.
It’s also unlikely that Ryan Kelly will earn another look. After three years, it has become evident that the former Duke champ has not become the kind of effective floor-stretcher the Lakers had hoped for.
And finally, say goodbye to Marcelo Huertas—the league’s oldest rookie and a restricted free agent. The Brazilian point guard’s pure passing skills failed to buy him more than token minutes in Los Angeles.
Clarkson has arguably been the Lakers’ best player on a nightly basis this season. The athletic combo guard will be a restricted free agent at the end of the season, but there’s no chance management will let him slip away.
As Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times wrote in December, there are a number of scenarios in which the Lakers could bring Clarkson back. Those include using early-bird rights, cap room or matching another team’s offer sheet. Regardless of how it happens, L.A. has to lock the sophomore up.
Black’s role has been very inconsistent this season under Scott. But the undrafted big plays with energy and dedication on both ends of the floor—the Lakers would do well to re-sign him to a modest deal.
And as much as fans will moan and groan, Robert Sacre has a decent chance of returning next fall. While he’s not particularly good at any one aspect of basketball, the 7-foot backup center is a highly affordable insurance chip for a team without much frontcourt size.
Byron Scott’s Final Curtain in LA
A prime lottery pick may be a nice consolation prize, but sports is not about failing your way to success.
But that’s what Scott has delivered since signing on in 2014. The old-school coach hasn’t guided a team to the playoffs since losing in the first round with the New Orleans Hornets during the 2008-09 season.
One can make the argument that Scott didn’t have the guns with the Cleveland Cavaliers during his fruitless tenure there, or since taking over in Los Angeles. Some will also point out the number of injuries that plagued the Lakers last season.
But excuses don’t cut it in the cutthroat NBA. Any team with Kobe Bryant and a complement of exciting new talent should fare better than the worst record in its entire history.
Scott preaches defense relentlessly but can’t seem to get his charges to execute fundamental principles. His hybrid Princeton offense is both outdated and poorly formed, and his late-game play-calling is pedestrian at best.
The team’s general manager, Mitch Kupchak, declined to issue a vote of confidence recently when speaking with members of the media.
“He is under contract,” Kupchak said, per Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com. “And until or if that changes, we’ll let you know.”
Possible replacement candidates could include former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau who is known for his fiery defensive schemes, and Luke Walton who shone with the Golden State Warriors when filling in for Steve Kerr this season.
Walton, of course, won two championships as a player for the Lakers under Phil Jackson, and he was also a player development coach for the Los Angeles D-Fenders. But does he want to go from the top team in the West to the worst?
Only time will tell. But it’s certainly safe to say that Scott’s fate is all but sealed in Los Angeles.