Biggest Takeaways from Los Angeles Lakers' 2016-17 NBA Season
For a franchise with a history as rich as the Los Angeles Lakers, a 26-win season hardly seems like a watershed moment.
But the 2016-17 campaign was always going to be that for the Purple and Gold, as they moved on without Kobe Bryant and with their highest three draft picks in more than three decades.
This was a foundation-building year in L.A., featuring all the anticipated highs and lows of an organizational rebuild. The on-court product was predictably choppy, as the offense sputtered along and the defense never fully set. But excitement was palatable behind a slew of intriguing prospects and a seemingly united leadership structure.
Provided the Lakers didn't cost themselves a pair of first-round picks down the stretch (more on that later), the season yielded more good than bad. It also delivered these five insightful takeaways, ranked here in ascending order of importance.
5. They're Terrible at Tanking
Prior to the Lakers' current four-year playoff drought, they'd only missed the big dance five times in franchise history. So, it should probably surprise no one that they're no good at being bad.
With two first-round draft picks to protect, they stacked the deck against themselves. Veterans Nick Young, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov were all banished to the bench down the stretch. D'Angelo Russell even joined them at one point. Meaningful minutes went to NBA retreads Tyler Ennis and Thomas Robinson and D-League call-up David Nwaba.
And still, L.A. won five of its last six games—including victories over the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies. Ennis and Metta World Peace topped the scoring column in three of the five victories.
In other words, basketball gods apparently hate seeing blatant tank jobs in La La Land.
The damage of tanking-gone-awry could be catastrophic. ESPN.com's Baxter Holmes explained:
According to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, the Lakers have about a 47 percent chance of their pick falling among the first three slots, allowing them to keep it.
The Lakers would've had as much as a 56 percent chance of keeping their pick had they finished with the NBA's second-worst record, which they were on pace to do until they won five of their final six games to end the season, meaning they finished with the third-worst record instead.
Essentially, the Lakers have a coin-flip chance of either snagging a top-three pick in a loaded class or losing their top selection to the Philadelphia 76ers and their 2019 first-rounder to the Orlando Magic. Adding insult to injury, these outstanding debts are the scars left behind by the failed acquisitions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
4. 2016 Spending Already Sunk Costs
The Lakers, along with just about everyone else, went a little crazy in 2016 free agency. The new broadcasting money was in, the cap was way up and free agents everywhere were showered with cash.
But even in that climate, L.A.'s spending looked reckless almost immediately. For the cool sum of $136 million, the Lakers managed only a declining Luol Deng and career part-timer Timofey Mozgov. Both began the season on the wrong side of 30—Deng exponentially aged by his labor-intensive time with Tom Thibodeau—and each finished it as a healthy sideline observer.
By year's end, Deng ranked 33rd among small forwards, and Mozgov was 66th among centers in ESPN.com's real plus-minus. Each appeared on the worst contracts of last offseason list by Bleacher Report's Dan Favale, with Deng as an honorable mention and Mozgov at second-worst.
Both burdensome deals have also been singled out by Johnson as a reason for Lakers fans to remain patient during this massive rebuilding effort.
"We are a team that just signed two big free agents last summer and they are four-year deals at a high number," Magic Johnson told reporters.
Neither of these pacts will produce a pleasant ending over their remaining three years. Deng just produced his worst offensive season in the league, and Father Time has stripped away some of his effectiveness at the other end. Mozgov was limited to begin with and took steps back as a rebounder and shot-blocker.
Oh, and for the rotten cherry on top, both will likely be mega-rich reserves going forward, as the Lakers have more promising prospects at their positions.
3. Clarity at the Top
The Lakers have languished in recent years due to an organizational lack of direction.
They weren't entirely sure how to navigate the end of the Kobe Bryant era or who would lead them out of it. They spun through a carousel of coaches, botched countless attempts to land a big fish and failed to find a unified vision after the death of former owner Dr. Jerry Buss.
Los Angeles still has its share of problems, but cohesiveness no longer appears to be one.
Jeanie Buss has cemented her position at the head of the franchise. She designed the new basketball braintrust with former agent Rob Pelinka as general manager and Hall of Famer Magic Johnson installed as president of basketball operations. And Buss has been effusive in her praise of head coach Luke Walton, who already seems a much better fit for this youthful roster than his predecessor Byron Scott.
"I think there's a clear vision of where we want to go and what we want to do, and I think that's something that maybe we didn't have before," Julius Randle said, per Bleacher Report's Eric Pincus.
The Lakers were going nowhere with turmoil at the top.
While they always echoed the long-shot goal of returning to championship prominence, they never conveyed a concrete plan to get there. There were too many competing voices muddling the message and not nearly enough sound basketball strategies.
Save for Buss, the new core may be inexperienced in their roles. But all the individuals feel like pieces from the same puzzle. Chemistry carries no guarantee of success, but it's tough to build anything of substance without it.
2. The Kids Are All Right
How many of the young Lakers disappointed during their first season under Walton?
Jordan Clarkson probably comes to most minds. The 24-year-old combo guard had some intriguing moments—17 games with 20-plus points—but more were of the frustrating variety. He's either a point guard who struggles to properly set the table or a shooting guard with an inconsistent shot. And at either spot, he's an inconsistent defender.
But he wasn't a bust, so the fact he stands as the most disappointing highlights the promise flashed by the others.
"No one will make much noise in the Most Improved Player race, but Julius Randle, D'Angelo Russell [and] Larry Nance Jr. ... all proved they could hold their own as legitimate rotation pieces," Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal wrote. "Plus, rookies Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac flashed upside that should have the Purple and Gold excited about their futures."
D'Angelo Russell became the first player to average at least 15 points, four assists and two triples in his age-20 season. Julius Randle doubled his assists (3.6 from 1.8) while improving both his scoring (13.2 from 11.3) and field-goal shooting (48.7 from 42.9). Larry Nance Jr. bumped all of his counting categories and hustled his way to a team-high 2.6 deflections in only 23 minutes per game.
Brandon Ingram, last summer's No. 2 pick, took a while to find his footing but erupted once he did. He averaged 13.2 points on 47.5 percent shooting after the All-Star break, while displaying positional versatility, effortless athleticism and encouraging defensive instincts. Ivica Zubac, selected 32nd, is already an obvious steal with soft hands, smooth post moves and a penchant for rim-protection.
All of these are usable pieces going forward, and it's not difficult to imagine Russell and/or Ingram rising to a dominant level.
1. Star Search Continues
The Lakers owe their championship history largely to the superstars who have passed through their ranks. They also understand any hopes for a championship future rest on finding that caliber of player—or players, really.
"The Lakers have always had a superstar," Johnson told AM 570 LA Sports. "That is what we are going to try and bring in here."
Identifying the need is the easy part. This regime's aim is no different than the last one's. But it's been a while since L.A. hooked the proverbial whale, and there's no fool-proof plan to snap that streak.
This season did nothing to guarantee the Lakers' next star is already on the roster. Russell was inconsistent to the point of being benched. Even with the late-season surge, Ingram posted the second-worst player efficiency rating of anyone who cleared 2,000 minutes (8.5). Randle and Nance appear as support pieces, not primary building blocks.
Stardom could be in the future of one or more of these players. But will the Lakers practice patience in this pursuit?
If they swing for the fences in free agency (again), they could try making a run at Gordon Hayward, Blake Griffin or Chris Paul. However, there aren't real basketball reasons for those players to leave their current situations in favor of this one.
The trade market is another option, although there isn't an obvious marriage with any potential target. They couldn't match the Boston Celtics' offer for the likes of Paul George and Jimmy Butler. L.A.'s competitive time line doesn't mesh with Carmelo Anthony's. The Lakers had their shot at DeMarcus Cousins and balked at the price.
Barring an unforeseen path opening, their best move might be no move until 2018. Their roster would have another year to grow more attractive in the eyes of free agents. They could also add two high-level prospects between now and then. Plus, that free-agent crop just so happens to include Southern California natives George and Russell Westbrook.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.