5 Realistic Goals Los Angeles Lakers Should Set for 2017-18
This isn't season one of the Los Angeles Lakers rebuild, but the freshness feels that way.
There's a new Hollywood star at the center of a revamped roster, plus an overhauled front office responsible for the personnel changes. Even the shadow of Kobe Bryant has mostly cleared out, replaced by dreams of rapid prospect development and wild free-agency success.
This is a fun stage of the process, when years of losing began providing tangible on-court benefits. It's also a tricky one in which to stay grounded as everyone anxiously awaits the next step.
Well, consider this a bucket of cold water to jolt everyone back to reality.
We're not rushing any youngsters to the All-Star Game, guiding an unready group into an overcrowded Western Conference playoff field or draping the next prominent external pick-up in purple and gold. Instead, we're laying out reasonable, productive aspirations to make the upcoming NBA season a successful one in Laker Land.
Don't Have a Bottom-Three Defense
If this sounds like a painfully low standard, that's because it is. Ninety-percent of the Association doesn't have a bottom-three defense, and only one team has finished there each of the last two seasons.
Bet you can't guess which one.
The Lakers were dead last in defensive efficiency last season and dead last the year before, too. In 2014-15, they finished one spot from the bottom. The season before that they were 28th. Not since 2012-13 have they ended the year above the bottom 10 percent.
In other words, the last Lakers team that didn't have a bottom-three defense made the playoffs; featured Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash; and had sections of its season coached by Mike Brown, Bernie Bickerstaff and Mike D'Antoni.
This streak cannot—and should not—continue. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a better defensive option than any at Luke Walton's disposal last season. Experience should help Brandon Ingram take better advantage of his potentially suffocating length. And L.A. looks far more formidable at the basket with Brook Lopez instead of Timofey Mozgov and either a more polished Ivica Zubac or a motivated Andrew Bogut off the bench.
"Defense is everything," Walton told ESPN's John Ireland and Mychal Thompson (h/t Silver Screen & Roll's Drew Garrison). "... We want to run every opportunity we have, but it's a lot easier to run when you're getting stops and you're not taking the ball out of the net."
Do Have Top-Three Finishes in Pace, Fast-Break Points
Walton has a clear vision of his preferred offense, and it involves a lot of running, a lot of three-point gunning and everything happening at full-throttle.
Consider Lonzo Ball, then, to be the nitro boost for their offensive motor. The 6'6" floor general is a wizard in the open court with the flair and foresight needed to dismantle defenses at top speed.
"He makes his mark by locating and feeding teammates in positions to take quality shots," Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "The basketball doesn't stick—his vision and quick decision-making lead to open jumpers for shooters, while his unselfishness sets a tone and inspires ball movement."
Having a player like Lonzo can transform the way an entire team operates.
That may sound overly optimistic for a 19-year-old, but he's made it happen before. UCLA went from winning just 15 games before he arrived to 31 with him behind the wheel, adding nearly 13 points to its nightly scoring output (77.5 to 90.4) while climbing more than 40 spots in offensive efficiency (51st to second) and tempo (73rd to 20th), per kenpom.com.
The Lakers have already begun their offensive modernization. During Walton's first season, they jumped 10 spots in pace (16th to sixth) and 12 in fast-break scoring (18th to sixth). There should be an expectation for Ball to continue those improvements and get the Lakers inside the top three of both categories.
Brandon Ingram Shoots 45 Percent
Some rookies have a blink-and-you-miss-it debut campaign. Brandon Ingram's was the opposite. It moved painfully slow at times, provided you didn't sleep through it or use it as rationale to take a break from basketball.
The lanky swingman posted abysmal shooting numbers from everywhere—40.2 percent overall, 29.4 percent outside, 62.1 percent at the line. His 8.5 player efficiency rating was second-worst on a 56-loss team, or dead last if you throw out those 160 minutes of Metta World Peace.
Using those dreadful digits as a frame of reference, a 45.0 field-goal percentage for year-two Ingram seems impossibly high.
But there's some deception in his rookie marks. They were irreparably harmed by a sluggish start—foreseeable given how young and skinny he was—that saw him shoot just 36.3 percent before the All-Star break. Once he upped his assertiveness in the post and off the dribble, though, his game raced ahead in overdrive and his post-break shooting rate spiked to 47.5.
It would take another sizable leap to sit at or above 45 percent, but there are internal and external reasons to think a sophomore surge is imminent.
"His situation is better," The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor wrote. "Lonzo Ball should enhance everyone on the court with his playmaking prowess. Brook Lopez will space the floor in ways no Laker big man could last season. Ingram has also gained weight...which should help him absorb contact and keep defenders from easily bumping him off the line as he attacks the rim."
Lonzo Ball Wins Rookie of the Year
Because season-long awards are subjectively dispersed, there's no concrete criteria for capturing them.
Statistics obviously help, making the opportunity—meaning both minutes and touches—to compile them critical. Team success might matter less with this award than any other, but it can be used to separate close candidates. Voters are often suckers for good storylines, too, so playing in a fishbowl can give a leg up on the competition.
Ball could have all of those elements in his favor by season's end.
He'll run away with the rookie assists crown and should find his way into the top 10 of the overall race. The Lakers will put him on the ball as often as possible and play at a tempo that offers maximum value. With L.A. holding an anemic 91-237 record over the past four seasons, it won't take much to substantially move the bottom line.
Oh, and no first-year player will come close to the camera time Ball receives. Most seasoned veterans won't keep up.
Lonzo raps and does reality TV. He's already been crowned the face of a fledgling apparel company and a storied major-market sports franchise, which is slated to have the league's fifth-most appearances on national TV (35). Maybe there's some distant threat of Ball family fatigue, but all that really means is he'll be on the hoops world's collective consciousness at all times.
Lakers losses will again be closely monitored this season, only it won't be by the L.A. faithful. All incentives to tank have been extinguished, as the Lakers owe their 2018 first-round selection to either the Philadelphia 76ers or Boston Celtics.
The timing is sort of unfortunate in that next summer's draft class could be packed to the brim. That said, with the Lakers targeting multiple in-prime stars in 2018 free agency, their recruiting efforts are strengthened more by winning than adding another high-potential-but-unproven prospect.
Besides, it will be a breath of fresh air to focus on anything other than their unprecedented losing. The only seasons in the organization's history with 55-plus losses have been each of the last four.
"I can't wait," Larry Nance Jr. told Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times. "Hearing all that tanking talk is like nails on the chalkboard to a competitor. ... This season is about improvement and wins."
It isn't hard envisioning this as the best Lakers team since their last playoff appearance. Lopez is a proven scorer, and Caldwell-Pope is a tenacious stopper. Ball might be the best player in the 2017 draft, and Kyle Kuzma could be its biggest steal. Both Ingram and Julius Randle could be approaching relative breakouts.
Expecting a playoff berth out West is likely pushing it. But adding 10 wins—36, as many as the Charlotte Hornets had last season—would be a realistic and impressive aim. Only three teams enjoyed that size of a turnaround in 2016-17, with the Lakers just missing the cut after a nine-win advancement.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.