Forget 2018 Free Agency: Lakers Have Plenty of Questions to Answer This Season

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterSeptember 28, 2017

Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball poses for a picture during NBA basketball media day, in El Segundo, Calif., Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Chris Carlson/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — The early atmosphere around the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers is exuberant.

The franchise opened camp on Monday with their annual media day, and like most squads around the league (if not all), the Lakers are optimistic about the year ahead.

"Playoffs," said rookie point guard Lonzo Ball.

"Playoffs," said seasoned veteran center Brook Lopez.

Maybe, but that's a lot to ask.

Last year, it took 41 wins for the Portland Trail Blazers to earn the privilege of getting swept by the Golden State Warriors. The Lakers had just 26 victories.

Is this roster suddenly 15 games better? If so, is 41 even enough to break the top eight in the competitive Western Conference?

In late September, it's best not to look at it too deeply. Instead, the team is attacking training camp with vigorous defense and running drills in the UCLA Health Training Center, their brand new, team-owned complex in El Segundo.

The still-new management team under president of basketball operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka continued to express optimism for the future, in both the short and long term.

Pelinka reminded reporters that it's very rare for a team to have such an exciting young core of talented players while maintaining their position to sign two maximum-salaried free agents next summer.

Ron Schwane/Associated Press

Technically, the Lakers don't have the $65-70 million to land two of LeBron James, Paul George and/or Russell Westbrook in July. At least not yet, but they're in the ballpark, provided they can get out of the contracts of Jordan Clarkson and/or Luol Deng before next July.

Still, the specter of star-chasing in 10 months shouldn't overshadow what the Lakers have brewing on the court this year.

Pelinka opened Monday's session quoting the musical "Hamilton," calling his squad "young, scrappy and hungry."

To continue the lyric, they're "not going to throw away [their] shot," at capturing the attention of the league with their precocious young "stars" like Brandon Ingram and Ball.

"I'm a realist," Johnson said. "The West is awfully tough, and we've got a lot of babies that [have] got to grow up real fast, but I think this team has the talent to contend for a playoff spot. If we don't, it's not going to stop us from having a good season, where free agents look and say, 'Oh man, I could see myself in that lineup.'"

But today, and through the end of the regular season in April, the Lakers have a lot of questions to answer.

            

Will Los Angeles See "The Lonzo Effect"?

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Lonzo Ball #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses during media day September 25, 2017, in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is co
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Ball is confident he'll be able to play the game he loves, the way he's played it his whole life. The Lakers haven't tried to tinker with his unique shooting form. Johnson said Ball is already a leader among his young teammates.

The question that Ball didn't have an answer for was how well he'll physically handle a full season of NBA basketball.

"Eighty-two games, I've never played that before," he said. "It's my first year so I don't know really what to expect."

If Ball is a transformational player, the Lakers will need him to stay strong and durable through the marathon of the schedule.

The word most used to describe the impact Ball has on his teammates is "contagious."

His willingness to pass encourages others to do the same, unselfishly. Some refer to it at as the "Lonzo effect."

"I wouldn't say it's the Lonzo effect," Ball replied. "It's just the way you should play basketball, I believe. Me being a point guard, every team I go to when I start passing everyone else starts passing."

In other words, the Lonzo effect.

               

How Important Is a Healthy Lopez?

EL SEGUNDO, CA - JUNE 28:  Brook Lopez gets introduced by the Los Angeles Lakers at a press conference on June 28, 2017 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Lopez is somewhat limited with back spasms, which is probably why the Lakers signed Andrew Bogut right before camp.

"People don't realize the key to this team is really Lopez," Johnson said. "He's going to draw that center out, so Julius [Randle] will have more room to operate. ... When they run the pick-and-roll with Brook and Lonzo, that big man has to make a decision."

While Lopez is expected to miss the preseason opener on Saturday against the Minnesota Timberwolves, he looked spry and healthy to the naked eye in non-contact drills on Wednesday.

Lopez has played in over 72 games in four of his last five seasons, but he also played in just 22 games through 2011-12 and 2013-14 with foot issues.

If he can stay healthy for most of the season, he gives the Lakers a much greater chance to be competitive.

Bogut, who is only guaranteed $50,000 of his $2.3 million deal, can fill in nicely on the defensive end for Lopez, and while he's a capable passer for a center, Bogut can't similarly spread the floor with no outside shooting range.

Meanwhile, Bogut is unable to work out with the team until the Australian gets a work visa.

             

Who Earns The Final Roster Spot?

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25: Andrew Bogut #66 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses during media day September 25, 2017, in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Speaking of Bogut, the Lakers have 14 guaranteed players with Vander Blue, Briante Weber, Stephen Zimmerman and V.J. Beachem all competing with Bogut to be the 15th.

Blue has been a part of the organization through the D-League and the D-Fenders (now the G-League and South Bay Lakers) for three seasons, winning the league's most valuable player.

Weber is a scrappy point guard who has seen NBA time with the Charlotte Hornets, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies.

Zimmerman spent a year with the Orlando Magic, while Beachem went undrafted this year out of Notre Dame.

Bogut is probably the favorite if he can prove he's healthy.

            

Do The Lakers Have Enough Veteran Leadership?

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Dwyane Wade joined his former Miami Heat teammate James with the Cleveland Cavaliers after working a buyout with the Chicago Bulls.

The Lakers were not in pursuit of the All-Star guard.

"We're really satisfied with the 15 guys we have right now," Pelinka said, prior to Wade's decision. "In terms of the veteran leadership, we like [Kentavious Caldwell-Pope] and Bogut, Luol Deng [and] Corey Brewer. We have older guys with experience."

Pelinka stressed that he just wants his team to play at a maximum level of competitiveness every night. That's how he'll measure the season, not in a specific number of wins or a playoff berth.

For a champion like Wade, the Cavaliers clearly have a lot more to offer than the developing Lakers.

Meanwhile, Pelinka also mentioned Lopez as one of the team's strong veteran leaders along with Bogut behind him. 

"One of the things that was really appealing about Bogut to us is the championship experience he had in Golden State playing with [head coach] Luke [Walton].

None of the above bodes well for the other players trying to make the squad.

         

What Will The Frontcourt Rotation Look Like?

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 11:  Kyle Kuzma #0 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a photo during the 2017 NBA Rookie Photo Shoot at MSG training center on August 11, 2017 in Tarrytown, New York.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by d
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Coach Walton will have several rotation decisions to make, especially at center and power forward.

Lopez and Randle are the likely starters, but Walton needs to make room for Larry Nance Jr. and rookie Kyle Kuzma. Deng is probably a 4 at this point in his career as well.

Will Bogut take away time from second-year prospect Ivica Zubac, whose body fat has dropped from 19 percent to eight?

Can second-round pick Thomas Bryant find minutes?

Bogut said he's not worried about playing time. He understands he's here to help the team and show the league that he's still healthy after multiple injuries over the course of the past few years.

At times Randle or Nance could be the team's best option at center when opposing teams are playing small.

            

Will Julius Randle Get His Extension?

EL SEGUNDO, CA - SEPTEMBER 25:  Julius Randle #30 of the Los Angeles Lakers poses for a portrait during media day at UCLA Health Training Center on September 25, 2017 in El Segundo, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Given the Lakers have prioritized cap space for next summer, the likelihood that Randle gets an extension before the start of the season is slim.

Unsigned, Randle will take up $12.4 million of the Lakers' cap room. They may need to let him go, in order to sign two max players. If they can get out of both Clarkson and Deng, the team could have the room to bring back Randle.

With so much up in the air, the Lakers probably wait until next summer when Randle is a restricted free agent.

           

Can Jordan Clarkson Compete For Sixth Man of the Year? 

Johnson said he wants Clarkson to win the Sixth Man of the Year award this season.

On Wednesday, Clarkson said his first goal is to make sure the Lakers win games. If not, it won't matter how well he plays off the bench, voters aren't going to notice on a bad team.

Last season's winner, Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets, averaged 16.2 points in 31 minutes a game. The Rockets finished third in the Western Conference with 55 wins.

Clarkson wasn't far behind with 14.7 points in 29.2 minutes a night, but the Lakers were second-to-last in the West with just 26 wins.

It's not outrageous to suggest that Clarkson can match or exceed Gordon's stats, but he may not get the attention needed if the Lakers win in the neighborhood of 35 games.

Can Ingram Become a Go-To Scorer?

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 07:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Los Angeles Lakers brings the ball up the court against the Los Angeles Clippers during the 2017 Summer League at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 7, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Clippers won 96-93 in
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Ball is the Lakers' headliner, best exemplified by the exodus of reporters the moment the UCLA product wrapped his interview on media day.

The core of local media covering the Lakers stuck around to talk with Ingram, as many of the television cameras moved on.

Meanwhile, Johnson said he expects Ingram to lead the Lakers in scoring this season with at least 20 points a game. That's a big jump from last year's 9.4.

"That's something I expect out of myself, of course, along with being a leader on the defensive end," Ingram said.

The second-year forward's minutes should climb from 28.8 as a rookie. Ingram is also expected to start all year, up from 40 games from last season.

Additional time on the court should mean an increase in shot attempts (8.7 through 2016-17). If he can also improve upon his shooting efficiency (40.2 percent and 29.4 percent from three-point range), at least 15 points a night may be a reasonable expectation.

Now, if Ingram can dominate games like he did in his lone appearance in summer league, scoring 26 points in 32 minutes, then maybe Johnson's proclamation will hold true.

            

All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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