Los Angeles Lakers: 5 Bold Predictions for 2017-18 NBA Season

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 3, 2017

Los Angeles Lakers: 5 Bold Predictions for 2017-18 NBA Season

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    Last season's Los Angeles Lakers weren't good, but they were pleasantly surprising.

    Who foresaw Magic Johnson's return to the franchise or ex-agent Rob Pelinka's hiring as the general manager? What about Nick Young's return to prominence? Or Ivica Zubac's 11 starts? Or the team's nearly spoiled tank job during an out-of-nowhere late-season winning streak?

    Unexpected things happen. This year, the Lakers should have fun while doing the unpredictable.

    We know everyone's favorite prediction flavor is bold, so we have hand-picked the five most daring. Some have better odds of happening, but each is a limb we are comfortably—and, of course, boldly—creeping out on.

Brook Lopez Leads Them in All-Star Game Fan Voting

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    Brook Lopez is the new kid at school, and everyone knows he could move along within the year. His odds of winning a popularity contest aren't much better than the Lakers' championship chances.

    But that could change quickly and dramatically. The 7-foot North Hollywood native might be an overnight fan favorite.

    No Laker brings a better two-way arsenal inside the lines. Last season, he tallied seven 30-point outbursts (three fewer than L.A. had as a team) and splashed 134 triples (second among all centers). He finished as a top-10 shot-blocker (1.7 per game, tied for seventh) and rim protector (47.0 percent shooting allowed at the rim, fifth among high-volume defenders).

    He'll need more than star-level production, though, to gain more fan support than the Lakers' prominent young prospects. But Lopez might have an ace up his sleeve with his outside interests.

    "He loves Batman comic books, Disney movies and Michael Jackson's music," Mike Mazzeo, then with ESPN.com, wrote of Lopez. "He already has pitched an animated television pilot, politicked to play a Wookiee in a future Star Wars picture and hopes to pen an action-adventure novel someday."

    Lopez is good on the court, in front of a microphone and inside a locker room. He's playing for his next contract and suiting up for his hometown team. Everything is in place for a monstrous, highly entertaining season, and if fans take note, they'll give the big fella more Laker love than anyone in the All-Star voting booths.

Lonzo Ball Averages Nine-Plus Assists

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    It sounds like a typical LaVar Ball boast, only this one is true—Lonzo Ball can rifle a pass through a moving car. No, really, ESPN's "Sports Science" actually put the 19-year-old passing prodigy to the test, and he aced it.

    Ball's combination of creativity, vision and selflessness is why the Lakers were undeterred by the criticisms of the No. 2 pick's funky shooting form, defense and outspoken father. Free to do his thing in the open court, Ball looks like a once-in-a-generation shot-creator cut from the same cloth as Johnson and Jason Kidd.

    "It's almost as if the game is moving a little bit slower to him than it is other players," Lakers coach Luke Walton said, per Silver Screen & Roll's Drew Garrison. "We're asking everyone to play fast fast fast, and he's out there just making simple passes and when guys are open ahead he's putting it in their hands."

    With Ball's skill set and L.A.'s uptempo style, there's an undeniable opportunity for substantial statistics. It's similar to what he encountered at the Las Vegas Summer League, where his four games of 10-plus assists shattered the previous rookie record of one.

    Playing in the golden era of point guards, it would be unrealistic to expect an assists crown from Ball as a freshman. But averaging at least nine helpers a night would still put him in exclusive company; only Oscar Robertson, Mark Jackson and Damon Stoudamire cleared that bar as rookies, and each was in his age-22 season.

L.A. Has Two All-Rookie First-Teamers

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    The Sin City Lakers were greedy, double-dipping into the MVP awards on the summer circuit.

    Ball, perhaps getting an early start on his Rookie of the Year campaign, claimed the overall honors with per-game averages of 16.3 points, 9.3 assists, 7.7 rebounds and 2.5 steals. But it was Kyle Kuzma, the 27th pick, who led the Lakers in scoring (21.9 points) and earned the championship game MVP with a 30-point, 10-rebound, six-triple effort.

    "He's gonna be a very good player," Andrew Bogut said of Kuzma, per ESPN.com's Ohm Youngmisuk. "... His body is almost NBA-ready. Very long, very smart. Can finish with both hands. And he shoots the ball at a decent clip from three."

    Ball alone made 2017 a great draft for L.A. Kuzma has the chance to make it an all-timer.

    That's a lot to ask of a 22-year-old who wasn't a first-round lock. But, provided his shooting holds up, the 6'9" forward could have all the necessary tools for the modern game. Versatility is his defining characteristic at both ends. He can guard multiple positions, score from inside and out, fly in fast breaks and create offense off the dribble.

    Tack on the exposure Kuzma will receive from L.A.'s national TV schedule, and that will be the edge he needs to claim an All-Rookie first-team spot. Put Ball on the roster, too, and they'll join Joel Embiid and Dario Saric as the only teammates of the 2010s to be first-team all-freshman selections in the same season.

Lakers Have Most Improved Player Award Finalist

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    Brandon Ingram was so slow out of the gates as a rookie that a second-half surge couldn't salvage his stat sheet. His year-end contributions included dismal numbers in player efficiency rating (8.5) and true shooting percentage (47.4).

    But that could have shadowed the progress he made late (13.2 points on 47.5 percent shooting after the All-Star break) and potentially set the stage for a charge at the 2017-18 Most Improved Player award.

    "I think this is going to be a breakout season for BI," Johnson said, per Youngmisuk. "We need him to step up and be the leading scorer on this team and really be aggressive on the offensive end."

    Granted, Johnson is far from an impartial observer. And Ingram carries a ton of questions into year two, ranging from his shaky shooting and inconsistent defensive effort to his rail-thin frame.

    But the breakout potential is real. The 20-year-old is another year older and wiser, potentially better prepared to make use of his off-the-charts physical tools. He'll also benefit from the ball movement Lonzo will bring and the extra spacing provided by the new snipers.

    Does that add up to a top-three M.I.P. finish? It could. But if it doesn't, the Lakers could still have a finalist. Chiseled, contract-year Julius Randle should not be overlooked in what's effectively his third NBA season, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope—another contract-year performer—has the biggest platform of his career and maybe the most offensive responsibility, too.

L.A. Earns West's No. 8 Seed

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    If LaVar Ball really can speak things into existence, then this bold prediction might not be bold enough.

    The Big Baller patriarch laid out an overly ambitious prognostication—even by his standards—during an appearance on CBS Sports' Flagrant Two podcast (via CBS Sports' Colin Ward-Henninger). Not only will the Lakers win 50 games, LaVar said, they'll knock out the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals.

    "And when they get to the Finals, my son ain't gonna lose," Ball said.

    None of that is happening. But L.A.'s best-case scenario does involve a playoff berth.

    It would be a monumental leap for a group that hasn't cleared 27 wins since 2013. It would be a dramatic departure even from last season, when the Lakers had the Association's lowest net efficiency rating (minus-7.2) and dead-last defense.

    But it's not impossible. Lopez is a massive upgrade over what they had at center, and Caldwell-Pope is a better defender than any on last year's roster. Ball's play style fits this group better than D'Angelo Russell's did, and breakout campaigns could be coming for Ingram and Randle. If Kuzma outperforms his draft position, while Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Zubac all step forward, this club could be deep.

    Deep enough to make the playoffs out West? If they get enough help, yes. The Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies all took sizable personnel hits this summer, the Portland Trail Blazers were already backtracking last season and who knows whether the supersized New Orleans Pelicans will ever launch.

                   

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Basketball Reference or NBA.com.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.