Coming off their worst record ever, the Los Angeles Lakers enter the 2015-16 NBA campaign hoping to find their way back into the highly competitive Western Conference playoffs. The storied franchise has now missed the postseason two years in a row—a third wipeout would be historically bad and completely unacceptable.
L.A. trudged to a 21-61 finish last spring, following on the heels of their 27-55 debacle in 2013-14.
There have been some silver linings in this epic free-fall with two straight trips to the NBA draft lottery. The Lakers now find themselves with an intriguing and evolving roster—one that tilts toward youth while still including a handful of name-brand veterans.
Chief among the wily ones is Kobe Bryant—one of basketball’s enduring legends whose decline in recent years has been precipitous. After three major injuries in as many seasons, the biggest question is whether the five-time Finals winner can remain healthy and prove skeptics wrong for his 20th—and perhaps final—go-around.
- Additions: D’Angelo Russell (draft), Roy Hibbert (trade), Lou Williams (free agency), Brandon Bass (free agency), Marcelo Huertas (free agency), Metta World Peace (free agency), Larry Nance Jr. (draft), Anthony Brown (draft)
- Subtractions: Jordan Hill (free agency), Jeremy Lin (free agency), Ed Davis (free agency), Carlos Boozer (free agency), Wesley Johnson (free agency), Wayne Ellington (free agency)
L.A. selected Russell with the No. 2 overall pick in June. The one-and-done point guard from Ohio State has great size at 6’5” and a 6’9 1/2” wingspan to go along with preternatural passing skills.
But the rookie’s first preseason has seen mixed results in modest minutes, both as a starter and reserve. The next-generation floor general is still learning his role, as he told Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:
I don’t know, man. I really don’t. I have no clue at all. Coach [Byron Scott] is going to do what's best for the team. And if that's what he sees is me coming off the bench, then it's best for the team. If I'm starting and running the show and being the play-maker, that's fine too. I mean, guys make a living off that, off the bench or on the floor starting. It doesn't really matter.
On the other hand, the Lakers also took a big step in the direction of practical experience when they acquired man-mountain Roy Hibbert from the Indiana Pacers this summer—trading only a future second-round draft pick for the stalwart center. The two-time All-Star’s paint-clogging defensive prowess will fit right in with Scott’s old-school sensibilities.
Other key additions include reigning Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, veteran forward Brandon Bass and Marcelo Huertas—long regarded as one of Europe’s premier point guards and now joining the Association as a 32-year-old rookie.
Storylines to Watch
Front and center will be Bryant, one of the fiercest competitors to ever play the game and a superstar whose place in today’s hierarchy was called into question when ESPN recently ranked him at No. 93 out of 400 active players. When asked to respond to the lowly assessment, per Baxter Holmes of ESPN.com, the Mamba said, “Please don't ask me about silly stuff like that."
Bryant will spend much of his time at the small forward position this season, preserving his legs and allowing him to score from the elbows and through post-ups. As long as he can stay healthy and on the floor, the 37-year-old will doubtlessly use the motivation of naysayers and the ticking clock of Father Time to fuel what could be a memorable season.
But as Darius Soriano for Forum Blue and Gold points out, the aging franchise keystone can no longer take the world upon his shoulders if his team is to move forward effectively:
The Lakers are a team transitioning to a new era. Kobe may still be the face of the franchise, but as he begins to fade like one of his patented turnaround jumpers, the young players on this roster dart into the forefront (hopefully) ready to claim the future. That will only truly happen when Kobe is no longer a centerpiece player, but that transition begins in earnest now and will be aided by the same policies meant to help ensure he can end his career strong and on his own terms.
Also commanding attention will be Julius Randle, 2014's No. 7 draft pick who played just 14 minutes in his rookie debut before breaking his leg last October. The power forward seems determined to make up for last time and has been the most impressive Laker on the floor throughout the preseason, playing an all-around two-way game, including running the floor and finishing through traffic with authority.
Another intriguing plot point will be the presence of two determined shot-takers in Williams and Nick Young, and whether the headstrong gunners can coexist successfully. To the shock of many, the freewheeling chuckers have actually functioned well together off the bench in exhibition play.
Although hamstring issues caused Huertas to miss most of the preseason, a few select appearances have demonstrated to the NBA what overseas fans have long known—this guy has an uncanny level of court vision and a penchant for laser-guided passes that hit his targets midstride.
The Brazilian-born baller has enjoyed his greatest successes in the Spanish league as well as with the Brazilian national team. But he can be a true X-factor for the Lakers as a vocal leader off the bench and a delivery system of much-needed dimes.
“He’s a true point in every sense of the word, where he’s looking to set his teammates up,” said Scott after Huertas’ Lakers debut, per Lakers Nation. “I think you guys saw that in the 12 minutes where he had command of the offense, he was telling guys where to go, he was setting guys up… I was very happy with the way he played.”
As the other half of an unlikely rookie point guard tag team, the well-seasoned Huertas may attract as much attention as the still-learning Russell.
Making the Leap
Without a doubt, Jordan Clarkson is the Lakers’ prime candidate to make the leap in his sophomore frame. Last year’s No. 46 draft pick was a ray of hope during a gloomy season, coming out of near obscurity to nab All-Rookie First Team honors while primarily running the point.
But when the L.A. front office selected Russell with their prized lottery pick, the Tulsa and Missouri speedster found himself being shifted to the 2-guard position. It hasn’t phased him one bit.
“We’re two totally different players,” Clarkson said of his backcourt partner, per Holmes. “He’s an excellent passer and I’m real aggressive and it just kind of comes together.”
The coming season will tell if the slashing guard can make the leap from rookie sleeper to a full-fledged NBA success story.
All the cards have to fall right for the Lakers to become a legitimate contender in the West again. But management has still assembled an interesting roster despite not being able to lure in any elite free-agent stars during the offseason. If Bryant can stay on the floor and integrate effectively with his latest cast—and if Scott can show more willingness as a head coach to adapt with the times—there is a chance for a run to the playoffs.
It is not difficult to imagine things going south once again with key injuries, an antiquated Princeton offense and another slump toward lotto land. Except this time, the first-round pick that is owed to the Philadelphia 76ers is only top-three protected, meaning L.A. could come away with nothing to show for their failure.
The latest Lakers lineup shows intriguing potential as well as balance. Hibbert is the defensive stopper that the team has lacked in recent years, and he has something to prove in a contract year. There’s firepower with sweet-shooting Williams, and, yes, Young as well—a player who is looking to redeem himself after last season’s subpar performance. There is also the promise of veteran guidance and mentorship—World Peace has been working intensively with Randle throughout the summer and in training camp.
But if Huertas is an X-factor due to his veteran point guard acumen, then Bryant represents an even larger variable. His years of wear and tear combined with an unquenchable thirst for taking over games casts a huge wild card into the mix.
Beyond any potential pitfalls, this year’s Purple and Gold should show a reversal of fortune. The young core of Randle, Clarkson and Russell will start plenty of games together, bringing a welcome infusion of talent and open-court mobility. Even so, a bunch of extra wins may not be enough to climb into the playoff bracket—L.A. may well find themselves finishing in ninth place in the West. So close, yet still too far.