BDL's 2017-18 Season Previews: Los Angeles Lakers, entering the Lonzo Ball era

The 2017 offseason was the wildest in NBA history. LeBron James and Kyrie Irving are now Eastern Conference rivals. Out West, Chris Paul joined James Harden, while Paul George and Carmelo Anthony united with Russell Westbrook. Ten recent AllStars changed uniforms, and we haven’t even gotten to Kevin Durant’s strange summer, so let’s get to previewing. The 2017-18 NBA season is finally upon us.

Lonzo Ball’s play at the point could put smiles on a lot of Lakers fans faces this year. (Getty)

LOS ANGELES LAKERS

2016-17 finish: 26-56, 14th in the West
Offensive rating: 103.4 (24th)
Defensive rating: 110.6 (30th)

Additions: Brook Lopez, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Lonzo Ball, Andrew Bogut, Kyle Kuzma, Josh Hart, Thomas Bryant, Vander Blue
Subtractions: D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Timofey Mozgov, Tarik Black, Thomas Robinson, Metta World Peace

Did the summer help at all?

Yes. The Lakers added what should be a defensive upgrade on the wing when Caldwell-Pope shook loose after the Detroit Pistons decided to go after Avery Bradley. They upgraded at center by moving Mozgov to the Nets in exchange for Lopez, a premier interior scorer who rounded out his offensive resume by becoming a viable stretch five (34.6 percent shooting on 5.2 3-point attempts per game in Brooklyn last season) and a massive body who routinely ranks higher than you’d expect in SportVU’s defensive impact rim protection statistics. Those additions — plus, potentially, reserve minutes in the middle from incoming veteran Andrew Bogut, provided he’s really fully recovered from the left leg fracture that ended his stint with the Cavs after just one minute of floor time — could help improve a defense that has ranked as the NBA’s worst two years running. (Giving a crap about running back in transition sure would go a long way, too.)

While the Lakers had to attach former No. 2 overall pick D’Angelo Russell to Mozgov’s borderline unthinkable contract to get Brooklyn to bite, they were able to fill his spot in the backcourt rotation with another high-profile, high-ceiling playmaker. Ball, this June’s No. 2 pick, was seemingly destined to wear forum blue and gold, and looked awfully good doing it at Las Vegas Summer League.

And Lonzo, dogged by ankle injuries, hasn’t even been the most impressive Lakers rookie of the fall; that honor goes to Kuzma, the smooth 6-foot-9 forward whom L.A. took with the No. 27 pick they got from Brooklyn in the Russell-Mozgov-Lopez deal, and who has been such a revelation for the Lakers in Summer League and preseason that it’s no longer crazy to imagine him siphoning minutes from the likes of past first-round choices Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.

No matter how much of a wizard Ball might be at fitting passes into tight spots and throwing his teammates open, the Lakers will probably struggle to make a significant leap up the league’s offensive efficiency rankings after losing four of their top six 3-point shooters from a year ago (Young, Russell, and partial-season Lakers Lou Williams and Jose Calderon) and relying heavily on a slew of 23-and-under dudes who either have no NBA pedigree yet or have yet to look ready for prime time. But if Lonzo really is the “force multiplier” he seems to be, and Kuzma really is a diamond in the rough, and Ingram really can break out by carrying over last season’s strong post-All-Star play … well, it probably won’t push the Lakers all that high up the standings this year.

But it would send a signal to the rest of the league that, after four dismal years in the wilderness, the Lakers finally are on track to being a team worth paying to see. And with new president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka clearly prioritizing salary cap space and aiming to make a splash in free agency next summer — like, very, very clearly — it sure wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Lakers’ young core turned in a year exciting enough to help persuade some legitimate superstars to make their way to L.A. next summer.

Brandon Ingram’s being counted on to produce in a big way in his second season in L.A. (Getty)

Best-case scenario: Lonzo calmly handles the pressure and proves precisely the sort of rising tide he was at UCLA, leading a team-wide commitment to pushing the pace, hustling in transition and moving without the ball. Ingram looks like the superstar in the making, giving Magic and Pelinka a pair of foundational pieces heading into a pivotal summer. The vets — Lopez, KCP, forgotten forwards Luol Deng and Corey Brewer — hold up their ends of the bargain, leading to an improbable run through a crowded field to the West’s No. 8 seed. LeBron and Paul George come over. LaVar Ball reaches his final form and ascends, body and soul, to a new plane of s***-talking existence.

If everything falls apart: Lonzo can’t get that crossed-up shot off, and bigger, more athletic defenders rag him to the point where he can’t find the breathing room necessary to fire the feeds that get everybody else cooking. Ingram sputters in Year 2 and, like Russell before him, the fan base and the front office begin to get restless. Kuzma turns back into a pumpkin, neither Randle nor Nance separates himself as a starting four of the future. Magic and Pelinka can’t find a taker for Deng’s deal, leaving one last big ol’ Mitch Kupchak-era bummer on the books to make drawing multiple max players financially viable. The superstars stay away. The era of post-healthy-Kobe disappointment continues.

Best guess at a record: 31-51

Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2017-18 NBA Season Previews:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta HawksBoston CelticsBrooklyn NetsCharlotte HornetsChicago BullsCleveland CavaliersDetroit PistonsIndiana PacersMiami HeatMilwaukee BucksNew York KnicksOrlando MagicPhiladelphia 76ersToronto RaptorsWashington Wizards

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas MavericksDenver NuggetsGolden State WarriorsHouston RocketsLos Angeles ClippersLos Angeles LakersMemphis GrizzliesMinnesota TimberwolvesNew Orleans PelicansOklahoma City ThunderPhoenix SunsPortland Trail BlazersSacramento KingsSan Antonio SpursUtah Jazz