August is the only slow month for NBA coverage, as executives and players tend to take a bit of time off following a marathon off-season that just about sets rosters for the coming season by the end of July.
Under the direction of Lakers president of basketball operations Earvin “Magic” Johnson and the action of Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka, the Los Angeles Lakers have a nearly complete 2017-18 roster that doesn’t expect to change in any meaningful way prior to October’s regular season opener.
On Sunday, the team agreed terms with second round pick Thomas Bryant to officially fill 14 of the 15 roster spots. In addition, a report from Shams Charania at Yahoo! Sports ahead of the weekend stated that the Lakers had agreed on a partially-guaranteed contract with Vander Blue, who performed well in the Lakers’ Summer League championship run and also won the 2017 D-League MVP.
Tentatively including Blue, the Lakers have a full roster with 15 full time players, along with one of the two-way contracts wrapped up. That leaves one open two-way contract, but by definition, a player that will be playing major minutes in the newly branded G-League is probably not going to be the game changer for the NBA squad.
So, if the roster is just about set, how do the Lakers look for 2017-18?
First of all, Lonzo Ball is expected to be the starting point guard, with new signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope as his running mate. Brandon Ingram should start at small forward, with Julius Randle and Brook Lopez completing the starting five.
Lopez is an improvement on Timofey Mozgov, who started at center a season ago, while Randle and Ingram should also show improvements based on an extra year gone by. Ball versus D’Angelo Russell at point guard is a debate that will probably play out for several years to come, but the two point guards are complete opposites in their respective styles of play.
But first, let’s go back to the current starting five, where Randle enters a contract year and a big pay day if he can put together a solid season. The 22-year-old’s off-season workouts have effectively made him an amateur before and after model on Instagram, which is impressive considering the “before” picture was still that of a professional athlete.
More important than Randle’s fitness, though, will be his ability to hit a jump shot, namely a three-point jump shot. In what is officially Randle’s fourth season, the former University of Kentucky Wildcat needs to display range and stretch defenses into guarding him on the perimeter for the Lakers to reach their maximum levels–and for Randle to maximize his pay day.
Ingram’s minor cameo at Summer League in Las Vegas pointed to a growing game that is more aggressive in scoring the basketball. Also, the sophomore struggled with his three-point shot during his rookie year, but coaches and teammates did not seem at all worried about that shot falling for the lanky 19-year-old based on his stroke and performance on the practice court. Unlike Randle, Ingram’s jump shot didn’t need reconstruction, and those who have watched him closely expect that he’ll be an above average shooter in the NBA.
Entering his second season, one expects Ingram will gain that slight bit of composure that was lacking when he found himself open from distance. Also, Ingram is still only 19 and doesn’t turn 20 until Labor Day Weekend, so anyone overlooking the former Duke Blue Devil would be wise to think twice on that front. The teenager’s got a long career ahead of him.
Ball is a rookie, so his defense is expected to be suspect, but this kid has special passing ability and natural instincts to push the ball up the court without hesitation. His playing style is infectious and seemingly instantly culture changing.
Anyone who doesn’t think Ball will have an immediate impact in terms of the Lakers’ style of play hasn’t seen this kid in a 5-on-5 game of basketball. Considering his talent and understanding, one would be shocked if Ball didn’t manage a 10-assist game within his first 10 games.
For comparison’s sake, Russell only topped the 10-assist mark twice in two seasons with the Lakers and never hit the double-digit mark in assists during his rookie season. Suffice to say, Johnson and the Lakers have their true passing point guard now, and Ball is a completely different type of player than Russell. If anything, Ball’s shot seemed to disappear from time to time in Las Vegas, but he still managed to claim MVP honors of the Las Vegas Summer League because of his ability to impact the game even when he went through awful shooting droughts.
Caldwell-Pope can shoot, but he’s being touted as the best defender the Lakers have had in recent memory. The 24-year-old helps balance out the team on both ends of the court, with Caldwell-Pope not so subtly being touted as the defensive leader of the starting unit. The former Detroit Piston is expected to take on the premier perimeter scoring threat on the opposition on a nightly basis and help Ball adjust to playing defense in the NBA in the process.
Off the bench, the Lakers have options, but Jordan Clarkson is poised to be the sixth man asked to enter and provide a scoring punch. After playing alongside Lou Williams, who has seemingly perfected the scoring bench player role, Clarkson is being tasked with stepping in and scoring the ball for the second unit.
Along with Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. appears to be about the only certainty off the bench, as Lakers coach Luke Walton will likely get creative with his lineups as the season progresses.
Corey Brewer showed himself to be a better wing player than Luol Deng late in the previous season, but both players are options for Lakers coach Luke Walton. Brewer can also play as a shooting guard if Clarkson is asked to play as the backup point guard.
Alternatively, the Lakers have Tyler Ennis available as a backup point guard, and Blue can potentially provide instant scoring for the team should the Lakers need an extra offensive punch off the bench. Rookie Josh Hart is also an option as the off guard and will likely end up as Clarkson’s running mate at some stage, even if he doesn’t start the season as the backup shooting guard.
Obviously, Walton has options on the wing and in the back court, but Clarkson should be the sixth man on the team, with Nance as the 7th man.
Nance should hold his place as the backup power forward and split minutes with Randle at the position, as he has done for the past two seasons. Like Randle, the team hopes to see an improved outside shot from Nance, but the former University of Wyoming forward has been a coach and fan favorite since he arrived. No one seems to be complaining about Nance’s play. In large part, that’s because Nance plays team basketball on offense and tends to make the correct defensive reads.
As a pure backup center, the Lakers have Ivica Zubac. Bryant is an option, as well, but the 19-year-old probably won’t start the season with the second unit. In truth, Bryant will probably stuggle to get minutes outside of garbage time, and Zubac is far from guaranteed his own share of court time due to the evolving nature of the game.
More than likely, Walton will opt to go small with Zubac sacrificed for a front court trio that could involve Summer League final MVP Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma’s outside shooting and general athleticism in Las Vegas made the kid from Flint, Michigan an instant fan favorite and a player that may deserve playing time sooner rather than later.
If Kuzma can sink three-pointers with the regularity he displayed at Summer League, the Lakers may just go with Kuzma and Nance playing in tandem and Deng playing as a small ball center. If Nance can develop his shot, that second unit could conceivably be better at spacing the floor than the first unit.
In addition to the regular roster, the Lakers also have Alex Caruso on a two-way contract. The fiery point guard should earn time with the big team, but his impact expects to be limited unless the Lakers are dealing with a dearth of healthy point guards. Also, Ennis is ahead in the depth chart, so Caruso breaking into the Lakers’ rotation is not likely to happen on a regular basis.
And that’s your look at the 2017-18 Los Angeles Lakers entering the NBA’s down month of August. As presently constructed, this team would require a miracle to win a title, and they probably won’t even make the playoffs in the Western Conference, but they should be competitive and fun to watch. After improving from 17 wins in Byron Scott’s final season to 26 wins in Walton’s rookie season, the Lakers will hope to replicate that type of improvement and push into the 30-40 wins range. Rebuilding is a process, but the Lakers should be clearly off rock bottom at this point.
Also, the front office is openly angling to add two All-Stars by the end of the summer of 2018, so Pelinka and Johnson have prioritized development and salary cap flexibility over necessarily building a playoff team that would also have little to no chance of winning a ring.
Finally, the Lakers don’t keep their first round pick regardless of where they finish in the standings, so at the least, the 2017-18 season won’t devolve into discussions on tanking and fans following lottery odds and celebrating victories. Regular service on that front will likely resume if the Lakers don’t land the big free agents in the summer of 2018 and look to continue a slow rebuild with their 2019 first round pick.
For now, the 2017-18 Lakers are just about completely set. After a quiet month of August, training camp is set for the last week of September, and the Lakers play their first preseason game on Sept. 30.