For the Los Angeles Lakers, the 2016-17 NBA season is one of anxious joy and cautious optimism, but it's going to be fun again.
The Lakers cannot possibly be as bad as they were a season ago when they compiled a laughable record of 17-65, could they? LA sunk to the bottom of the Western Conference and the depths of the franchise's rich history, and while the 2016-17 season may not promise the playoffs, it does promise improvement.
After three straight years of awfulness, the Lakers yielded a trio of lottery picks: Julius Randle; D'Angelo Russell; and Brandon Ingram. At 21, Randle is the senior member of the trio, which also shares billing with a trio of LA's non-lottery picks drafted over those same seasons: Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and, possibly, Ivica Zubac. Tarik Black joined the team off waivers as an undrafted rookie in the same season that Randle and Clarkson joined the team.
LA has a young core of players, all of whom should display improvement in the coming season.
First and foremost for the 2016-17 Lakers, Russell's three-point shot is a dangerous weapon able to discharge with greater volume, improved range, and higher accuracy. Russell is the key player for the Lakers in the upcoming season, and the starting point guard appears to have learned valuable lessons during his rookie season and appears to have the desire to learn how to properly play the point guard position, as best suited to his skills.
A coaching staff ready to protect its young star publicly and display patience while he learns on the job is probably the biggest difference in the approach from the 2015-16 season to the 2016-17 season as it relates to Russell. Worth noting, Russell looks like a significantly improved player entering his second season as a 20-year-old compared to the overly confident unpolished 19-year-old going through his first season as a professional in the NBA.
Randle averaged a double-double in 28.2 minutes per game a season ago, and one would expect he will put up similar numbers in the current season, with a slight improvement in his three-point and perimeter shooting. Though he has worked on his mid-range and long-range shooting, Randle's preseason did not offer the same visual shooting improvement that Russell's displayed.
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Whether Randle picks up the ball off the backboard or comes in as a trailing player on a fast break, his finishing ability around the rim has greatly improved and even features the occasional right-handed finish. Defensively, Randle still needs to earn his reputation, and that end of the court should be the focus of Randle's development in the 2016-17 season.
Though Nance is in a similar spot as Randle in terms of experience and position on the court, the 23-year-old shoots a higher percentage from the floor, nearly 10 percent better during the 2015-16 season, and is a better team defender than Randle. Nance stayed in college for four years and played under a defensive minded coach.
Nance's chemistry with Black and Ingram on the defensive side of the ball is one of the few parts of the Lakers' team that Walton seems intent on keeping consistent. Those three form the core of the Lakers' second unit, which has been LA's far more fluid and impressive unit during the preseason. Add Clarkson, who spent the summer studying passing lanes and defensive movement, to that second unit, and the Lakers' bench should regularly energize the crowd and bring the Lakers back into games while Walton figures out a starting combination that works.
As it stands, veterans Luol Deng and Lou Williams expect to start with Mozgov, Randle and Russell on a starting unit that has rarely played together in preseason largely due to Deng's absence. The South Sudanese-British 31-year-old forward only played in four of the eight preseason games and only featured on the floor for greater than 20 minutes in one of those four appearances.
If Deng is starting, which is the obvious choice, the fact is that the starting unit simply has not played together for any consistent period of time during the preseason. If Deng misses time, however, Walton appears set on leaving Ingram with the second unit and using Nick Young in the starting spot. Young should find minutes in the second unit, too, but Ingram would be called upon to play more in a point forward role to facilitate Young's addition to the second string.
Young certainly isn't stealing minutes off Ingram.
The 19-year-old rookie provides balance for the second unit on both ends of the court and originally featured in the point forward role during NBA Summer League, when Russell sat out the final game. Walton used the role to maximize Ingram's development in the preseason, and considering the former Duke Blue Devil's success in the role, Ingram should at least feature part-time in the role when the lights come up on the regular season. To his credit, Ingram seems comfortable in the ball handling role because he regularly played the ambitious role in high school.
When Ingram isn't playing as a point forward, the Lakers expect to utilize Marcelo Huertas or Jose Calderon as the offensive general of the second unit. Calderon is a bit more stable and a better shooter from beyond the three-point line than his Brazilian counter-part, while Huertas is more likely to toss up electrifying alley-oops to Nance or Black. Both are crafty offensive veterans in their own rights.
Following three horrendous, forgettable seasons, the 2016-17 Lakers will finally be fun again.
The purple and gold may not win a ton of games and making the playoffs is a hard sell considering the team's expected win total is set at 24.5 in Las Vegas, but the Lakers could genuinely be twice as good as the 17-win team of a season ago without setting off alarm bells. If the Lakers miraculously make the playoffs, however, Walton should win Coach of the Year.
Even if the Lakers do not come anywhere near the postseason, Russell should be a contender for Most Improved Player, while Ingram should be one of the leading candidates for Rookie of the Year. This team offers talent on the court and on the bench. LA has a young coach that is credited with having wonderful rapport with his players and a knack for drawing up crafty out-of-bounds plays that work more often than not.
After three years of dumpster fires that refused to go out, the Lakers finally seem to have the basketball side of their business back under control. If the LA Lakers were stock, the start of the 2016-17 would be the right time to buy. For the first time since Sports Illustrated ran the infamous cover of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in Lakers' jerseys, fans can look to Wednesday's season opener and honestly say, "Now, this is going to be fun."