Life without Kobe: Luke Walton, D'Angelo Russell try to get Lakers back on track
Los Angeles will look different this season, but will it be relevant again?
The Los Angeles Lakers were an unmitigated disaster last season, a ragbag of unproven young players and veterans who finished with 17 wins as future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant attempted 17 shots per game. This year, Bryant is gone, as is coach Byron Scott, who, to put it kindly, failed to connect with promising point guard D'Angelo Russell . That means it's all about the future, and coach Luke Walton's style should make them more fun even if they're no more relevant.
Key Additions: Brandon Ingram (No. 2 pick in the draft), Luol Deng (free agent), Timofey Mozgov (free agent), Ivica Zubac (No. 32 pick in the draft), Jose Calderon (trade with Chicago Bulls ), Yi Jianlian (free agent),
Key losses: Kobe Bryant (retired), Brandon Bass ( Los Angeles Clippers ), Roy Hibbert ( Charlotte Hornets )
Is it Russell's time to shine?
As CBS Sports' Ethan Skolnick wrote, the biggest question facing Los Angeles is whether or not Russell is ready to take control of the team. He's the guy who's going to have the ball in his hands most of the time, and despite all the drama of his rookie season, he showed signs that he can be special. While his efficiency doesn't approach James Harden 's, the way he operates in the pick-and-roll is reminiscent of the Houston Rockets superstar -- he is patient, sees the whole floor, uses his size well and can pull up for lefty jumpers from 3-point range or leaners in the lane.
It's worth noting that Russell was much, much better when Bryant was off the court and he didn't have to defer to anybody. At summer league and in the preseason, Russell has seemed much more confident than he did in his first season, knowing that it's his responsibility to make Los Angeles' offense go. The most important subplot of this Lakers season is how much he develops -- keep an eye on his assist rate, 3-point percentage and defense.
Does Walton have his Draymond?
The Lakers, much like the Golden State Warriors , are going to start games with traditional center Timofey Mozgov manning the middle. They want to run, though, and if they're going to be take advantage of their youth and athleticism, they'll need to go small. That's why it's worth watching two players in particular: Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr.
Randle counts Green as a mentor, and the Golden State star thinks the 21-year-old can be better than him one day. He was taken No. 7 in the 2014 draft out of Kentucky because of his powerful, left-handed drives to the basket and relentless defensive rebounding. Unlike Green, though, Randle lacks length, outside shooting and a track record of being a solid team defender.
Nance, drafted No. 27 in 2015 out of Wyoming Cowboys , came into the league with less fanfare than Randle. He might, however, be the Lakers' best bet when it comes to doing a Draymond impersonation. Nance is the most athletic player on the Lakers' roster, capable of flying for alley-oop dunks and highlight blocks. He is already a solid pick-and-roll threat, and he is quick enough to defend smaller players.
Where do the vets fit in?
The Lakers were the butt of many jokes when they signed Mozgov (four years, $64 million) and Deng (four years, $72 million) to big contracts. Mozgov's role isn't complicated -- he'll start at center, set mean screens, finish around the basket and protect the paint. As long as he's healthy, he'll fit in just fine.
For Deng, though, the plan is less clear. He showed with the Miami Heat that he's best as a power forward, but Randle is going to get major minutes there and Nance should, too. In the preseason, Deng has been starting at the 3, and perhaps his job will be to teach Ingram all of his tricks.
There's also the matter of gunners Nick Young and Lou Williams . Young was marginalized last season and reportedly close to being waived in the summer, but Walton has praised his defense (seriously!) and 3-point shooting. Williams was largely forgotten a year after winning Sixth Man of the Year with the Toronto Raptors , and he needs the ball in his hands to be at his best. If Walton doesn't let him lead the second unit, Los Angeles should probably look into trading him.
Jordan Clarkson 's two-year career is already a success story for someone who was taken No. 46 overall in the 2014 draft. Los Angeles signed him to a four-year, $50 million contract this summer, and it is counting on him starting at shooting guard for the foreseeable future. He's an excellent athlete, a good shooter and a capable playmaker. That deal will turn out to be a bargain if he improves significantly.
Clarkson does need to improve, though. His defense should be better, considering his physical attributes, and he has room to grow when it comes to passing and decision-making. It's unclear now if he will diversify his game enough to help the Lakers overachieve in the short term.
Can this team stop anybody?
Unlikely. Despite Mozgov's rim protection and Deng's combination of versatility and basketball IQ, Los Angeles is probably going to give up a ton of points. This was the worst defensive team in the league last year, and Walton should win Coach of the Year if he gets these young guys to finish in the top 15.
The Lakers have defensive potential. Russell's size, Clarkson's speed and Ingram's length are all assets. The same can be said for Randle's toughness and Nance's versatility. It's going to take time, though, for them to become a cohesive, communicative unit on that end of the floor. Patience, everybody.
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