Lakers preview: Lonzo Ball aims to restore excitement, bring back Showtime vibe
Los Angeles is a young team, but it has the potential to be lots of fun
If we are to believe LaVar Ball, the Los Angeles Lakers are going to make the playoffs this season, ending a four-year drought. LaVar envisions his son Lonzo leading them there, transforming the team into a run-and-gun, pass-happy powerhouse that will bring back the Showtime vibe and show superstars that Hollywood is the place to be. Then, of course, LeBron James will sign with the Lakers in free agency, share notes with Magic Johnson about empire-building and perhaps even attract another marquee player to come along and try to take down the Golden State Warriors. Easy-peasy.
Unfortunately for the Lakers, hoping LaVar will speak things into existence is not a sound rebuilding plan. Neither is simply waiting for future Hall of Famers to show up and say they want to save the storied franchise. While Los Angeles has at times been able to attract superstars with its history and location, the late-and-post-Kobe years have been humbling. There is nothing wrong with chasing the very best players in the world, but those guys increasingly don't want to join organizations that reek of desperation or dysfunction. If you want a seat at the table with someone like LeBron, you must first have your house in order.
After their first preseason game, coach Luke Walton had to remind himself that his team is young: Lonzo is a few weeks away from his 20th birthday, second-year forward Brandon Ingram just turned 20 last month and five more under-25-year-olds -- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., Kyle Kuzma and Ivica Zubac -- are expected to be regulars in the rotation, with a few others on the fringes. Teams constructed this way usually lose tons of games, and there isn't a compelling reason to think this group will be the exception to the rule.
There are, however, all sorts of reasons to be excited to watch these Lakers. Under Walton, they are going to push the pace, spread the floor and share the ball. He wants his team to play like the Celtics of the 80s and operate like the present-day Warriors. Ball is going to be a huge part of dictating the style of play; he's always willing to pass early and put his teammates in position to make plays. He might not be able to turn them around right away, but it is hard to take your eyes off him when he's on the court.
Unlike many other lottery teams, the Lakers' pieces fit, at least when it comes to offense. In center Brook Lopez, Ball has an effective pick-and-roll partner and, more importantly, a floor-spacing center. In Ingram, he has a multifaceted weapon on the wing. Randle, Caldwell-Pope, Nance and Kuzma already know that Ball will reward them if they sprint in transition. To quote an infamous Sports Illustrated cover, this is going to be fun!
Of course, for the front office, this season is about more than just putting a fun product on the court. Johnson and Pelinka will want to see Ball figure out how to play his game while dealing with bigger, stronger and faster defenders. They will want to see Caldwell-Pope build on what he showed in the first half of last season, before his shoulder injury and disappointing finish in Detroit. Can the slimmed-down Randle make good on his potential with Nance and Kuzma pushing him for playing time? Can Luol Deng bounce back from a poor first season with the Lakers? Can Jordan Clarkson finally find his niche? There are unanswered questions everywhere, so player development and role definition will be crucial.
For Los Angeles to have a successful season, it will need clarity on who fits best in Walton's system and who should be traded away as the organization tries to take steps forward. Wins are only important insofar as they communicate to the rest of the league that progress is being made. Challenging for a playoff spot is wishful thinking, but winning 30-plus games for the first time since the ill-fated Dwight Howard and Steve Nash experiment seems like a reasonable goal. Doing that with Ball and Ingram playing heavy minutes would establish the Lakers as a team with a bright future, regardless of whether or not they hit a home run in free agency next July. If things go right, this will feel like the start of something special.
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