The Lakers went a franchise-worst 21-61 last season under first-year coach Byron Scott, losing 29 games by double digits. Forward Julius Randle was lost for the season with a foot injury in the opener, and everything went pretty much downhill from there. Los Angeles had the second-worst defensive rating and scoring defense while finishing 24th in offensive rating and 25th in shooting. That was good/bad enough to garner the fourth-worst record in the NBA, which was rewarded on lottery night with the second overall pick and the selection of dynamic guard D’Angelo Russell from Ohio State.
With Russell joining the quasi-rookie Randle and Bryant back for what may be his last season as a Laker, LA will embark on an interesting rebuilding season. Scott will try to balance giving younger players more experience with the heavy burden of life-and-death expectations that comes with being the Los Angeles Lakers.
What should we be looking out for this season with the purple and gold? Here are five things to watch:
1. What does Kobe Bryant have left?
Kobe Bryant is 37 years old and coming off recent injuries to his rotator cuff, knee and Achilles tendon, the latter of which has derailed the careers of much younger players. He has played just 41 games over the last two seasons and shot 37.3 percent from the field in 35 games last season. How much does Bryant have left?
Last season, Bryant attempted 20.4 field goals per game, including 5.3 threes. He hadn’t hoisted that many treys per contest since the 2005-2006 season, when he hit 34.7 percent of his attempts. Last season, he was at 29.3 percent from the arc.
In a column last month handicapping this season’s MVP race, the question was posed of what Bryant would have to do to somehow win the award. We took a look at some of Bryant’s peers in their later seasons to see what we may expect from Kobe.
The Lakers would likely be doing figurative cartwheels if Bryant has the numbers of Larry Bird’s final campaign 24 years ago. However, the Lakers also would like Bryant to play more than the 45 games Bird played that season. And Bryant is much different than the aforementioned Hall Of Fame quartet in that they never played as many years as Bryant and weren’t coming off major injuries.
Will Bryant understand his limitations, dial back his usage and let younger players such as Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Nick Young take command of the offense? Or will Kobe use the toughness, hubris and machismo that made him one of the all-time greats and continue to have a superstar-level usage percentage. Bryant’s 34.9 percent usage percentage – the percentage of plays involving a player while he is on the floor – would have been second in the NBA behind DeMarcus Cousins had he played enough games to be statistically eligible.
Kobe will ultimately do what he wants, but it will be interesting to see what he can still do on the court as his Lakers days wind down.
2. What to do with all the guards?
The Lakers’ backcourt is more crowded than the 110 at rush hour. In addition to Bryant, the rookie Russell, Clarkson and Young, Los Angeles signed Sixth Man Award winner Lou Williams from Toronto and 32-year-old Brazilian point guard Marcelo Huertas from Barcelona. With this glut at the guard position, what is Scott going to do?
Clarkson, 23, was the team’s most pleasant surprise last year. After a standout rookie season, he is expected to be the starter at point guard. Unless he gets an unlikely contract extension, he will be a restricted free agent after the season at age 24 in a summer when the salary cap is expected to rise by roughly $20 million.
If Bryant is remotely healthy, then he starts at shooting guard. He will make a cool $25 million whether he plays or not, so the Lakers are going to get whatever they can out of him in what could be his swan song.
Will Young get minutes at small forward, a position where he is now listed on official NBA box scores? If so, that would alleviate Scott’s problems a little bit but leave all three position a little undersized for as long as “Swagy” is on the court.
You would have to expect Williams, who was just voted the league’s best bench player, to get about 25 minutes per game as a scoring combo guard. So where does that leave minutes for Russell, the second overall pick in June’s draft? It would seem counterintuitive to have someone taken so high not get the minutes he should on a losing team. (This will be further addressed in a second.) And it would also be a shame to see Huertas’ unique skill set not utilized, but it seems like he’s SOL unless someone gets hurt.
On a team where the expectations aren’t really high, divvying up playing time for his guards could be Scott’s biggest challenge.
3. What is this team’s priority?
Last season, eighth-seeded New Orleans won 45 games and ninth-seeded Oklahoma City won just as many but missed the playoffs on a tiebreaker. It seems highly unlikely that the Lakers win that many games this season, which would put them back in the lottery. The question is, will the Lakers aim for the playoffs at the expense of developing their younger players?
Last season, Lakers players logged a total of 19,930 minutes according to Basketball-Reference. Here’s how the minutes were dispersed, which we divided into three age groups:
|Lakers 2014-15 Mins||Number||Pct. of Mins.|
|25 and Under||7348||36.86|
|31 and Over||3881||19.47|
The three players who logged the most minutes on the team last season – Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin and Jordan Hill – were all in the 26-30 group and are no longer with the team. Here’s this season’s projected roster as divided by age group:
25 And Under: Tarik Black, Anthony Brown, Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly, Larry Nance Jr., Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell
26-30: Brandon Bass, Roy Hibbert, Robert Sacre, Lou Williams, Nick Young
31+: Kobe Bryant, Marcelo Huertas, Metta World Peace
Even if the Lakers cut the unguaranteed Jabari Brown and keep the aging Metta World Peace, they are going to have at least seven players 25 or under on the final roster. It is up to Scott, GM Mitch Kupchak and his staff if they want to play that young group for more than 37 percent of the team’s minutes this season.
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LA’s future core should conceivably feature Clarkson, Russell and Randle along with the intriguingly athletic Nance, whom they took at the end of the first round in June’s draft. We will see if the Lakers want to give them experience and heavy minutes or have them sit on the bench while Bryant, Young, Hibbert, Williams and Bass try to steer the team towards the middle of the lottery.
4. Which Roy Hibbert are we getting?
The Lakers allowed opponents to shoot 61.9 percent in the restricted area last season, which was just 26th in the league according to NBA.com. So LA traded for a really good rim protector in Roy Hibbert, whom they have for $15.59 million this season.
Los Angeles now has a true back-to-the-basket center. But can the Lakers possibly resuscitate the All-Star version of Hibbert who shot over 46 percent with 7.7 rebounds and an elite 95 defensive rating in the first half of the 2013-2014 season? Or will they get the vanishing Hibbert, who shot 39 percent from the field with an 88 offensive rating and 106 defensive rating after the 2014 All-Star Game.
Take a look at Hibbert’s vital stats over the last two seasons, which may reveal what we can expect from him this season.
|Hibbert||MPG||FG %||PPG||RPG||BPG||PER||O Rate||D Rate||WS||WS/48|
Hibbert is still an above average player. He is a very good defender who blocks shots and an average rebounder for someone his size. But when you look at someone like Hibbert and see what he used to be in his two All-Star seasons, it’s hard not to wish for more.
With Hibbert and Ryan Kelly as the only rotation players taller than 6-10, expect a heavy dose of Hibbert this season, for better or worse.
5. Will the Lakers let it fly?
After a 2014-2015 season where all four conference finalists were in the top seven in 3-pointers attempted and eventual champion Golden State led the NBA in 3-point percentage – and a season where the Lakers lost 61 games while finishing 25th in attempted and made threes – perhaps Scott is finally changing his tune on the triple. Earlier this month, Scott said that he was not only excited by the 3-point shot, he would like to see a 4-point shot. That is more in line with a series of front office promotions in September that seemed to be driven by a new emphasis on analytics.
In terms of the conventional three, Wesley Johnson and Wayne Ellington led the team in made and attempted threes last season, but both have departed. Young shot 36.9 percent last season, and you don’t have to convince him to hoist. Williams would have led the Lakers in made threes by over 60, and Scott should encourage him to fire away. Russell attempted 231 threes in 35 games at Ohio State last season, so he certainly won’t be bashful about putting them up. Kelly and Clarkson – not Kelly Clarkson – also shoot threes right around the break-even mark.
Clearly, not taking many 3-point shots didn’t work for the Lakers. So why not change things up and give modern NBA basketball a try, Byron?
Shlomo Sprung is a national columnist for SheridanHoops who focuses on analytics, profiles and features. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. You should follow him on Twitter.