Are the Lakers Finally Worth Watching?
They aren't a good basketball team, but with Luke Walton on the bench and young talent on the floor, they may at least give fans some reason for hope.
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
What makes a NBA team worth watching? The answer is different for everyone.
Maybe you enjoy seeing a team whip the ball all over the floor with creative passing, moving and cutting and screening until a sliver of space opens for a shot. If that sounds like you, there's a super-team in the Bay Area you may have heard about.
Maybe you just like watching one of the league's best players do his thing. If that's your fancy, might I suggest checking out LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers, or James Harden and the Mike D'Antoni–infused Houston Rockets. Maybe it's hard-nosed defense and a star-less share-the-ball ethos that floats your boat. If so, check out the Boston Celtics, the Charlotte Hornets, or the Utah Jazz.
Do you like dunks, precision offense, and an entire team whining at the refs for 48 minutes? Watch the Los Angeles Clippers. Are you interested in seeing a good team change its identity on the fly? Flip over to a Memphis Grizzlies game and watch Grit N' Grind morph into Fizz's Fun. Are you a sucker for wily old vets making one last stand for seemingly the tenth year in a row? Well, you can watch the San Antonio Spurs or the Dallas Mavericks.
If maybe, just maybe, you're one of those people who perversely enjoys a bad team playing bad basketball, boy, have I got the team for you. The Brooklyn Nets! Just kidding. Don't watch the Nets. It's Luke Walton and the Baby Lakers. Let me explain.
Even before last season's circus sideshow of a Kobe Bryant Retirement Tour got underway, the Lakers were playing the most unwatchable brand of bad basketball in the league. It wasn't just that the Lakers were bad under Byron Scott, who was hired as head coach in 2014 (and make no mistake, they were bad: they set a franchise record for most losses in a season during Scott's first year as coach and then promptly broke it the following year). It was the way in which they were bad.
It's not fun to watch a team that simply can't stop the opposition and doesn't really stand a chance of scoring, either. That was the 2014-2016 Lakers. They finished 23rd in offensive efficiency and 29th in defensive efficiency during the 2014-15 season, per NBA.com, and then promptly got worse on both sides of the ball in 2015-16, finishing 29th and 30th, respectively. They were 26th and 29th in fast-break points allowed, and 27th and 29th in opponents' points in the paint. They rarely forced turnovers (24th and 28th in opponents' turnover percentage) and offered next to no resistance at the basket (26th and 30th in opponents' restricted area field goal percentage). When your games are literally just layup lines for the other team, it's impossible to enjoy watching them.
Matters are made even worse when your coach glues exciting, young players like D'Angelo Russell and Larry Nance Jr. to the bench in order to find more minutes for Lou Williams (who is fine and all but not helping the Lakers do anything) and Roy Hibbert (whose last good season was Season 5 of Parks & Recreation). If you're going to be bad, at least give the fans something to get excited about. And maybe find a way to not openly feud with the future of your franchise (Russell) in the media.
That's all in the past, though. Laidback Luke is leading the Lakers now, and he's ready to like, actually be friendly and supportive to the dudes on his squad. He's also going to let the kids play, let them run, and let them have fun. They still won't be good—that's a few years away—but at least they'll be worth watching.
Russell will truly be at the controls for the first time. His rookie season was overshadowed by the feud with Scott and the Snapchat video of Nick Young, but he actually showed some things. Russell averaged 16.8 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per 36 minutes (only 11 other rookies since 2000 hit those marks), and he knocked down over 35 percent of 4.6 three-point attempts a night. Give him the ball and let him go to work, and maybe he can show some more.
Nance is back to do some pogo-stick leaping. Jordan Clarkson will be more firmly entrenched as Russell's partner in the backcourt. Julius Randle may or may not take his first career shot with his right hand. (Randle loves to drive right and then spin back to his left. Pretty much every NBA team already knows this. The first time he drives right and stays right this season, they may have to stop the game and let him keep the ball.) And there are new kids, too!
One of them is Brandon Ingram, who is getting unfairly compared to Kevin Durant, even by Kevin Durant. Walton will likely bring Ingram off the bench to start the year, easing his transition and letting him go to work against backup wing defenders. It makes sense given his slight frame (6'9", 190 pounds) but really, his skill as a scorer is such that he could probably get buckets right away, even as a starter. And he'll push his way into the lineup eventually. He's too talented not to. Preseason games are pretty meaningless, of course, but he did manage to pour in 33 points on just 16 shots in two games against the Golden State Warriors.
The Lakers spent $136 million on Veteran Leadership and Solid Defense this off-season, bringing in Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng on four-year deals that don't make a ton of sense but will nevertheless help the team be more watchable this year. Mozgov never recovered from off-season knee surgery and lost his starting spot for last season's Cavs, but he's got one back in L.A. and should at least help alleviate the rim-protection issues. The one thing no NBA coach can teach is being tall, and Mozgov is tall as all get-out. Deng has long been one of the league's best perimeter defenders, and even if he's lost a step, he's a major upgrade over the corpse of Kobe Bryant. (Sorry, Laker fans. I loved Real Kobe but dude was a ghost the last few years. It's true.) Deng will also help teach the kids to be adults in a non-sociopathic way.
Are these guys going to be a good basketball team? Of course not. They're still going to be at a talent deficit almost every night, and young teams almost never play good defense. They also may not even really want to be good, considering they owe a top-three protected pick to the Philadelphia 76ers as a result of the Steve Nash trade (and subsequent Brandon Knight/Michael Carter-Williams trade). But they are, in all likelihood, going to play fast (fifth in pace among NBA teams during preseason) and loose, they are going to get along with each other (Walton will make sure of that), and they're going to give fans hope for the future.
Sometimes, especially when you've been running low on it for a few years, hope is enough to make a team worth watching.
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