Last week, Basketball Insiders started a “Grading The Offseason” series, breaking down teams and the summer each has had thus far. Today, we’ll continue that series as we take a look at the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers had quite the up-and-down year; they went into the season with sky-high expectations, but things quickly spiraled out of control. With an aging LeBron James at their core, Los Angeles stared down a pivotal offseason; something had to be done, a move needed to be made.
So, how did they get here, and what’s next for the Lakers?
With James in Los Angeles, the Lakers had some major expectations to start last season. And, in the early going, it looked as if they would live up to those expectations.
Despite their hodgepodge roster, Los Angeles started the season steady. Behind James, the floated around the top of the Western Conference for much of the early going. At their best, the Lakers looked dominant. At their worst, Los Angeles looked like James’ former Cavaliers; an imperfect roster carried by one of the NBA’s best to “good enough.”
It’s hard not to succeed with James in your corner, and the Lakers had managed expectations to a point in James’ inaugural LakeShow season. But, unfortunately, it all came undone when James went down with an injury.
Going into their Christmas Day matchup with the Golden State Warriors, the Lakers were 20-14. In the 17 games James proceeded to miss due to a groin injury, Los Angeles struggled to the tune of 6-11.
James returned – at what appeared to be less than 100% – but others were lost to injury and the team continued to struggle. They attempted to remedy their woes with a blockbuster trade with the New Orleans Pelicans for Anthony Davis, only to be rebuffed at the February’s trade deadline.
From there, things quickly careened out of control. As the losses mounted, the Lakers steered into the skid and went into the tank.
The Lakers were expected to part ways with former head coach Luke Walton and they quickly did so once their season ended. Magic Johnson managed to shake things up further as he stepped down on the last day of the Lakers’ season.
In the end, Los Angeles postponed its postseason return and finished the season 37-45. While it may have been hard for fans to watch, it provided the team the opportunity to not only rest James, but showcase their young talent – Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, among others – to the rest of the NBA in the hope of a potential offseason blockbuster.
Los Angeles, luckily, got the blockbuster it needed.
After a lengthy search, the Lakers found their next head coach in Frank Vogel. And, while they didn’t luck out and win the NBA Draft Lottery, the Lakers walked away with the No. 4 pick.
Combined with their other assets, the Lakers had quite the cache of riches that they promptly handed over to the Pelicans for Davis.
While they were turned away by Dell Demps in-season, Ball, Ingram, Hart and three first-round picks proved to be enough for recently appointed executive vice president of basketball operations, David Griffin. A deal came together quickly between Griffin and Rob Pelinka, and, soon enough, Davis was a Laker.
In a coup, the Lakers walked away with Davis and managed to keep Kuzma, arguably the best of the former Lakers’ bunch, as well.
Once the Davis traded was finalized, Los Angeles voided what was left of last season’s roster (Kuzma aside) as the organization maneuvered its way into another max-salary slot in cap space. From there, the Lakers waited to play the free-agent game as their offseason ground to a halt.
The Lakers were expected to pursue a number of high-end players, including Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker, etc. Ultimately, the team settled on a Kawhi Leonard pursuit and, in a bid to establish the NBA’s next super-team and dynasty, the Lakers waited on him as other mid-level players flew off the board.
When Leonard spurned them for the neighboring Clippers, the Lakers did their best to pluck any impact players that remained on the market, including Danny Green, Avery Bradley and DeMarcus Cousins, while they retained a number of their own free agents, including Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, JaVale McGee and Rajon Rondo.
In the draft, the Lakers selected De’Andre Hunter and traded him to New Orleans – who would later be re-routed to the Atlanta Hawks – as part of the Davis trade. Later on, LA landed Talen Horton-Tucker, a projected first-round talent that slipped to No. 46 (via the Orlando Magic). Horton-Tucker impressed at the NBA Summer League and could prove to be an immediate contributor to the Lakers should he seize an almost-certainly-available opportunity early on next season.
PLAYERS IN: Kostas Antetokounmpo (two-way), Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook, DeMarcus Cousins, Troy Daniels, Anthony Davis, Jared Dudley, Danny Green, Talen Horton-Tucker, Zach Norvell Jr.
PLAYERS OUT: Lonzo Ball, Isaac Bonga, Reggie Bullock, Tyson Chandler, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, Jemerrio Jones, Lance Stephenson, Moritz Wagner
The Lakers went into last season with postseason aspirations and expectations. They kicked the can down the road for another season, and got away with it due to injuries.
They, obviously, won’t get away with that going forward.
For Los Angeles, “what’s next” is what’s now; they have transitioned back to win-now and, between an aging James and a suddenly thin supporting roster, so winning is a must. It shouldn’t be too difficult with James and Davis leading the charge, but the Lakers will certainly need some luck on their side.
Form last season to now, the Lakers have seen some major roster changes, so meshing could be an issue. At the very least, developing some sort of chemistry should be a point of emphasis for the team early on next season.
While their roster, as of now, stands at 15 guaranteed deals (with Kostas Antetokounmpo and Zach Norvell Jr. signed to two-way contracts), there are a number of rotation spots up for grabs as well. Between now and training camp, the Lakers front office will almost certainly keep an eye out for players that could be best suited to fit into those roles.
It won’t make or break their season, but whoever steps up – or whoever the Lakers bring in – to seize those roles and opportunities could have a major impact on next season.
Still, the Lakers managed to form one of the best duos in the NBA with Davis and James and kept (again, arguably) their second-best player from last season in Kuzma.
Waiting for Leonard may have hurt the Lakers’ depth behind those three, but it’s clear the positives have far outweighed the negatives in Los Angeles this offseason.