Los Angeles Lakers 2015-16 Season Preview
2014-15 Record: 21-61, No. 5 Pacific Division, No. 14 Western Conference
Roster Additions: Brandon Bass, Anthony Brown (rookie, no. 34), Michael Frazier II (rookie, undrafted), Roy Hibbert, Larry Nance Jr (rookie, no. 24)., D'Angelo Russell (rookie, no. 2 overall), Robert Upshaw (rookie, undrafted), Louis Williams
Roster Subtractions: Vander Blue, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Buycks, Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Xavier Henry, Jordan Hill, Wesley Johnson, Jeremy Lin, Ronnie Price
SBN Affiliate: Silver Screen & Roll
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the Lakers are always a topic of conversation. Lately, Laker haters have had the last word, as the team struggled through another last place finish in the Pacific Division and lost icon Kobe Bryant to a season ending injury for the third year in a row.
The Lakers' 2014-15 season opened with a bad omen, as prized rookie Julius Randle broke his tibia 15 minutes into the season opener against the Houston Rockets. Randle had surgery the next day and was officially ruled out for the season.
The Lakers started the season 1-9 and never really threatened to be anything resembling a good basketball team, eventually losing over 60 games for the first time in franchise history. Offensively, the team suffered from poor ball movement, leading to poor percentage shots. It was clear through the first half of the season that Bryant was trying to take over the offense for stretches, with the rest of the team standing around and watching. Guys need to get touches, or they are going to be disengaged in the offense.
Take a look at the shooting percentages for every Laker that played more than 500 minutes.
In case you're wondering, that's not ideal.
However bad the offense was, the team defense was even worse. According to Basketball-Reference.com, teams shot an insane 50.7% against the Lakers inside the 3 point line and 46.6% overall, both good (or bad) for 29th in the league. Bryant, once a high-level defender, had clearly lost a step after his multiple injuries and no one else on the team seemed interested in even trying to defend.
On January 21st, Bryant played his final game of the year after tearing his right rotator cuff on a two-handed dunk. After trying to battle nerve damage, legendary point guard Steve Nash threw in the towel and announced his retirement on March 21st, after already being ruled out for the season. Even the most fervent Laker fan needed to admit that the season was a bust.
One bright spot on the season was the emergence of rookie 2nd round pick Jordan Clarkson, out of Missouri. After several stints in the D-League over the first half of the year, Clarkson ended up starting 38 games for the Lakers, averaging 15.8 points, five assists, and 4.2 rebounds as a starter.
Additionally, power forward Ed Davis had a solid, if unspectacular year, averaging 8.3 points and 7.6 rebounds in 23 minutes per game. Davis often appeared to be the only member of the team willing to hit the boards hard and, since the team shot so poorly, he was rewarded with nearly 3 offensive rebounds per game.
After such a poor season, the Lakers needed to make changes. Fortunately for them, they held the 2nd pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, which they used to select combo guard D'Angelo Russell. Russell has a tremendous upside, having demonstrated poise and excellent handles to go along with a long wingspan and excellent conditioning habits.
After the departure of Ed Davis, the Lakers lacked consistency and depth from the 4 and 5 spots. In addition to getting Julius Randle back for what they hope will be a healthy season, the team added free agent power forward Brandon Bass, and traded a future 2nd round pick for center Roy Hibbert.
Both moves makes sense, and Hibbert in particular is a low risk/high reward case, having finished 2014 second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Hibbert appeared to mentally collapse in the playoffs that year, and never seemed to get fully back on track last season. While he performed adequately from a statistical standpoint, Hibbert's defense was less consistent (but still solid), and he disappeared on the boards for long stretches. Expect him to be an upgrade over Jordan Hill, but raise your hand if you think he'll respond well to Kobe getting in his grill over the course of an entire season.
The biggest signing the Lakers made in the offseason was to add 2015 6th Man of the Year Lou Williams. A high volume combo guard, Williams averaged 15.5 points per game for the Toronto Raptors coming off the bench, but shot only 40% from the floor - which isn't much lower than his 41.5% career mark.
Presumably Williams will retain his role as 6th man, with Kobe back at the starting shooting guard spot, and the artist formerly known as Nick Young at small forward. Look for D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle to start and get heavy developmental minutes, with Hibbert holding down the center spot.
Byron Scott has struggled to get the most out his admittedly limited talent thus far. Scott famously has said that he does not believe in the new analytics trend sweeping the modern NBA. The current thinking in the league is that the most valuable shots in the NBA are 3 pointers, free throws, and point blank 2 pointers. The Lakers ranked 11th overall in free throw attempts (due in large part to Bryant averaging 7 free throw attempts per contest while he was active) but ranked 25th in 3 pointers attempted, yet 3rd in 2 point field goal attempts last year. Couple that with a team that is ranked 27th in the league in 2 point field goal percentage and you have a recipe for failure.
Scott has his work cut out for him in terms of developing a scheme that will take advantage of his players' strengths. Even with the addition of Russell, the Lakers are likely to remain in the middle of the pack in terms of pace. Bryant has lost a step and doesn't get out in transition much anymore, and the team lacks anyone else outside of Russell who can really get up and down the court.
Last season Scott maintained elements of the Princeton offense. Ideally for the Lakers, this season they'll look to use Kobe more off the ball and run some pick and pop with Russell and Randle/Bass, both of whom can stick the mid-range jumper as well as roll semi-effectively to the rim.
How many basketballs on the court at once do there need to be for a team that features Kobe Bryant, Lou Williams, and Nick Young? Last season, according to Basketball-Reference.com, Bryant averaged a shot attempt every 1.69 minutes. Nick Young wasn't much more discriminate, averaging a shot every 2.1 minutes. Newcomer Lou Williams averaged a shot every 2.17 minutes as well. The Lakers need to find a way to keep Young and Williams engaged when they aren't getting the looks that they want, because, for better or worse, Kobe is going to get his.
The Lakers took some short term steps in the right direction, adding Hibbert to shore up the interior defense, along with Bass and Williams to add some punch off of the bench. However, there just isn't enough there on either side of the ball to demonstrate significant improvement this season. Kobe is another year older and will continue to fall off in terms of productivity as he rides off into the sunset. Randle has some potential, but is seen by some as a ground-bound, jump shooting big.
D'Angelo Russell is going to be a player in the NBA, but rookie ball handlers often have to work through defensive looks they've never seen before. Russell will get there, but he's going to make some mistakes this year. Aside from Russell, the Lakers don't have a lot of high-upside long term pieces. Another trip to the lottery is not just inevitable, it's necessary.
Kobe is known as a relentless taskmaster who demands the best from his teammates and isn't afraid to call them out in the locker room, at practice, or through the media. With his on court influence slipping substantially over the last few years and no reasonable chance at making the postseason, teammates are going to push back. Don't be surprised to hear about internal strife, with some of the future building blocks (Russell, Randle) not having patience for Kobe's "motivational ways."
It's one thing if he's leading the team to the Promised Land, it's another if you're headed for a third straight NBA Draft lottery in what is likely to be the 37-year-old's final season. The transition starts now.