The Lost Decade – Part 2 (2016-Present)

With the signing of Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, the Lakers were being led down an unfamiliar path named mediocrity. Something needed to change.

Jeanie Takes Control

Cruelly, the 2016-2017 season began with a hopeful aspect. In spite of widespread criticism of the front office over the Deng and Mozgov contracts, Ingram and Russell were considered smart choices with high level picks and the scouting department was using lower-level picks to hit on solid bench players like Nance and Ivica Zubac. Walton was highly regarded as a prospective coach, and an attitude of youthful optimism took over the early season.

The team had started well above expectations at an even 10-10 before a tougher stretch of schedule and the injury bug conspired to derail the season. The Lakers were a putrid 7-24 in December and January, and then seemingly out of nowhere a dramatic ownership battle erupted.

Jeanie Buss, who had been left the controlling owner of the Lakers by her father before he passed, had her primary expertise and focus on the business end of the franchise. Her brother Jim, who worked in the front office, had largely been left to deal with basketball matters, along with General Manager Mitch Kupchak.

Seeing the team continue to underperform in spite of her brother’s pledges to return to title contention, Jeanie had grown impatient. When Jim failed to meet a self-imposed deadline to return to the playoffs by 2017 – the Lakers finished an improved 26-56 but were eliminated from contention in February – Jeanie promptly fired him, Kupchak, and most of the rest of the front office. She replaced them with longtime friend and Laker legend Magic Johnson as President of Basketball Operations and former Kobe Bryant agent Rob Pelinka as General Manager.

(Image/Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Shortly thereafter, as the season unceremoniously wound down, Jeanie was forced to put down an attempt by her scorned brother to take control of the team by taking him to court. The failure to make the playoffs again after a promising start combined with the ugliness of the conflict at the ownership level did not project the look of an organization ready to contend for a title.

Still, Jeanie Buss, Johnson, and Pelinka made some bold moves in the 2017 off-season with a clear objective in mind: restore the Lakers’ status as the premier destination for elite talent in the NBA. To rid themselves of Mozgov’s massive contract, they agreed to trade Russell with him to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Brook Lopez and a draft pick swap. Doing so permitted the Lakers to guarantee they would have max-level salary space the following summer when several big names such as LeBron James and Paul George would be free agents.

They had been aided by the luck of the draw when the NBA Draft Lottery delivered them the second overall pick yet again, a high enough spot for them to retain it. They used it on the college point guard phenomenon Lonzo Ball, who drew comparisons to Johnson for his combination of size, speed, and court vision at that position.

They were also able to use two late first-round picks previously acquired to draft Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart, who along with Ball impressed in Summer League. Also, they signed Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who was a client of LeBron James’ agent and close business partner Rich Paul, to a conspicuously generous contract.

In spite of these changes, the 2017-2018 season started poorly, with injuries and uncertainty about roles again to blame. Yet after an atrocious December, the team played better than .500 basketball, with each of the youngsters impressing in turn, to finish at 35-47. In February, the Lakers traded Clarkson and Nance to Cleveland in a deal that took on only contracts in their last year, increasing potential cap space for the coming free agency period.

With several huge names available and the Lakers openly clearing as much salary cap space as possible to court them, the summer of 2018 was set up to be pivotal in the plan Jeanie Buss, Johnson, and Pelinka had made when they took over the organization the previous season. The circumstances were unlikely to ever be more favorable. They had the money, they had a cast of promising young players on cheap contracts, and they had the best salesman in basketball.


Star Chasing

The name most widely connected to the Lakers near the beginning of free agency in 2018 was Paul George. He had requested a trade to the Lakers from Indiana before being dealt to join Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City instead. Yet as midnight approached on day one of the 2018 free agency period, the announcement (complete with a three-part ESPN special that made The Decision seem comparatively modest) came that George would be signing a four-year contract to remain with the Thunder.

Yet again, the Lakers had missed out on a major free agent and it was a body blow to their plan. Given George’s vocal request to be moved to the Lakers, the team had been widely expected to be very competitive in the market for his services. As it was, George was so taken with the lavish recruitment campaign Westbrook and the Thunder mounted that he decided without even granting the Lakers a meeting.

Yet even as the Laker fan base was stunned to the point of despair by George’s decision, Magic Johnson had been quietly invited to a meeting at the Los Angeles home of LeBron James. James was thinking about his future, and the potential attractions of both playing near his family and the media production opportunities available in LA were too strong to ignore.

The one thing James needed to know before making the move was whether he could trust the organization and front office to build winning teams around him. He may have had one eye on life after basketball, but he was not interested in spending his last years in the league trapped on bad teams as Bryant had.

Throughout their conversation, Johnson detailed the Lakers’ long term plans and sold James on a partnership with the organization. The message was particularly powerful coming from Johnson, who was so beloved by Dr. Buss both as a player and an individual that he was given a small ownership stake in the team. James was convinced.

Less than a day later, the Klutch Sports Twitter account tweeted a press release.

(Image/Klutch Sports)

Pelinka would later say that he found out in similarly low-key fashion when James’ agent Rich Paul texted him a simple “congratulations”, adorned for good measure with a balloon emoji.

But James was not the herald of a return to elite basketball, at least not immediately. Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, and Hart all had a long way to go, and the Lakers lost sharpshooting center Brook Lopez in free agency to the Bucks. Yet the addition of James was enough to have the Lakers in solid early position at 19-14 entering a Christmas confrontation with the twice defending champion Warriors.

The Lakers played a marvelous game, even closing it out effectively after James left in the third quarter with an apparent groin injury. But 20-14 was as good as the Lakers’ record would be. James’ recovery timeline stretched from weeks to months. Losses mounted as the supporting cast proved maddeningly unable to finish games without him.

The drama escalated when 25-year old superstar Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans went public with a request to be traded to the Lakers. To emphasize the point, he changed his representation to Klutch Sports and Rich Paul. The message was unmistakable: I want to be a Laker and LeBron James wants me to be one too.

The young players spent weeks in the lead-up to the trade deadline reading their names in press reports about trade discussions. Their play and team chemistry suffered. Worst of all, the deadline passed without a deal, meaning that the team and players they had openly been discussing trading were stuck with one another through the end of the year.

When James finally returned after three months, he seemed a step slower. A promised push to sneak into the playoffs never materialized. The team ended the season 37-45, out of the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year. Media personalities began to question whether, at age 34 and having just incurred the first significant injury of his career, James would be himself again even with a long summer to recover.

Image result for lebron james lakers 2018
(Image/Los Angeles Times)

LeBron James’ first season, even accounting for injuries, was a disappointment. People expected more of Ball and Ingram than they delivered, even when they showed flashes of their potential. James himself hadn’t failed to make the playoffs since his second year in the league. The failure to secure a trade for Davis during the year made the off-season all the more consequential. Some even said that without another star, the Lakers could be compelled to trade James and start over.

Adding to the Lakers’ misfortunes, Johnson unexpectedly resigned after the season, alluding to contention within the organization at the management level. Head Coach Luke Walton was fired. To replace him, the team had a high profile flirtation with former Laker and former James coach Tyronn Lue, only to see that negotiation fall through when the Lakers refused to meet Lue’s price.

Johnson then went to the media to express his frustration with Pelinka, who he claimed had been commenting loudly on the amount of time he spent working with the Lakers as opposed to his other business commitments. Talk of organizational dysfunction was revived.

It was at this point, when the Lakers’ long term plan seemed in serious danger of collapse, that they finally managed to trade for Anthony Davis. Davis’ insistence that the Lakers were his chosen destination scared off other potential suitors and the Lakers’ offer was clearly the best available. When another fortuitous draft lottery made the first-round pick they had been offering the fourth overall, their trade package became too good for New Orleans to refuse indefinitely.

It cost them Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, and a combination of draft picks and optional-swaps sufficient to make the move somewhat risky, but the Lakers finally secured their second superstar. Additionally, the team brought in a coaching staff headed by former Pacers coach Frank Vogel, and with highly regarded names in Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins as his assistants.

Seeking to build a dynasty, they immediately pivoted to Kawhi Leonard‘s free agency and pitched him heavily on playing with two more of the world’s best players in his home town. Leonard had plans of his own and leveraged the temptation of the Lakers to force the Los Angeles Clippers to trade for Paul George to secure his services.

The 2019 off-season came to a close with mixed reviews. On one hand, it is difficult to criticize anything about the acquisition of Anthony Davis, who is a generational player. Yet, seeing the Lakers lose out on a free agent of Leonard’s caliber to the Clippers of all teams – taking with him another star long linked to the Lakers – only reminded fans of a dozen recent failures in free agency, and continued mistrust of the front office remained.

The Rise

Starting immediately after Leonard’s signing with the Clippers, the Lakers filled out their roster around their newly minted star duo. Danny Green, Avery Bradley, DeMarcus Cousins, and astonishingly – after Cousins suffered an ACL tear during an off-season workout – Dwight Howard was added to returning players Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, and JaVale McGee.

Several prominent commentators who shall remain nameless sneered at the roster. But 34 games into the season the Lakers are 26-7 and first in the highly competitive Western Conference. For the first time since late 2012, the Lakers are playing with championship expectations.

Image result for lebron james anthony davis

James has come out in MVP form after his long off-season and he and Davis have shown early chemistry both on and off the court that few dared expect. With Davis sending signals of his intent to re-sign with the Lakers in his free agency after this season and the Lakers playing at a championship level, the intermediate future of this team seems – for now – to be secure.

In the last ten years, the Lakers fell farther and harder than they ever had. They had missed the playoffs only four times in 53 years from the time they moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles, then they missed them six years running. They whiffed on more than half a dozen high-profile attempts to sign any max-contract caliber player, all while looking at the retired numbers and wondering where they went wrong. They were, over that span, the worst team in the league by the record.

Finally, though, fans have every reason to be hopeful. The two players they have leading their team are both going to be first-ballot Hall of Famers. Even should they fail, for whatever reason, to deliver a championship, they will not fail to be in the conversation every year they play together.

They are playing the sort of crowd-pleasing basketball that made this team the most followed in the world. The front office – following Johnson’s departure – has chosen to remain silent and let the results speak for themselves. They are speaking so loudly no one seems to notice the conspicuous silence at the top of the Lakers organization.

No one really knows if the tandem of James and Davis will win a Finals. There are, as always at the highest levels of athletic competition, dozens of things that could derail their efforts. Yet, for the first time in years, it feels as though the Lakers are making the correct moves and seeing the fruits of their labor. Whatever the next ten years look like for this team, it will not look like the last.

For part 1, click here.

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

Fanatics UK: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout to receive 10% off. This is not limited to just NBA apparel, but the discount can be used on MLB, NFL, NHL, Football/Soccer gear also!

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The Lost Decade – Part 1 (2010-16)


A once-dominant franchise looked into the abyss. Then, improbably, it found its way again.

Pau Gasol grabbed the rebound, turned, and quickly tossed the ball to Lamar Odom. Odom, checking the clock, hurled the ball down court to no one in particular as the final seconds of the game ticked away. Kobe Bryant chased the ball down and, making his way slowly and emotionally through a sea of elated teammates and confetti, mounted the scorer’s table to commune with the delirious crowd at Staples Center.

It was June 16, 2010, and the Los Angeles Lakers had just secured their franchise its 16th championship and second in a row, this one over the rival Boston Celtics. The core of Bryant, Gasol, Odom, and Andrew Bynum looked to remain intact for years as Bynum entered his athletic prime. Jeff Van Gundy spoke for much of the basketball world when he said on the broadcast just after that Game 7 victory, “there’s no reason to think this team couldn’t three-peat.”

(Image/Nathaniel Butler/NBA)

But they didn’t. That failure, and the team’s increasingly desperate efforts to secure Bryant a championship-caliber team for his final years in the league, set in motion a cascade of misfortunes that saw the Lakers fail to see playoff basketball for six years running – far and away from the longest such streak in franchise history. Now, ten years after Bryant hopped onto that table clinging to the game ball, the Lakers are once again hunting the ultimate prize.

The Decline

During the 2010 playoff run, there had been signs that the Lakers and Spurs were no longer as far ahead of the Western Conference as they had been for ten years. The Lakers had to endure two bruising series – in the first round against a rising Oklahoma City Thunder team featuring Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden and in the conference finals against Carmelo Anthony and the gritty Denver Nuggets – before even seeing Boston. 

The team’s off-season moves in 2010, adding wing defender Matt Barnes and backup guard Steve Blake while re-signing Derek Fisher, were meant to ensure the depth and defensive toughness needed to fend off up-and-coming-teams in the West. The Lakers managed to post a 57-25 regular season in 2010-2011, good for the second seed in the competitive West and identical to the team’s 2009-2010 performance. Odom became the first Laker to win 6th Man of the Year.

Yet, in the second round of the playoffs, the Lakers were dominated by a Dallas Mavericks team playing a surprisingly modern brand of basketball. Combining Dirk Nowitzki‘s smooth jumper and isolation play with Jason Kidd‘s pick and roll dominance and spacing the floor for them with a bench full of shooters, they clinically dissected the vaunted Laker defense in four games.

The Lakers’ frustration with their inability to slow down the Dallas attack boiled over in the 4th quarter of a 30-point blowout in Game 4, when Bynum delivered a forearm shot to an airborne J.J. Barea, ensuring that he would begin the 2011-2012 campaign with a suspension. The ugliness of the hit and the game in which it took place to cast a pall over the Lakers’ off-season. There was a sense that major changes would have to be made.

(Image/Tom Fox/Dallas Morning News)

The first change came immediately after the playoffs, when longtime head coach Phil Jackson, who had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, announced his retirement. Former Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, freshly fired after consecutive 60 win seasons coaching LeBron James, was hired to replace him.

Then the off-season was derailed by a stalemate between the league and the Players’ Association on a new collective bargaining agreement. Training camp, preseason and the month of November passed without a resolution. In the meantime, budding superstar Chris Paul had informed the then-New Orleans Hornets that he did not intend to resign with the team the following year.

Seeking a younger star whose prime – alongside Bynum’s – would prolong the Lakers’ championship window for Bryant, and with one eye on Bryant’s eventual retirement, Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak made his move. A three-team deal was arranged that would move Paul to the Lakers and Gasol to the Rockets, with New Orleans being compensated with several rotation players in Odom, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, and Kevin Martin, along with a first-round pick from Houston.

But the basketball world was to be stunned twice on the same day. Only hours after the trade was reported, Commissioner David Stern announced that he was vetoing it because New Orleans, which was owned by the league at the time, had received what he considered inadequate compensation.

(Image/Getty Images)

Fury among smaller market owners at the persistent ability of large markets and big-name teams to lure young stars away from their own teams – and still stinging from James’ dramatic departure from Cleveland to Miami the previous year – was rumored to have played a part in the decision to prevent the Lakers from pairing Paul and Bryant. In any case, the deal that sent Paul to the Clippers shortly thereafter was not obviously more advantageous for New Orleans than the one offered by the Rockets and Lakers from a basketball perspective.

Meanwhile, the cancellation of the trade put the Lakers in an extremely awkward position relative to Odom and Gasol, who had been made painfully aware that they were considered expendable. Odom voiced his displeasure openly and was speedily dealt with Dallas to prevent further unpleasantness.

Gasol clearly wasn’t pleased with the idea of being moved but took a philosophical approach. “I understand (Lamar’s) response, and I understand how he felt about it and how you could feel that way. But you have to look at it from a different perspective and not try to take it so personally.”

After serving his suspension when the season finally began in late December, Andrew Bynum played like a potential franchise cornerstone. Putting up career numbers in both points and rebounds at 18.7ppg and 11.6rpg, he peppered the season with several exceptional individual performances. Alongside Bryant and Gasol, he helped lead the team to a 41-25 record in the lockout-shortened season, good for third in the west.

Yet again, however, the second round and eventual Western Conference champion proved too much for the Lakers. This time, it was Durant, Westbrook, and the Thunder who sent them off in a one-sided 4-1 series. The Thunder were big enough to compete with the Lakers’ elite size but did so on younger legs and with superior athleticism. Durant put on a scoring display against his former idol Bryant, and once again a Laker team with title aspirations found itself at home watching the Conference Finals.

(Image/Richard A. Rowe/OKC Thunder)

At this point, the Lakers and Bryant himself began to grow desperate to build a roster that was capable of championship contention. It was increasingly clear that the roster as it was, two years older since their last real playoff run and missing major contributors from that year, was simply not able to beat elite teams in the postseason anymore. Rumors pointedly connecting the Lakers to Dwight Howard began to circulate.

The Dwightmare

The first domino to fall in the fateful summer of 2013 was not Howard, but Steve Nash. Nash and the Phoenix Suns had mutually agreed to part ways, and executed a sign-and-trade that involved the Lakers sending two first and two second-round draft picks for his services. An all-time great facilitator and shooter, Nash remained widely respected around the league but faced questions about his health and advanced age at 38.

Then a month later the larger shoe – both literally and figuratively – dropped. In a ludicrously complicated deal involving four teams, the Lakers gave up Bynum and two more lightly protected draft picks and received as compensation Howard, Earl Clark, and Chris Duhon. With the addition of bona fide superstars in Howard and Nash to pair with Bryant and Gasol, the Lakers seemed poised to return to the top of NBA basketball.

The combined Nash and Howard trades were recognized at the time to represent a colossal risk, but with a potentially colossal payoff. The talent level alone provided championship potential if everything went right. There were, however, a disconcerting preponderance of things that could go wrong.

(Image/Sports Illustrated)

First among worries about the new team was health. Howard was coming into the year in recovery from back surgery, and Nash had back concerns as well as his age to contend with.

The second was the scheme. Coach Mike Brown had made the decision to utilize a Princeton offense. He made the decision well before the Nash and Howard trades and may have done well to reconsider. The offense, which emphasized screening and passing reads over post isolation for bigs, was more suited to the combination of Bynum and Gasol than Howard, who expected to be a focal point of the Lakers offense from the low post.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Howard’s free agency at the end of the season loomed over everyone.

Things began to go wrong very quickly. The team lost all 8 of its pre-season games and first three of the regular season as they struggled to integrate both new players and a new scheme. Nash suffered a non-displaced leg fracture in the second game of the year and missed almost two months. Howard, looking to make a point, played from the beginning of the year in spite of expectations that his surgery could keep him out until January. He was never 100%.

Coach Brown finally won a game with his new team against Detroit on November 4 and was promptly fired. The front office was very impatient to see a team with so much talent come together, and quickly reached a judgment that Brown wasn’t the man for the job. After a brief flirtation with bringing back Phil Jackson, who requested time to consider, the Lakers instead brought in former Nash coach and offensive mind Mike D’Antoni.

Injuries and a lack of clear roles continued to hurt the Laker’s record and their chemistry. Nash and Bryant were frequently at odds with Howard, who continued to push for post-up opportunities instead of embracing the more active role prescribed for bigs in D’Antoni’s fast-paced offense.

“It’s been difficult really to get him into that game – running into pick and rolls, diving hard, looking for the ball,” Nash told local media in February. “We really haven’t found that rhythm from him yet.” The Lakers limped into the All-Star break at 25-29, sitting several games out of the playoff picture.

The day after the All-Star game, Dr. Buss died after a long fight with cancer, leaving the running of the team to his six children, principally Jeanie and Jim. It appeared to be symbolic: the man who had turned the Lakers into “Showtime” and seen them win 10 championships in his 33 years of ownership passing away just as his team seemed to be unraveling in slow motion.

After the break, as the team fought through injuries and continued friction in the locker room, it was Bryant who began to simply take over. Securing game after game with exceptional individual performances for a player in his 17th season, Bryant leads the Lakers to a league-best 20-8 mark following the All-Star game. He was himself fighting through a host of small injuries, and his minutes and intensity were so high during this stretch that Kupchak reportedly spoke to Bryant about preserving his body. Bryant replied that his efforts were needed to secure a playoff spot.

He paid the price with three games to go in the season. Making a move late in a game against the Golden State Warriors, Bryant hit the floor on a foul call, reaching immediately for his ankle. After hitting his free throws, he went to the locker room and did not return. After the game, the team confirmed that Bryant had torn his Achilles tendon. The injury, everyone knew, effectively ended the Lakers season. Bryant had dragged them into the playoffs, but without him, the Lakers had no chance against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs in the first round.

(Image/ Hans Gutknecht/Los Angeles Daily News)

With Nash out from a lingering back issue that came attached with nerve damage and Bryant out for the better part of a year, the Lakers blitzed Howard with over-the-top shows of affection in an attempt to convince him to re-sign after a dumpster fire of a season. They did not work. Howard chose to leave the pressure of Los Angeles – reportedly after ownership refused to part ways with Bryant – and team up instead with James Harden in Houston.

Howard’s departure, while not entirely unforeseen, still came as a gut punch to the organization. For the second time in a decade – along with Shaquille O’Neal‘s trade request after the 2004 season – a star center had decided to leave Los Angeles rather than continue playing with Bryant. Howard was gone, Nash was approaching 40 with chronic back issues, and Bryant had just had his 17th NBA season ended by one of the most devastating injuries in sports. Adding insult to injury, the Lakers had given up a slew of draft picks to acquire Nash and Howard, limiting their ability to make additional moves to stop the bleeding.

The Lakers were out of options, forced to acknowledge something that they had avoided for decades. For the next several years, the last of Bryant’s career, they were going to be a bad team.

Rock Bottom

With little expectation that Bryant would be available for much if any of the 2013-2014 season, the team put together what amounted to a discount roster. They realized they weren’t likely to see playoff basketball and decided to plan for the following year instead, padding the roster with light contracts while moving their long term commitments. They could use the draft picks remaining to them to draft or trade for promising talent and pair that talent with Bryant and Nash to attract free agents when the season was over, or so the front office reasoned.

Yet, astonishingly given his injury status and age, early in the season the Lakers made Bryant the highest-paid player in basketball with a two-year contract extension. The team framed the widely-criticized contract as a loyalty move, rewarding Bryant for sticking with the team and delivering with such regularity. The unavoidable fact, however, was that giving so much money to Bryant limited the team’s ability to put together a title-caliber roster, even if a star free agent chose to join them.

(Image/Orange County Register)

After a surprising 13-13 start, the season regressed to expectations. Bryant miraculously returned from his Achilles injury in December only to go down a week later with a broken bone in his knee, once again out for the season. Nash, constantly struggling with back issues, played only 15 games and was unable to make an impact even when playing. The Lakers finished 27-55, losing the most games in franchise history. The leading scorer for the season was Nick Young at just over 17ppg, edging out an aging Gasol.

Over the summer of 2014, the Lakers drafted promising Kentucky forward Julius Randle and little-known guard Jordan Clarkson from Missouri. They also parted ways with Coach D’Antoni and replaced him with Showtime-era Laker, Kobe Bryant mentor, and former NBA Coach of the Year Byron Scott. Looking to pair a max-contract caliber player with Bryant and Nash, the Lakers and Gasol parted in free agency after 6 years and 2 title runs.

After making concerted efforts to sign Carmelo Anthony or Kyle Lowry in free agency and even making a long-shot pitch to LeBron James, the Lakers found themselves empty-handed. No elite player wanted to attach themselves to a roster with two injured, aging stars and a collection of unproven youths and mediocre role players surrounding them. Bryant’s contract had predictably become an albatross, helping to keep elite free agents away because market-savvy players knew the team wouldn’t have the money left over for a high-level supporting cast.

The front office entered a holding pattern, repeating its process from the previous year by padding out the roster with cheap, short-term contracts and waiting out the season.

The Lakers’ 2014-2015 season was aptly summarized on opening night when Randle went down with a broken leg that ended his rookie season in an 18-point home loss to Houston. Clarkson played very well throughout the season in a role enlarged by injuries, but he was the lone bright spot in another lost year.

Bryant, returning from his second consecutive season-ending injury at 37, was a shell of himself and only able to play 35 games. Nash never saw the court, choosing to retire instead of continuing injuring his back. The team finished 21-61, breaking the previous year’s record for most losses in Laker history.

Armed with the second overall pick in 2015, the Lakers selected lefty point guard D’Angelo Russell and supplemented him late in the first round with a freak athlete in Larry Nance, Jr. As in the previous two years, however, the Lakers struck out on top-flight free agents. They made runs at LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, but with the state of their roster never merited serious consideration. Embarrassingly, the Lakers asked a bemused Aldridge for a second free agency meeting after media reports surfaced that he had been unimpressed with their first attempt. He chose the Spurs. The Lakers instead added Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, and Brandon Bass.

The 2015-2016 season was widely expected to be Bryant’s last, and he confirmed that shortly after the season began. With that announcement and the acknowledgment that the preponderance of youth on the team made playoff contention unlikely, the season became the Kobe Bryant Farewell Tour. Crowds everywhere he went cheered him wildly while their teams beat up on the Lakers on the court. He did his best to perform, but as he said, he no longer had much left to give.

During the season, the team suffered from chemistry issues as Russell struggled with his maturity and the old-school, tough love mentality of Coach Scott. Navigating the locker room and coach while playing in the shadow of Bryant’s last year, all while finding his role alongside similarly ball-dominant guards in Bryant and Clarkson, made Russell’s rookie year a difficult one.

The Lakers’ 17-65 record was, for the third year running, the worst in their history. Kobe Bryant provided fans with one final show, dropping 60 in his final game and leading an improbable last-minute comeback on his way out. That game and another second overall pick for the upcoming 2016 draft were bittersweet compensation for Laker fans watching their franchise cornerstone retire with no obvious heir. The team remained in shambles.

(Image/Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Given his fraught relationship with both Russell and the three-point line, Scott was fired after the season and replaced with the highly-sought-after Warriors assistant coach Luke Walton. The Lakers used their second overall pick to draft a lanky wing with elite two-way potential in Brandon Ingram. He created with Randle and Russell a core of young players with complementary skill-sets to develop in Bryant’s absence. Walton, known as a player-friendly coach, was considered (at the time) an excellent choice to execute that development.

Jim Buss, in charge of basketball operations, and Kupchak, then made a pair of very bad decisions. The NBA salary cap was given an unexpectedly large boost in 2016 based on an extremely lucrative television deal just signed by the league. As a result, several players that summer received absurdly large contracts from cash-drunk teams. Two of the worst contracts of the summer though were given out by Buss and Kupchak.

Shortly after the beginning of free agency, apparently resigned to the reality that they still had no significant interest from high-level free agents, they announced the signings of center Timofey Mozgov and wing, Luol Deng, to 4-year contracts worth $64 and $72 million, respectively. Even in the irrationally exuberant summer of 2016, the length and size of the contracts for aging role players were widely mocked across the league.

Buss and Kupchak had shackled the young Laker players to Deng and Mozgov for their formative years, and by overpaying the two veterans so extravagantly had made it essentially impossible for the Lakers to sign a max-level player without moving one of them.

Additionally, as a consequence of the Howard trade years earlier, unless the Lakers draft pick for 2017 fell in the top 3, they would lose their first-round picks for 2017 and 2018. If the young Lakers proved to be good and the team won, their rebuild might be strangled by the loss of draft picks. If the team was bad enough to keep its draft picks, it would probably mean that the young players weren’t as valuable as expected. The Lakers, rival executives began to say more and more loudly, were now just another team.

For part 2, click here.

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

Fanatics UK: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout to receive 10% off. This is not limited to just NBA apparel, but the discount can be used on MLB, NFL, NHL, Football/Soccer gear also!

NBA Store Europe: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout. This is not limited to Lakers gear, the discount is available site-wide on any product you wish to purchase!

How Good are the Lakers? A Quarter-Mark Review

(Image/Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE)

Fans of the purple and gold had questions about this newly formed Lakers squad. We are finally getting answers.

The Los Angeles Lakers have now played 21 games, representing the approximate quarter-mark of the 82 game slog that is the NBA regular reason.

By all accounts they have exceeded expectations, winning 18 of those 21 games and showing in the process instant chemistry that was not widely expected for a team with so many new faces.

Yet as the preseason began, there remained considerable uncertainty about how good this Lakers team would ultimately be.

The superstar core of LeBron James and Anthony Davis essentially guaranteed playoff basketball if healthy, but the ultimate potential of the team, all observers agreed, would ultimately depend on the performance of the role players and coaching staff.

In a season preview, we boiled down the uncertainties surrounding this team to four key questions, the answers to which would provide essential information about how good they could potentially be. A quarter of the way through the season, we are beginning to get enough information to answer those questions with some confidence.

Are perimeter players hitting open 3s?

By far the most important of the four questions because if defenses have to respect the Lakers’ perimeter shooters James and Davis cannot be held in check offensively.

The uneven shooting records of Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Rajon Rondo, and Alex Caruso prompted some skepticism that the Lakers’ spacing would be sufficient to maximize their star duo. Poor 3 point shooting in the preseason and the first couple games of the regular season seemed to justify that skepticism.

Then, that abruptly changed. In November the team shot 36.9% from three, respectably above league average. In the ten game span ending with Friday night’s game against the Washington Wizards, they shot a league-leading 40.1%. They also won all of those games.

(Image/Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The most encouraging sign about this shooting-spree has been that it isn’t centered around one or two players. Danny Green remains Danny Green, shooting 38.1% on an even 5 attempts from three per game.

Caldwell-Pope, after an excruciatingly slow start shooting the ball, has caught fire so quickly he is up to 38.3% from three on the year.

Kyle Kuzma, discussed below, is also shooting very well after a cold start, his post-eye-poke slump notwithstanding. Perhaps most surprisingly, notorious bricklayer Rajon Rondo is shooting an eye-popping 48.4% on almost 3 attempts per game. 

While Bradley and Caruso have both languished in the sub-30% range shooting the long ball this year, enough of the Lakers perimeter players have made their shots that they currently sit 8th in the league in offensive efficiency, up from 24th last year.

In short, the answer to this question so far has been yes.

The Lakers are punishing opposing defenses for sagging away from shooters to help defend James and Davis, and that punishment forces a reaction, in turn creating more space in which the stars can operate. It is a proven formula for James, and Davis can do more to exploit it than any player he has ever played with. As long as the Lakers have 2 or 3 credible three-point threats to use around them, the team’s offensive success is absolutely sustainable.

Are the Lakers able to use drop coverage to guard the Pick and Roll without bleeding points?

In the last ten seasons, the traditional big man has died in the NBA. The end of the league ban on zone defense in 2002 made it easier to contain bruising, physically dominant bigs in the post by eliminating the requirement that helps defenders stay attached to their assignment or commit to a full double-team. 

Then the LeBron James-led Miami Heat and more recently the Golden State Warriors demonstrated to the league that effective spacing can run slow bigs off the court defensively while zone principles can limit their offensive impact. They have been banished from the highest echelons of the NBA accordingly.

The remaining niche for athletic bigs who don’t have quite perimeter-level quickness is to be a rebounding rim-protector and screen-setter in the mold of Rudy Gobert or Clint Capela. In order to employ those bigs effectively, it is generally necessary to have perimeter defenders capable of fighting over screens quickly, so that slower bigs aren’t forced to switch onto smaller, faster playmakers.

The Lakers play two such bigs in JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard.

It is of great importance that the perimeter defenders on the team maintain pressure and consistently fight over screens to avoid compromising the ability of the bigs to stay close to the rim. Fortunately Bradley, Caldwell-Pope, Green, and Caruso have shown the ability to shoulder their part of the defensive burden.

(Image/Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports)

The downside of drop coverage is that the mid-range jump shot is generally left open, between the perimeter defender fighting over a screen and the defending big dropped behind the screen. Players with effective mid-range shots are more effectively defended by switching, provided the big involved is capable of defending the perimeter player in question.

One of the best defensive signs of the young season has been Howard’s ability to hold his own against faster guards on the switch. It has been years since we’ve seen this sort of quickness on his feet from Howard, and he has remained at or near the top of the team in defensive rating all year. If he sustains the trend, the Lakers may not need to be so dependent on defending the screen and roll with drop coverage in the playoffs, as both he and Davis could plausibly switch onto guards from the center position.

McGee, on the other hand, has had uneven defensive performances because of his tendency to chase blocked shots. He has made a career out of making guards think they have a lane to the basket only to erase the shot at the last moment.

The problem with that tactic is if the player employing it is, like McGee, inconsistent in judging the ability of the guard to exploit the window, he ends up giving up a number of free layups.

Even with that caveat, the Lakers are a top-five team in defensive efficiency and have shown the ability to put the clamps on opposing offenses in crunch time. By and large, everyone is playing into their role defensively, coach Frank Vogel has put together a sound scheme, and the results are plain to see.

Is Team USA Kuz translating to the NBA?

Before being diagnosed with a stress reaction in his leg, Kuzma had an excellent run at the Team USA training camp this summer. His defensive intensity had significantly improved in his second year, and with Team USA he began to make better defensive reads as well. Most tantalizingly, he showed off a slightly modified shooting stroke that seemed to be improving his consistency from deep.

(Image/Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

In returning from his injury, Kuzma initially struggled. Having missed training camp, preseason, and the first games of the regular season, he needed several games to settle back into the pace of NBA play. Since then, his shooting has been excellent. His overall numbers – 33/3% on 4.4 attempts per game – remain short of what might be hoped for. Yet in his last eleven

games, including three duds hampered by an ankle sprain, he has shot a clean 41% from three-point range. 

Defensively, the result so far from Kuzma has been a mixed bag.

Conditioning and injuries have jointly conspired to keep him from playing his best immediately, and it remains to be seen if he will be a good enough perimeter defender to deter teams with elite talent from hunting him, as Pascal Siakam and the Toronto Raptors did in the Lakers’ second loss of the season.

Accordingly, the verdict on Kuzma remains out. On the whole, the shooting numbers are particularly encouraging because what this team needs most from Kuzma is for him to be a reasonably efficient third scoring option when he is on the floor. Even if his defensive play this summer was a mirage, shooting the 3 and scoring effectively will be enough to keep Kuzma on the floor for significant minutes.

If Kuzma can provide a solid scoring output from the bench, this alleviates a lot of pressure on the shoulders of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, allowing for them to rest for longer periods and stay healthy for a playoff run.

Has the team and the staff avoided drama and stayed focused?

Of the four questions addressed here, this one had the greatest potential to keep this team from becoming the best version of itself.

Lakers fans have seen all too clearly in recent years how efficiently poor coaching and organizational dysfunction can hide talent on the court. There was also an unusually large number of chemistry variables at play this year, ranging from the coaching staff to the star duo to the role players.

Thankfully, none of those potential distractions have materialized. Vogel has shown himself to be a sensible and adaptable coach, which has contributed significantly to the Lakers’ blistering start. Assistants Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins were widely suspected this summer to be eager to take the reins should Vogel fail early. On account of the team’s early success and Vogel’s contributions to it, even NBA Twitter has largely stopped making jokes about Kidd’s ambitions.

Vogel’s job seems very secure for the short term, and that is absolutely what is best for the team. The Lakers, as all fans are aware, attract more than enough media attention to their every move on account of their success and location. Hitting a rough patch early in the season could have been fatal for a team trying to build trust in the new coaching staff and between many new players. In addition, their strong start has given the staff enough credibility that when the inevitable rough patch comes, they have the tools necessary to weather it.

(Image/Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

The Next 20 Games

In the first quarter of the regular season, the Lakers have shown themselves capable of doing the things they need to do to win a championship this year. Yet even proven capability on its own is far from a guarantee (see Houston Rockets). But given that we were wondering before this season whether the Lakers had a championship-caliber roster, these early results are extremely encouraging.

What we know after 21 games is that the Lakers have the talent and personnel to be a title contender. What we will find out in the next 20, particularly during the brutal run of games they have scheduled for December, is whether they have the mental and physical toughness to execute under adversity. We will learn a lot more about this team in the coming games, and they should learn a lot more about themselves. For now, Lakers fans should relish being able to watch basketball played at the highest levels for the first time in a decade.

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

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LeBron James’ Improved Defensive Play

(Image/Logan Riely/NBAE/Getty Images)

Anthony Davis challenged LeBron James this off-season to return to First Team All-Defensive form. So far, so good.

After the Lakers held on for a victory in San Antonio on November 3, LeBron James was asked about the renewed defensive intensity he has shown after an unusually poor defensive season last year. “For me, I just take the challenge,” he said. “I love being challenged. Coach challenged me. A.D. challenged me. I challenged myself. I put a lot of hard work into my offseason by getting my quick twitch, getting my bounce back, getting my speed back, my reaction time back. My mind has always been there. That’s what it’s all about.”

There was a time not too long ago when seeing the face of LeBron James was enough to strike fear into the heart of the most skilled ball-handler. That reputation began to slip during his last two exasperating years in Cleveland, as the depth of the team collapsed around him and he found himself more and more not the primary but the only offensive option. His defensive effort suffered accordingly.

His move last year to a Laker team with highly regarded young defenders like Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, and Josh Hart was widely expected to permit him to continue playing a reduced defensive role without costing the team points, but that plan was derailed by significant injuries, particularly to Ball and James himself. When he returned for the end of the season, James looked sluggish and disinterested.

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(Image/Getty Images)

In the offseason many commentators questioned whether he was capable of returning to elite defensive form for his 17th year in the league. Anthony Davis, a DPOY-caliber player in his own right, was having none of it. He challenged James publicly weeks before training camp to merit a return to the NBA’s All-Defensive team. James seemed to warm to the challenge, but the media and much of the public remained skeptical.

Davis takes great pride in his defensive play and Head Coach Frank Vogel is known and highly regarded as a defensive-minded coach, so perhaps it only made sense for this team to forge its identity on the defensive end. Coming into the season, though, no one really knew if James would be capable of making major contributions on that end after the most significant injury of his long career. While there have been mistakes and some bad habits remain, on the whole James has been stellar and a major contributor to the Lakers’ highly-ranked defense this year.

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Helping from the Corner

James spends the vast majority of his defensive possessions away from the ball. In part, that is because most wings start possessions away from the ball-handler, who is usually a guard. Yet James spends his time most specifically guarding a shooter initially stationed in the corner, even when that shooter is not necessarily his direct positional opposite, and whenever feasible if his assigned offensive player moves, he will switch assignments to keep himself defending the corner area.

He does so for three reasons. By staying away from the ball and moving as little as possible, he is able to conserve energy. It may seem like a small thing, but these small efficiencies add up over the course of a season and allow him to remain fresh whenever the team needs his offensive production.

More interestingly, James likes to stay near the corner because that allows him to occupy a help position as close as possible to the rim. Having James, as well as Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee in help positions near the basket is essential to Vogel’s defensive strategy for this team. Vogel wants to use his aggressive, pressuring defensive guards to irritate ball-handlers and contest shots at the three-point line.

Playing so closely, though, makes the guards vulnerable to be beaten off the dribble by quick opponents. In order to avoid easy shot opportunities in this situation, someone has to be in a position to defend the rim in case of emergency. James has marvellous instincts defensively, and being used as this defender of last resort, able to read what is happening on the court and respond appropriately, plays to his strengths.

Sometimes it comes in the form of a double-team, sometimes a steal, sometimes a charge taken, sometimes simply forcing the ball-handler into a shot blocker, but when James is able to help off of his assignment he is generally disruptive to the offense.

The third reason for putting James in the help position from the corner isn’t actually defensive at all. Being close to the rim and away from the ball puts him in an excellent position to grab defensive rebounds. When he grabs a rebound instead of receiving an outlet pass from a rebounding big, he is able to immediately look up-court and assess the situation. He frequently finds streaking teammates for layups with deep passes off of defensive rebounds.

The same reasoning applies when he decides to attack off the dribble from the rebound. The split second saved by his not having to wait for the ball allows him to move up-court and attack the defense before it sets. 

Recovering and Beating Screens

However, it is what James has done when required to move away from this preferred spots that has impressed most this year. For much of the last few years, he was unwilling or unable to close out if the player with the ball passed to his defensive assignment in the corner. Because he spends so much time in help positions it is important that he recovers to his assignment quickly to prevent an open corner 3, which is a highly efficient shot. James has been closing out to shooters much more consistently this year than he has in some time.

When his assignment is involved in a screen, James has the ability to either move the screening player off of the spot with his strength and create a lane around the screen, or simply use his quickness to move around the screen if he identifies it in time. Negating the effectiveness of screens is an important defensive skill, as it delays the action and can confuse younger players who are still learning their offensive progressions. The offense only has 24 seconds to get a decent shot, and every delay is significant. 

In screening situations where he is defending the ball, James has worked very well with his bigs to contain the ball-handler and either contest a shot or create time for everyone to recover to their defensive assignment. Players with developed mid-range games will still beat this coverage frequently, but every scheme gives up something and those shots are simply the cost of taking away the rim and the three simultaneously.

High Impact Plays

The aspect of James’ defensive game that has gotten the most attention over the years is his ability to make what might be called high impact plays – plays that take away otherwise guaranteed points for the offensive team, frequently in critical stretches of the game. His chasedown block in the closing minutes of Game 7 during the 2016 Finals, for instance, has become the stuff of NBA lore.

It is the extremely rare combination of size, athletcism, and defensive intelligence that James poessesses which allows him to make these kinds of plays so regularly. Be it a chasedown block in transition to erase what would have been easy points or a steal in a 2v1 transition situation James has shown early this season that he still has the physical ability to get to the places his mind tells him to go.

Areas for Improvement

As good as he has been, James has not been perfect on defense, and his lapses are illustrative of the kinds of tradeoffs players and teams face when they make defensive choices. He has been prone to getting beaten on backdoor cuts by his assignment. He is vulnerable to this particularly in his corner help position, when he is paying attention mostly to the general offense and the defensive positions of his teammates. While he is looking away, his assignment slides in behind him for an easy score.

James is most vulnerable to being beaten back-door while defending faster guards. In fact, most of his defensive problems come in this situation. He is generally quick enough on his feet to guard any perimeter position on the switch, but high-level NBA speed can beat him. That puts him in the position of needing to sag somewhat away from quicker guards in order to stay in front of them, often to the point of simply going under screens rather than trying to force his way through. 

This is where fast guards who are elite shooters can and do burn him. Lou Williams did so several times in the season opener, and Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan were able to beat him off the dribble to the rim in San Antionio because he had to respect their pull-up jump shots.

The Once and Future King?

James’ return to defensive form has surprised and delighted fans. While it remains to be seen whether he can sustain this level of effort throughout the year while maintaining his offensive load, his obvious buy-in to the scheme and effort in executing it have been encouraging. If he is somehow able to sustain these results, he will certainly be in the coversation when the time comes to select the All-Defensive team. In challenging James to reach that plateau once again, Anthony Davis had this to say,

“I want to be Defensive Player of the Year. I think if I’m able to do that, I can help this team win. The offensive end will come around, but defensively, I want to hold myself, teammates, including LeBron, accountable in order for us to take on the challenge of being the best we can defensively. In doing so, we’ll have a good chance of winning every night. I want to make sure me and LeBron are on the All-Defensive Team. And for me personally, I just want to be the Defensive Player of the Year. If we’re able to hold teams under 100, which is probably unrealistic but it should be our goal, I think we’ll have a shot at winning the title.”

By Phil Sizemore (@phsizemore)

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

Fanatics UK: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout to receive 10% off. This is not limited to just NBA apparel, but the discount can be used on MLB, NFL, NHL, Football/Soccer gear also!

NBA Store Europe: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout. This is not limited to Lakers gear, the discount is available site-wide on any product you wish to purchase!

The Return of Kyle Kuzma

(Image/Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press)

Fans had been already treated to the LeBron James and Anthony Davis Show, but on Friday evening in Dallas the Los Angeles Lakers added another key piece sooner than expected. 

In his much anticipated return in the Lakers’ recent thrilling overtime win, Kyle Kuzma performed about as expected after several months off the court. He was 3-8 from the field, with 9 points, 3 rebounds, and an assist while going 3-4 from the foul line. He shot poorly from distance in limited minutes but showed evidence of his ability to cut, defend the perimeter, and attack off the dribble.

As he is worked into his role over the next month or so, the team will look for him to consistently demonstrate the skills he has shown in flashes over his first 2-years.

It has been clear from the moment that Kawhi Leonard decided to take his talents to the Los Angeles Clippers this July that if the Lakers are going to take home a championship this season, Kyle Kuzma will have to be the third best player on the team. Danny Green is an elite shooter and a defensive stud, true, but his inconsistency finishing at the rim and as a ball handler make him a poor fit as a third scoring option during isolation-heavy playoff basketball.

Neither Dwight Howard nor Rajon Rondo are sufficient creators at this stage of their careers. The guard rotation has been solid but it has been obvious to this point that none of them is prepared to assume such a large role. That process of elimination leaves Kuzma.

The good news for fans is that the best version of Kuzma – and the version he has vocally been trying to become – is exactly what this team needs. In his first two seasons he has shown at various times the ability to shoot from distance, create off the dribble both for himself and his teammates, and creditably defend wings on the perimeter.

As it happens, those are precisely the skills the Lakers would like to shore up between now and the playoffs. The bad news is that Kuzma has yet to do all of those things at the same time. With his return from injury occurring sooner than expected, here are some specific things in each of those areas for fans to keep an eye on.

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Three Point Shooting

One of the highlights of Kuzma’s excellent rookie campaign was his much better than advertised shooting stroke. He shot a league average rate of 36.6% on a hefty 5.6 attempts per game from 3-point range that year, which for a rookie Power Forward with little anticipated shooting ability was a revelation. His second season last year fell unpleasantly flat in this regard. He shot only 30.3% during that campaign while simultaneously increasing his volume to an even 6 attempts per game.

Last season was so poor for Kuzma from a shooting perspective that he sought the assistance of well-regarded shooting coach and omnipresent Twitter personality Lethal Shooter over the summer. There were a number of tantalizing signs during his brief Team USA tenure that his efforts were bearing fruit, but with that experience cut short by injury our ability to infer from that to the NBA season is limited by a small sample size.

The need for effective, consistent 3-point shooting to maximize the Lakers’ strengths is acute. Through the first five games of the season everyone not named Danny Green on the roster has shot a combined 33-for-120 from deep, amounting to a putrid 27.5%. In spite of that, the Lakers managed to win four of those games – three running away – because James and Davis are so good and the team played suffocating defense.

Yet the offense has been inconsistent. In the opening night loss to the Clippers, the Lakers weren’t able to effectively punish their cross-city rivals for double-teaming Davis in the post because Green was the only one hitting his outside shots, and while there have been fewer posts since, the cold shooting continues.

Even if the others continue to shoot poorly indefinitely, should Kuzma return to his rookie year form from three he will give James and Davis a second kickout option when they attack the basket. In the playoffs where margins are razor thin, the extra spacing Kuzma has the potential to provide could unlock the Lakers’ offense in key situations.

35% on a volume consistent with last year is a reasonable benchmark for success, but if Kuzma is able to keep his volume high while tidying up his shot selection he is capable of much better.

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Creating Shots

Kuzma has the capacity to create shots for himself off the dribble, and displayed some promising growth in his passing touch from year one to year two. While his 3-point percentage cratered in his second year, his 2-point finishing and foul shooting improved markedly enough that his effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%) barely dropped at all, remaining at about league average. 

Meanwhile, his assists, usage, and points all increased while his turnovers remained constant. Being able to maintain efficiency while shouldering a larger offensive load is an important sign of development for a young player. Kuzma’s doing so even while shooting poorly from distance in his second year speaks to how much the other aspects of his game improved. Any player capable of creating shots for other people as well as themselves can have an outsized effect on offense simply by making the defenders think.

In a playoff setting, defenses will be putting everything on the line in a way they simply do not in the regular season. The first pass out of the paint, for instance from a driving James to Kuzma spotting up for three, is unlikely to create an open shot with regularity in the playoffs. This is where Kuzma’s ability to create for himself off the dribble and create for others when the defense reacts to his aggression will become crucial. 

Because of the addition of Anthony Davis, it is possible that Kuzma will find his usage reduced from last year. This makes monitoring counting stats misleading. Success for Kuzma in this dimension should therefore be measured by increases in his efficiency stats and, more specifically, his ability to attack closeouts and quickly make simple, correct reads on offense.

With the extra space from playing next to James and Davis, Kuzma ought to be able to exceed 55%TS with ease… provided he has the prudence to regulate his shot selection and trust that the points will come.

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(Image/Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports)

Perimeter Defense

Kyle Kuzma produced many highlights during his rookie year. Almost none of them were defensive. His defensive ineptitude became a punch line in the media. He was undersized against larger Power Forwards in the NBA, and so had problems defending the interior. He also frequently failed to produce the effort required to defend the perimeter effectively, which meant there was nowhere on defense to hide him (and even if there had been, the ability of Luke Walton to find it would have been questionable at best).

While the film and advanced stats tell us that Kuzma was a much improved defender in his second year, the narrative about him has yet to catch up to reality. Expect that to change, and relatively quickly. The primary thing that changed about Kuzma’s defense in his second year was his effort. Kyle Kuzma is a big, long human being, and when he is playing hard on defense that size and his general mobility can create real problems for wings on offense. 

He remains too small to really clamp down in the post on proper bigs, but this team includes Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard, and JaVale McGee. Post defense and rim protection are not going to be a problem. What the Lakers desperately need is one person aside from Danny Green who can take on the grind of guarding big, athletic perimeter wings on a night to night basis. Capable mid-range scorers with size can exploit the weaknesses in the Lakers’ scheme, and this personnel deficiency amplifies the issue.

Kawhi Leonard torched the Lakers from midrange when Green was off the court because Kentavious Caldwell-Pope simply isn’t large enough to keep him from getting his shot off the screen.

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(Image/Zhong Zhi/Getty Images)

A Brief Attempt at Prophecy

As the above discussion ought to have made clear, there are a range of potential outcomes for Kuzma this year. Of the areas analyzed, 3-point shooting remains his biggest question mark. The returns from Team USA were encouraging, but after last year prudence would dictate that we reserve judgment until he actually delivers again at the NBA level.

The added uncertainty of coming back from injury and finding his role within a team that is currently on a roll will probably affect his percentages early on. Provided he is healthy, Kuzma’s percentages should be fairly representative by Christmas. The most likely outcome seems to be a league average, high volume shooter, which is more than good enough.

The narrative this year is finally going to catch up to the reality about Kuzma’s perimeter defense. The open skepticism among basketball media about his ability to fill the necessary role on this team will fuel his already manic thirst to prove himself, and his defense will be the place where that chip on his shoulder is most visible. His effort combined with the fact that having him means coach Frank Vogel will need to rely less on three-guard lineups will greatly improve the defense on the second unit.

Finally, there are few surer bets in the NBA this year than that Kyle Kuzma will attack the basket. Aside from wearing ridiculous clothes, it is his favorite thing to do. The new presence of Anthony Davis as well as the general improvement in depth on the Lakers should secure him plenty of space to operate, and he will use it. The lack of handling and distribution skills among the Laker guards puts his ability to do those things well at a premium, particularly with the bench unit. Expect him to be an 18-20 point per game player and exceed 4 assists per game.

Aside from the debut of Anthony Davis, Kyle Kuzma’s return is the most anticipated event of the season to date for Laker fans. All indications are that he will have a real impact. While he shot inconsistently in his return, he showed the ability to do a number of things the Lakers will need him to do consistently throughout the year. It remains doubtful that he will attain his coveted All-Star status this year, but it is not outside the realm of possibility.

Regardless, his talents are obviously suited to the needs of the team, and every Laker fan should be excited to see what he can do.

By Phil Sizemore (@phsizemore)

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

Fanatics UK: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout to receive 10% off. This is not limited to just NBA apparel, but the discount can be used on MLB, NFL, NHL, Football/Soccer gear also!

NBA Store Europe: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout. This is not limited to Lakers gear, the discount is available site-wide on any product you wish to purchase!

A Closer Look at the Lakers’ Offense

(Image/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

The pre-season has ended, the regular season is here, and we now have a reasonable idea of what the Los Angeles Lakers will be running this season, offensively. 

While imperfect, the team’s performances and several of the sets they have run show promising signs that the general judgment of Head Coach Frank Vogel as a weak offensive coach may have been passed too soon.

While any offense featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis is going to score a lot of points, the margins provided by a well-designed and run offense will make the difference between this Lakers team being simply a good offensive team, or a historically great one. 

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(Image/Adam Pantozzi/NBAE)

The Good:

There was an awful lot to like about how the Lakers played offense this pre-season. The stars absolutely performed in their minutes, and the frankly absurd length and athleticism of the Laker bigs provided access to plenty of offensive rebounds. The new coaching staff impressed by demonstrating offensive concepts that, even at this early juncture, seem more advanced and fundamentally sound than anything seen during the Byron Scott and Luke Walton years. 

The staff already has the players utilizing some off-ball counter actions that attack the defense with purpose and permit James to demonstrate his passing ability, and have also found some intriguing ways to deal with the weaknesses in their personnel.

Zach Norvell Jr also stood out in significant minutes, including for good measure a couple of highlight-reel plays that will haunt Jordan Poole’s nightmares for months to come.

The LeBron James/Anthony Davis Screen and Roll 

From the time of Anthony Davis’ now-infamous trade request last season, analysts have discussed his potential in a screen and roll with LeBron James in hushed, awed tones.

The early evidence suggests that their reverence was well-founded. As neither are elite shooters from distance, a defense may try to go under the screens, gambling that James will have an off night from 3. Unfortunately for the defense, this approach both gives James space off the dribble and a clear view of the defense to make passing reads.

If James’ defender instead follows him over the screen, the defending big has to choose between hedging and giving up the pocket pass to Davis on the roll and permitting James to attack the rim with momentum. If help comes at the rim, James is a deadly mid-range shooter when open and, again, one of basketball history’s most celebrated passers.

If the defense is driven to switch, they place themselves at the mercy of either James or Davis in isolation with a mismatch. There are very few players in the world capable of guarding either in isolation. Switching the James/Davis screen requires two of them to avoid the mismatch, as the latter is a more than capable ball-handler who can receive as well as set the screen.

The final recourse for the defensive coach is to simply stuff the paint with help defenders, but doing so leaves 3-point shooters open, and the Lakers shooters have been hitting their shots at respectable rates. It was widely expected to be a terrifying prospect, but actually seeing the James/Davis screen and roll in action is awe-inspiring. It genuinely seems unfair. There is no obvious way to guard it. Laker fans should expect to see a lot of it during the season.

Offensive Rebounding

LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the shooters surrounding them demand the attention of the defense. Their ability to draw double-teams or help defenders create situations in which the defense is out of position to secure the rebound from a missed shot. The length and athleticism of the Lakers’ front line is perfect for taking advantage of these easy opportunities.

For a defense, this can be morale-breaking. Assuming that a defense navigates all of the challenges of defending a James/Davis screen and roll enumerated above, it finds itself unable to complete the possession for sheer inability to put a big enough body on Davis, JaVale McGee, or Dwight Howard to get the rebound. These kinds of plays can be sneakily important, providing a huge boost to the offensive team on key possessions.

Mover-Blocker Sets for the Bench Unit

Mover-Blocker sets are offensive sets that divide the players into two categories; blockers, who set screens, and movers, who cut and look to score using the screens the blockers set. Sets like this can be identified by the basic “wheel” motion the movers use around the blockers as they try to contort the defense, frequently flowing into a screen and roll if no good shot presents itself.

These sets have the merit of creating a lot of action around the court in a short period of time. They also permit a group of players who have particular skills but lack well-rounded or dominant scorers to get open shots.

When James or Davis are on the floor, the offense will obviously be geared around taking advantage of their superlative talent. The bench lineups, however, lack a dominant ball-handling scorer in the mold of Lou Williams or Eric Gordon. The constant action of mover-blocker sets relieve any individual of having to be the primary creator, and could allow players like Kyle Kuzma and Alex Caruso to use their passing skills and also get good looks from off-ball movement, which is an area where both excel.

While it may be hoped that Lakers fans see relatively little basketball this season that doesn’t include either LeBron James or Anthony Davis, running mover-blocker sets can help ensure that the offense generates open looks in the absence of their gravity.

Zach Norvell, Jr.

After he was signed to a two-way contract by the Lakers this summer, undrafted two-year Gonzaga guard Zach Norvell, Jr. was given a chance in the preseason to demonstrate what he can do – and he did just that.  He displayed a quick release and willingness to shoot from 3 that is encouraging, while shooting a respectable 35.3% from that distance (a number which was deflated by occasionally questionable shot selection.) He showed a great motor and made a couple of defensive plays. Perhaps most encouraging, he showed frequent glimpses of a passing touch that might see him sneaking into the guard rotation for the Lakers this year.

He also flat-out disrespected Jordan Poole, breaking his ankles on two nights in two different arenas, taking Poole’s embarrassment on tour.

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(Image/Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press)

The Bad:

While the above painted a fairly rosy picture of the Lakers’ offense thus far, that is not to say that they were perfect. Far from it. In particular, Alex Caruso has been frequently misused on offense during the preseason, the guard rotations have been questionable, and Rajon Rondo’s presence on the court has created spacing problems, again.

Alex Caruso’s Utilisation

Caruso has been one of the more perplexing players of this preseason for the Lakers. He played phenomenally at the end of last year and over the summer Lakers Twitter™ was prepared to insert him into the starting lineup. Several strengths from his run last year have indeed carried over to the preseason – he shot about league average from 3 on a small sample, played energetic defense, and again demonstrated his playmaking chops.

That being said, the situations in which he has been used in the preseason have the effect of highlighting his deficiencies from last season, which remain. He likes to go for the big play and has a tendency to over-penetrate and both of those inclinations contribute to his being turnover prone and frequently having his shots blocked. There is something to be said for giving him a chance to display the skills he lacked last year during the preseason, but the early returns in this regard have not been great.

Playing him with such high frequency in screen and roll situations, where he has the ball with momentum heading toward the basket, encourages him to indulge in his worst impulses. He doesn’t yet have a reliable floater or mid range jumper, so defenders chasing him over the screen and off the three point line can funnel him to the defending big at the rim. He rightly trusts his athleticism to help him finish, but he simply isn’t skilled enough to beat multiple defenders or elite rim protectors consistently.

Caruso’s cutting ability, shooting, and skill reading the defense make it ideal to use him mostly off the ball in offensive situations, but the lack of trustworthy ball-handlers on the bench unit have made it difficult to keep the ball out of his hands when he’s on the floor. One of the encouraging things about seeing the Lakers run mover-blocker sets with the bench unit is that it is an offense that would permit Caruso to distribute his time between off-ball actions and making things happen with the ball. Whether it’s through that avenue or simply playing him more frequently alongside Rondo, if the Lakers want Caruso’s best they need to do a better job of putting him in a position to succeed.

Letting Rondo’s Defender Sag

Let this be said for Rajon Rondo: during this preseason he has been significantly better than he was for any three-game stretch last season. He seems less congenitally averse to shooting threes and is making a high percentage of them. Yet defenses continue to sag off of him dramatically, and will continue to do so unless he can sustain his high percentage on high volume for several months. 

In the first game against the Warriors, Vogel had Rondo frequently screening for shooters on the weak side when he didn’t have the ball in the offense. Doing so takes advantage of his defender sagging toward the paint, because when Rondo screens there is no one to switch onto the shooter. While it would be better for Rondo’s defender to be respecting his shot and clearing away from the paint, at least this screening scheme punishes the defense for moving so dramatically away from him.

The Lakers have used Rondo in this way less frequently since that first game, and accordingly the offense is less able to penetrate easily when he is on the floor. His defense at this stage of his career is negligible, so any tactic that reduces his offensive effectiveness so dramatically presents a serious problem for keeping him on the floor at all. Unless or until defenses are forced to respect Rondo’s three point shot, the Lakers need to have him active as a perimeter screener or their offense will run the risk of stagnating.

A Questionable Guard Rotation

Avery Bradley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Rajon Rondo have all demonstrated that they bring something to the table. There have been problems, though, with playing two of them at the same time. None of them are particularly big and they have difficulty with larger, athletic defenders. Bradley and Caldwell-Pope are relatively poor ball-handlers and inconsistent distributors.

Rondo and Caldwell-Pope play well enough together on offense but are too small to share the floor on defense against NBA size. It is questionable that Rondo and Bradley can space the floor well enough to keep the offense from clogging the paint. 

When there are so many problems with playing these guys together but they collectively take up a large proportion of the guard minutes, that is a problem. Eventually, with guys like Caruso, Norvell, and Quinn Cook nipping at their heels one or both of them will have to find their minutes significantly cut back.

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(Image/Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports)

The Verdict:

As is to be expected in preseason, there is a lot the Lakers will need to clean up during the regular season before the playoffs arrive. Some players will need to have their roles or usage adjusted, and Frank Vogel will need to stay creative in his approach as defenses try to adapt to what this team can do.

That being said, the ingredients for an offensive juggernaut are here, and the recipe for utilizing them is fairly straightforward. The Lakers’ gameplan is just easier to execute than many other teams’ because their stars have such compatible skill sets, and lest we forget Kyle Kuzma has yet to play a minute this year. If the problems mentioned above are still problems at the All-Star break, there will be concerns about this team in a playoff setting. If they are addressed, the Lakers will be incredibly difficult to stop.

By Phil Sizemore (@phsizemore)

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

Fanatics UK: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout to receive 10% off. This is not limited to just NBA apparel, but the discount can be used on MLB, NFL, NHL, Football/Soccer gear also!

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4 Open Questions About the New-Look Lakers

(Image/CBS Sports)

The Long Night has finally ended, and preseason NBA basketball is once more upon us.

Fans of the Association have been thoroughly riled up by a boisterous free agency period that left the league more competitive than it has been in 15 years. Among the 8 or 9 top-tier teams, the Los Angeles Lakers may be the most intriguing because of the high variance in their potential outcomes.

They could be far and away the best team in the league or they could be a fringe playoff team. Anyone who claims to know which they’ll be in advance is lying.

What has been particularly unclear is who the key role players on the team will be. As one of the best 3 and D wings in the league for several years now, Danny Green arrives with a clearly defined role, as do projected end-of-bench players Jared Dudley, Quinn Cook, and Troy Daniels.

There are, however, a number of question marks on this roster and legitimate questions about whether all the necessary boxes for a title winner have been checked. These are the specific things to look out for during the preseason and early regular season as indicators of where the team is going.

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Will Perimeter Players Hit Open 3s?

Anyone who was dragged by sheer loyalty into witnessing the travesty of spacing that was the Lakers’ offense last season will understand why this is the first question on this list. Defenses dared Rajon Rondo, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram to shoot from 3 all season long.

As Kyle Kuzma’s second year percentage proved to be much lower than his rookie numbers, teams sagged off him as well. The result was very little space created for LeBron to operate in the paint, which is where he is most effective.

Having Anthony Davis, who is arguably the best teammate LeBron James has ever had, will naturally open up the floor. To create the kinds of marginal advantages that make all the difference come playoff time, though, they will need the spacing provided by the secondary shooters stepping up.

Danny Green alone will probably not be enough. Kyle Kuzma, Avery Bradley, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and even *sigh* Rajon Rondo all need to demonstrate reasonably efficient 3-point shooting across an entire season to force teams to respect them in the postseason.

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Will the Lakers Be Able to Use Drop Coverage to Guard the Pick and Roll Without Bleeding Points?

Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel is known for his ingenuity in the use of what is called ‘drop coverage’ to guard the pick and roll. In this coverage scheme, the big guarding the screener hangs back off the play towards the basket to protect the rim, while the defender guarding the ball follows their player over the screen to contest any pull up 3.

The advantage of this coverage is that it protects the rim and the 3-point line while giving up mid range jumpers, which are the least efficient shot on the floor.

The problem with drop coverage is that there are players at the top of the league (James Harden, Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, and Damian Lillard leap to mind) who can consistently make open mid range jump-shots, negating the advantage the defense creates. Effective drop coverage requires perimeter defenders capable of maintaining ball pressure and fighting through screens, as well as bigs with the length and agility to defend the rim while contesting the mid range pull-up against elite shooters.

Vogel had both of those ingredients with his best teams at the Indiana Pacers 6-8 years ago and his teams produced the league’s best defense for 2 years running. For the Lakers, this translates to Bradley, KCP, and Caruso playing on ball defense at the point of attack and fighting through screens to funnel the ball-handler into the shot-blocking bigs near the paint. If they are not able to do so, quick guards with reliable jump-shots will cause them problems on the defensive end.

Shooters with length, like Kawhi Leonard or Kevin Durant, create even more problems by securing extra space for the shot. Shot-blockers may be able to close out in time to contest a mid range jump shot, but their movement leaves a potential opening for an offensive rebound off of a missed shot and an easy put back.

If the Lakers defenders need to switch most screens it is doubtful that JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard will be able to play significant minutes because they can be exploited by smaller, quicker players on the switch.

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(Image/Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Does Team USA Kuz Translate to the NBA?

Before the stress reaction that prematurely ended his stint with Team USA this summer, Kyle Kuzma showed off his tidied-up jumper and improved defense. As the great guys at Laker Film Room and Basketball Index have pointed out, Kuzma showed some promise as a wing defender last year as well as improving his scoring efficiency… except from beyond the 3-point arc.

Given that the 2 best players on the Lakers thrive around the paint with maximum 3-point spacing, Kuzma’s shooting efficiency will determine his ultimate role on the Lakers this season. Playing as he did last year on offense, scoring efficiently off-ball but shooting the 3 poorly at a high volume, could still result in him being an effective first scorer off the bench when James or Davis need a rest.

A Kuzma like his first year, who shoots the 3 well but defends the perimeter poorly, finds his minutes limited by the need to play him at the 4. In either case, it becomes more difficult to play him at the end of games when both spacing and perimeter defense are critical.

The version of this team that wins a championship, barring a major acquisition, requires a Kyle Kuzma who can both hit the 3 reliably and defend the perimeter without giving up free points. His brief Team USA run was so tantalizing because he seemed to be excelling at exactly those two things. Given his existing bag of moves in the paint and his skill cutting off the ball, if Kuzma comes back from his injury shooting and defending he will have proven himself right about being the Lakers’ 3rd All-Star.

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(Image/Ringo H.W. Chiu /Associated Press)

Can the Team and the Staff Avoid Drama and Stay Focused?

There have been a lot of media narratives about this Laker team this summer. Frank Vogel in particular is under a great deal of pressure to perform early, because Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins are going to start looking like sharks to him if the team stumbles out of the gate. While the Lakers have a very favorable early schedule, teams like this one with a lot of new pieces and championship aspirations tend to start slowly.

This is what happened with James’ super-teams with the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and this team even lacks the obvious 3rd star both of those previous teams enjoyed.

With the expectations that have been built this offseason, how will the coaching staff and front office maintain their focus when the inevitable adverse run presents itself? Do the assistants support Frank Vogel if questions about him arise in the media, or does backbiting become the new story? Can Rob Pelinka and Jeanie Buss resist making hasty, desperate moves that are disruptive to team chemistry?

The front office has made some very good decisions and also some very bad ones this off-season, with no obvious indication of their disposition moving forward. How they choose to confront the problems that emerge for this team will be telling about their discipline.

It should be an entertaining season, that’s for sure!

All told, even the infamous 2013 Lakers provided more juicy story-lines to follow before a season even began, although the gulf between the potential of that team and its performance is a cautionary tale about how thin the margins are at the highest level of basketball. These Lakers need to do a couple of simple things effectively, consistently, and with as little fuss as possible while a media cyclone rages around them.

It is not an easy thing to do. Finding out whether they can pull it off, and watching the sure-to-be electrifying combination of LeBron James and Antony Davis, is going to make this the most fun Lakers season to watch in a decade.

By Phil Sizemore (@phsizemore)

Lakers Fanclub UK are proud affiliate partners of Fanatics UK and the NBA Store Europe. We do possess unique promotional codes for both websites that can offer our readers and followers 10% off site-wide through the following weblinks.

Fanatics UK: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout to receive 10% off. This is not limited to just NBA apparel, but the discount can be used on MLB, NFL, NHL, Football/Soccer gear also!

NBA Store Europe: and enter the promotional code LAKERSUK10 at checkout. This is not limited to Lakers gear, the discount is available site-wide on any product you wish to purchase!