By Argyris Argyroudis
After a remarkably poor season, the Los Angeles Lakers need to improve their performance and live up to fans’ expectations. The Lakers are the 2nd most successful team in NBA history in terms of titles won (16); one less than the Boston Celtics (17). However, they had their worst franchise record this year, finishing the season with 21 wins and 61 losses. Many are now critical of the team and their ability to win another ring in the near future. Issues they are now facing include the contribution of Kobe Bryant to the team last season, the need to make the most out of their young players and the 2015 draft picks (finding ways to make them better and improve their game) as well as the acquisition of free agents.
The 3rd best All-time point leader - Kobe Bryant (32,482 points), is on the last year of his deal. In the forthcoming season (which will be his 20th with the Lakers), Bryant is expected to make $25 million. Even though he is recovering from a shoulder injury, some of his critics doubt if he can do much to help the team at his age (Bryant will turn 37 years old on August 23). Last season he played a total of 35 games, averaging 22.3 points per game, but his field goal percentage fell to an unprecedented 37.3% for the first time in his career (source: ESPN). Moreover, the Milwaukee Bucks guard Jared Dudley recently stated that “Kobe’s refusal to defer to his teammates at this stage of his career is the reason why most guys don’t want to play with him”. Notably, Dwight Howard clashed with Kobe, and this can be viewed as one of the main reasons why the center chose to play for the Houston Rockets after the 2012-13 season (even though the Lakers were able to offer him $30 million more).
Although the Lakers have experienced players like Nick Young and Jordan Hill, a lot will depend on the development of the younger members of the team in the long-term. Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson are some of the players providing fans with optimism about the team’s future. The former was selected by the Lakers in the 2014 Draft with the 7th pick, after averaging 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game with the Kentucky Wildcats in the NCAA and winning the SEC Freshman of the Year award. Randle suffered a fractured tibia in the season opener against the Houston Rockets and also underwent surgery to replace the screw in his right foot. However, Randle has now recovered and recently said that “he believes he is 100% ready”. Sitting out most of the season, has given him the chance to improve himself and particularly his game from the perimeter.
A big surprise for the Lakers this season has been Jordan Clarkson. Although he was selected in the 2nd round of the 2014 Draft with the 46th pick, Clarkson managed to gradually develop himself and was named to the NBA all-rookie first team. The 22-year old player averaged 11.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists per game and started 38 games in his rookie year.
Having won the 2nd pick in the NBA’s draft lottery, the Lakers now have the opportunity to choose between big men like Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns or between guards like D’Angelo Russell, Emmanuel Mudiay. Okafor averaged 17.3 points and 8.5 rebounds per game last season playing for the Duke Blue Devils of Mike Krzyzewski (source: ESPN), but his defensive game can be further improved. On the other hand, the former Kentucky Wildcat Karl Anthony Towns could be a better rim protector. If the Lakers select a guard with the 2nd pick, D’Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay would be the best two candidates. Either player could move off ball from Jordan Clarkson (who proved himself in his rookie year), offering more choices to the coach. Taking a long-term view, a no.2 pick could potentially become a valuable asset for the team; Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge were no.2 picks as well.
The Lakers also work players for the 27th and 34th picks. Kentucky Wildcats reserve center Dakari Johnson, Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas and North Carolina's J.P. Tokoto are some of the brighter prospects for these picks. Furthermore, signing free agents could be beneficial as well. Mark Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rajon Rondo and Goran Dragic will be available as free agents from July 1, when the free-agency recruiting period opens.
The Los Angeles Lakers became the most valuable basketball club in the world this year (worth $2.6 billion) based on Forbes, unseating the New York Knicks. Moreover, according to twitter data scientist Krist Wongsuphasawat, they are the most popular NBA team all over America. However, there is mounting pressure to make the right changes, given that it is the first time they missed the playoffs three times in a row. It will be increasingly difficult for coach Byron Scott (who signed a multi-year contract to coach the Lakers on July 28, 2014), Jim Buss (part-owner & executive vice president of basketball operations) and Mitch Kupchak (general manager) to create a championship roster. What can be definitely learnt from the Lakers transfer history, is that combining big names in the same roster (e.g. when they paired Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, with Pau Gasol and Kobe Bryant) will not secure titles, if the pieces do not fit together.