With a 35-47 record in the 2017-18 campaign, the Lakers added nine wins from the previous season, and saw their young players continue to improve to solidify a talented young core that’s been built through the past four NBA Drafts.
The season really began in Las Vegas, where the Lakers won their first Summer League championship as No. 2 overall pick Lonzo Ball earned MVP honors, and No. 27 pick Kyle Kuzma was named MVP of the championship game. Soon after, the Lakers moved from the Toyota Sports Center into the state-of-the-art UCLA Health Training Center, which the players (and staff) were thrilled to declare their new home.
After starting the regular season 5-5, the Lakers struggled with injuries and unsteady play and fell to a low point of 16 games below .500 (11-27) on Jan. 5. That concluded a 9-game losing streak in which L.A. lost a series of close games to tough opponents, and in the midst of it, Julius Randle entered the starting lineup, Ball returned from a shoulder injury and Brandon Ingram started to play the best basketball of his career as the team turned things around rather quickly.
In fact, the Purple and Gold went 20-9 through March 13 to take the record up to 31-36. They remained a distance away from the final playoff spot due to the early losing, but L.A.’s play under 2nd-year head coach Luke Walton was improved enough to catch the attention of the league.
While the Lakers ended up finishing the season with the 8th fewest games missed to injury/illness (133, which was well below the league average of 185), many of those games came in the final month, when Ball, Ingram and Isaiah Thomas missed the bulk of the action. In related news, the Lakers struggled to log wins in the final weeks, going 4-11 to finish the season.
As the sixth-youngest team in the NBA, the Lakers truly relied upon players in their first few seasons, and a terrific 2017 Draft helped considerably towards that end.
Ball averaged 10.2 points, 7.2 assists, 6.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals, numbers that closely mirror those of Jason Kidd’s rookie campaign (11.7, 7.7, 5.4, 1.9), and he was very good defensively, particularly for a 20-year-old, which helped him have the best net rating on the team. He was named to the All-Rookie 2nd team despite missing 30 games with various injuries.
Kuzma – acquired in an offseason trade with Brooklyn involving Brook Lopez, Timofey Mozgov and D’Angelo Russell – was a revelation that ultimately made the All-Rookie 1st team behind his 16.1 points (tied for the team lead), 6.3 rebounds and 159 made 3-pointers on 36.6 percent behind the line.
No. 30 pick Josh Hart was also impressive, particularly late in the season. He averaged 7.9 points and 4.2 rebounds while leading the team in 3-point shooting (39.6 percent), and more notably, in 23 starts, posted 13.3 points, 6.0 boards and 2.0 assists with 1.0 steals.
At No. 42, L.A. took Thomas Bryant, and while the 20-year-old appeared in only 15 games with the Lakers, he tore up the G-League for the South Bay Lakers, averaging 19.7 points, 7.4 boards and 1.5 blocks in 37 games and made G-League First Team.
Still younger than most rookies, Brandon Ingram turned 20 in September, and finished the season matching Kuzma and Randle with 16.1 points per game to lead the team, adding 5.3 boards, 3.9 assists, 0.7 steals and 0.6 blocks. He improved his shooting percentage from 40.2 as a rookie to 47.0 percent, and his three-point percentage from 29.4 to 39.0, while also showing even more versatility than some expected by playing point guard, as he successfully filled in for Ball in February. Ingram did miss 23 games with a variety of minor injuries late in the season after posting 18.6 points, 5.6 assists, 5.2 boards, 1.1 blocks and 0.6 steals in February on 54.5 percent from the field and 52.2 percent from three.
Ingram, Ball and Kuzma all had arguments for team MVP, but Julius Randle may have been the best player on the team, particularly once he entered the starting line up in late December. In his 49 starts, he went for 18.6 points, 9.1 boards, 3.1 assists and 0.6 steals on 56 percent from the field and 75 percent at the free throw line. Randle showed the ability to defend big men inside while also switching onto guards on the perimeter, which unlocked L.A.’s ability to play small and switch 1 through 5. Furthermore, he played all 82 games, the only Laker to do so.
Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were the two veterans that were with the Lakers throughout the season, and each had moments of strong play, particularly later in the season. Meanwhile, Corey Brewer and Isaiah Thomas contributed on- and off-court leadership before and after the All-Star break, respectively.
Tyler Ennis had his best month of action in April when Ball and Ingram were both out, while Luol Deng played only in the first game of the season.
L.A. also took advantage of the first year for the two-way contracts with the South Bay Lakers, and got some needed minutes from Alex Caruso throughout the season, as well as Vander Blue and eventually Gary Payton II. They also called up longtime D-League/G-League veteran Andre Ingram for the final two games of the season, and Ingram scored 19 points on 6 of 8 shooting with three blocks in his NBA debut against Houston, more swats than he’d ever totaled in 10 years of minor league hoops.
At the February trade deadline, Larry Nance, Jr. and Jordan Clarkson were traded to Cleveland for Thomas, Channing Frye and Cleveland’s 1st Round pick (No. 25 overall), a move that allows the Lakers to get back into the first round, since their own pick (No. 10 overall) will be made by Philadelphia*.
*Philly acquired the pick from Phoenix, who’d in turn acquired it back in 2012 from the Lakers in the Steve Nash deal.
That move by President of Basketball Operations Magic Johnson and GM Rob Pelinka also freed up additional salary cap space heading into the offseason, giving the Lakers the opportunity to be in the mix for free agents, or to assume contracts in a trade, if so desired.
With a very strong stable of young talent that should continue to get better, plus the space to add significant pieces, the Lakers appear closer to once again establishing themselves as the NBA winner that they’ve traditionally been.
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