By Eric Yee
Though Lakers’ GM Mitch Kupchak believes that the Lakers are well on their way back into the playoffs, it’s his job to say that. So in the famous words of the Rock, “it doesn’t matter what he thinks.” It’s ironic that after being embarrassed over the few first days of free agency and having dirt kicked in their face by various media outlets, and after bouncing back with a few clutch signings and an even more impressive trade, that these same critics are silent on the matter.
The Lakers as constructed have a solid bunch on paper: a seasoned Kobe Bryant, a new-age prototypical point guard in Jordan Clarkson, a healthy Julius Randle, various intriguing rookies, a proven rim protector in Hibbert, two perennial Sixth Man of the Year candidates, and versatile depth in the frontcourt headlined by Tarik Black and Brandon Bass. That said, even with their recent moves do the Lakers truly have enough to be a playoff team in the loaded Western Conference?
As stands, there are six teams who are practically shoo-ins to make the playoffs in the West — the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Rockets, Clippers, and Grizzlies — meaning the Lakers would most realistically be fighting for a seventh or eighth seed. Here are the teams they’d most likely be battling against.
The Drop Outs
Free agency wasn’t only a cruel mistress to the Lakers, she also crushed the hopes of two teams in particular to the benefit of the entire Western Conference. Not only did the Portland Trail Blazers lose LaMarcus Aldridge to the Spurs, they lost their entire starting lineup minus Damian Lillard. While they tried to sign Enes Kanter, Thunder GM Sam Presti publicly said that he’s going to match an offer for Kanter, meaning the only free agent acquisition the Blazers have made is Ed Davis. Though picking up Gerald Henderson, Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh was a good start, it’s not even close to begin replacing what they lost.
If the Blazers’ sad story wasn’t devastating enough, by flip-flopping on his word, DeAndre Jordan pulled life support on the Dallas Mavericks, quickly turning them from a possible contender to just a possible playoff hopeful. The Mavs currently lack a center, a point guard, and any bench depth. As Mark Cuban would say on Shark Tank, “for this reason, they’re out.”
The Rising Stars
That basically leaves five teams fighting for the final two playoff spots — the Pelicans, Jazz, Suns, Kings and Lakers. While the Pelicans shocked many making the playoffs for the first time since Chris Paul left, they still can’t be considered a playoff guarantee. This offseason the Pelicans have done nothing but re-sign three of their players and hire Alvin Gentry which doesn’t seem to counteract the moves their competition have made.
The Utah Jazz are in a similar position. Though drafting Trey Lyles was an awesome acquisition, it isn’t a move that will affect their win loss projections that drastically. The Jazz are still in need of a star to pair with Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert and the fact that they weren’t even in the mix for one this offseason should be disconcerting to Jazz faithful.
The Phoenix Suns on the other hand, by acquiring Tyson Chandler and drafting Devin Booker, seem to have put themselves in a much more favorable position than last year, putting them a close second behind the Pelicans.
The Comeback Kids
Of these five teams, the Lakers and Kings have made the most strides to making a playoff run a reality. By drafting Willie “Trill” Cauley-Stein, Sacramento gains great rim protection and overall defensive prowess. Their Rondo pickup provides their young team with the floor general they’ve desperately needed since Bibby’s departure and you can’t forget about Gay, who posted the seventh highest PER of all small forwards, better than even Draymond Green. On paper, the Kings look loads better than they did last year but until their front office dysfunction is fixed, you can’t take them seriously.
The Lakers are the only team to have made obvious leaps and bounds from last season’s disaster. Stripped down to the basics, the Lakers lost Ed Davis, Wayne Ellington, Jeremy Lin and Wesley Johnson and gained Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell meaning they’ve been upgraded at nearly every position. If that’s not encouraging, I don’t know what is.
In my honest opinion, I believe that this Lakers team is a year or two away from being a playoff team, I expect a ninth or tenth place finish, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they scratched their way into the playoffs this year. I’m just excited that we don’t have to tank away another season.
Fear not Lakers faithful, season is coming.