After a frenetic summer filled with stunning free agent defections, big trades and exciting rookies, our heads are still spinning as we enter the 2017-18 NBA campaign. With so many new faces in new places, it leaves fans to wonder how things will shake out this year. Over the next two weeks, RealGM will attempt to ask (and answer) 10 of the more pressing questions you may have about the upcoming season.
- What can teams at the bottom of the West do to maximize their seasons?
In case you hadn’t noticed this summer, the Western Conference went and made itself a brutal gauntlet of star-laden teams. Thirteen of the conference’s 15 teams arguably enter the season with the weight of playoff expectations on their shoulders. The two teams without those postseason mandates -- the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns -- are set to take their lumps for the sake of their rebuilding projects. But for both the Suns and Lakers, there is much more to do this season than just smile through the losses.
When it comes to their rebuilds, Los Angeles and Phoenix are doing a good job at getting younger. The Suns have 12 players coming to camp who haven’t even turned 25. The Lakers have 14 that fit that same description. While the Lakers arguably have more intriguing young prospects across the board, Phoenix has a trump card -- an emerging superstar in Devin Booker. This difference is where the agendas for both clubs this season starts to dovetail.
Partly because of the presence of Booker, the Phoenix rebuild looks a lot more promising. For starters, the Suns also have their own first round pick (something the Lakers lack, but more on that in a bit) and very likely an extra one from Miami. Yet despite those promising pieces, there are serious questions this Phoenix teams needs to find answers to over the course of this upcoming season.
The most pressing of these actually involves Booker. Having a player on the verge of superstardom is great. Building a winner around him is a different story entirely. Just ask Anthony Davis.
With the individual and team success of James Harden and Russell Westbrook last season, the Suns brass needs to be evaluating what role Booker should occupy going forward that gives the franchise their best chance at championship contention. Westbrook and Harden were not players ever considered to have traditional “point guard” skill sets. Yet as Mike D’Antoni showed the league by moving Harden to PG last season, there’s a lot of merit to just giving your best player the ball and getting out of the way.
Given his feel for the game, Booker is certainly capable of being a primary ballhandler. If the talented young guard can make a conscious effort to shift his pass-score balance more towards the direction of elevating his teammates, Booker has the rest of the tools to do the same things as Harden. That’s an exciting thought for Phoenix fans.
Now while that’s way easier said than done, the Suns won’t know it’s a possibility if they spend an entire season with Eric Bledsoe still around to soak up major minutes in that role. The team was rumored to have entered into trade discussions concerning their veteran point guard, but no deal was struck. Given his injury history and the franchise woes of Phoenix, it’s very hard to gauge the interest level in Bledsoe, which makes the gameplan for this season so tricky.
To start the year, head coach Earl Watson and the team’s front office are obviously going to attempt to win. There’s a chance (not a good one, but there is), that this team gels, young players take some major leaps forward and the Suns find themselves in the playoff hunt after the first 30 games. At that point, the team needs to full on shift into “win-now” mode.
But if the team starts out slow, loitering near the bottom of the Western Conference standings with little hope of escaping, Watson and the Suns brass will need to pivot. The first order of business should be securing a consistent opportunity for Bledsoe to rehab his trade value with the goal of moving him to a playoff contender (of which there should be plenty) on or before the deadline.
With only one additional year remaining on his deal, it’s unlikely Bledsoe -- who hasn’t had the greatest experience with the Suns -- will be in the team’s long-term plans. That makes a trade before Bledsoe is a lame duck this summer as the team’s most savvy option from an asset collection standpoint. But showcasing Bledsoe also means cutting short the amount of time the team can experiment with Booker in a Harden-esque role. Should Phoenix go ahead and just make Booker the de facto point guard anyway, it’ll basically torpedo Bledsoe’s value and probably make him a pretty unhappy camper.
As you can see from this little tug-of-war, there’s more to a rebuild effort than just rolling up the losses and getting high picks. Plus the Bledsoe trade dilemma isn’t the team’s only one. Similar questions surround veteran center Tyson Chandler. Young wing TJ Warren, fresh off a contract extension, has to prove that he can fit in with Booker and this summer’s lottery pick, Josh Jackson, with his score-first approach. So although Phoenix is in a more enviable position than L.A. from an asset standpoint, there are complicated decisions to be made going forward that could derail their future success.
The Lakers, meanwhile, have a little more straightforward approach. Their first round pick this season is gone. So unfortunately for L.A., a season of losing won’t be met with the reward of another high pick.
For a small market team, this would be a much bigger issue. But the Lakers are in L.A. The team will get meetings with free agent stars every summer. Unless the Thunder win a championship, it’s hard not to see Paul George seriously considering a move to La-La land next summer.
That means the formula for the Lakers should be simple -- see what they have in Lonzo Ball and their other talented youngsters, nab a big name free agent next offseason and viola! Winning basketball is back in L.A. Yet the paradox for Lakers is that with their current roster make up and the state of the Western Conference, the team may best be served approaching this as if the franchise was located in Milwaukee.
In general, it’s a fascinating thought to consider how the narrative around the state of this Lakers' roster would change if they were a small market club. Just imagine the Bucks (Hornets, etc) and Lakers swapping teams. A small market fanbase could obviously understand taking time to develop fringe prospects, create an environment for players like Ball, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma to blossom and while slowly adding talent on a timeline that jives with this current core. That’s because without the appeal of a major market, simply signing a star to jumpstart the winning process just isn’t an option.
But for L.A., maybe not having that option would be a good thing. With the Warriors set to rule the landscape out West for at least the next couple seasons, there is no rush to accelerate a rebuild. After all, any big name free agent (like George) the Lakers would land next summer would likely be exiting their prime just as this youthful core would be entering theirs.
Plus despite the loss of a valuable first round pick next summer, there is plenty the Lakers can do this season to acquire more assets that allow them to organically grow this club into a contender. Veterans Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope are on expiring deals. While that combination of player/contract doesn’t fetch the value it used to, there’s a good bet that due to the dynamics in both conferences that one or both of those players could be dealt for a worthwhile asset at the trade deadline.
Outside of Lopez and Caldwell-Pope, it’s a little harder to find players the Lakers could showcase and get something valuable back in return. With the miles on his legs and a contract that runs through 2020, it’s unlikely 32-year-old forward Luol Deng would generate much interest. But perhaps rehabbing his value by featuring Deng in a limited role off the bench would create enough interest for a contending team to fork over a late second round pick or fringe prospect for him.
Another avenue to recoup an asset for this summer would be using the early part of this year to showcase Jordan Clarkson. Because of his age (25) and contract (signed through 2020), Clarkson is probably the team’s best chance to acquire a first round pick in next year’s draft. Besides, the presence of Ball, Ingram and Josh Hart -- all of whom are on cap/rebuild friendly rookie deals -- means there’s a chance that Clarkson’s role could be drastically diminished as the club prioritizes the development of the young trio.
Tricky spots like these with Clarkson is why having a vision for a rebuilding season is so important. What the Lakers can’t afford to do is take a reactive approach and wind up in a spot where a player like Clarkson is caught between blocking the development of younger, more promising players or languishing on the bench with no trade value. That does neither the player nor the franchise any good.
And speaking of players blocking each other’s development, the club faces another complicated with their trio of young power forwards. Julius Randle (22) is a restricted free agent this summer. Larry Nance Jr (24) has a team option. Then there’s Kuzma (22), whose summer league performance has created all kinds of buzz. Given the logjam at the position, the Lakers would be smart to do some positional experimentation with these three.
At some point in the season, the Lakers should experiment with Randle as a small ball 5 for lengthy stretches. Meanwhile, giving some Kuzma some run on the perimeter as a wing and evaluating his ability to do things like navigate on-ball screens and defend in space would be beneficial going forward. No matter what team does with Randle and Kuzma, it will ultimately impact where and how Nance plays, something needs to be considered in advance for the sake of his development.
Now for both the Suns and the Lakers, these problems are good ones to have. Though there are challenges and the potential for missteps, the cupboards aren’t exactly bare for either franchise. But neither team can afford to aimlessly float through this season no matter how promising their situations.
The Suns and Lakers must have a vision for individual players while keeping the big picture of their process in mind over the course of the entire season. It will go a long way in making sure the rebuild efforts of these two clubs don’t stall out or miss opportunities to cement themselves as future contenders.