Welcome back friends to the third annual installment of my NBA League Pass Rankings. For those new to the process, forget power rankings. Forget Vegas Over-Unders and salary cap gymnastics. Here at Knicks at Night we dive into the teams one by one to answer one simple question. If you’re shelling out the money for a League Pass subscription, which of these teams are worth that top 5 night-in, night-out slot and which of these guys are absolute, unwatchable garbage people?
I don’t think any team stands to benefit more from an offseason departure than the L.A. Lakers bidding a sweet, sweet farewell to Kobe Bryant. And, while his final scoring explosion (on 50 shots!! The most in a game in the last 33 years!!!) against Utah’s backups may have caused some people to put on their rose-colored, nostalgia glasses, let’s not beat around the bush. This guy was horrible last year. Like absolutely, worst shooting guard in the league type horrible. He clocked in here at a cool 368th player in the league, sandwiched right between Kendrick Perkins and another fossil in Paul Pierce, and really could have been worse when you consider how his crazy usage rate crippled the development of any of the Lakers’ young prospects.
The player most likely to benefit from his retirement is last year’s 2nd overall pick, D’Angelo Russell. Russell was my favorite prospect in the draft that year, combining good size for a point guard with a knockdown shooting stroke and excellent court vision. He ended the season on a real sour note, secretly snap chatting fellow teammate Nick Young talking about cheating on his fiancee then posting it all over the internet, but there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic if he can take on a larger role in the offense, while growing up a bit off the court.
Other than Russell, the Lakers have a few more intriguing young players, taking Duke’s Brandon Ingram second in this year’s draft and throwing down a nice contract extension for third year combo guard Jordan Clarkson. The Lakers front office would probably also like to include fellow third year player Julius Randle in that group, but the bouncy power forward has been among the worst players in the entire league when he’s been on the court.
The offseason was a bit unusual, to say the least, with the front office jumping the gun on the center market in a BIG way by inking Timofey Mozgov to a 4 year/$64 million contract just a day or two into free agency. The move might make sense on paper; it gives Russell a more athletic pick-and-roll partner in place of the statue-like Roy Hibbert (though Mozgov has talked about the Lakers wanting him to shoot threes), but Mozgov hasn’t been the same player since his knee surgery and could barely get off the bench for Cleveland last season. There’s a chance that contract looks terrible towards the end, if not a whole lot sooner. They also signed the similarly old and banged-up Luol Deng to play small-forward for the next four years. And again, I can see how they are trying to improve their locker room culture and porous, god-awful defense, but these two are old, two years away from washed up, and should take serious playing time away from the young heads on this roster.
And speaking of porous, this defense was dead last in the league last year and nearly two points worse per 100 possessions than the second-worst real team (aka not the Nets) on the list. A lot of that had to do with a hobbled Kobe surrounded by young, inexperienced players, but it’s hard to believe that Deng is still the lockdown perimeter defender he’s been earlier in his career, while Mozgov is a defensive downgrade on Hibbert if anything. I’d say they have a real chance to repeat that cellar-like performance and should actually be a good sleeper pick for the worst record in the league (particularly because they stand to lose their first rounder if they finish outside of the three worst teams and might just shut it down come All-Star break).
Still, I think this offense has the chance to be quirky and fun to watch. I’ve yet to mention that the Lakers hired head coach Luke Walton to replace the weekend at Bernies, Byron Scott corpse they’ve had in the huddle the last few years. If Walton can implement some of the concepts of Golden State’s constant motion offense, than Russell should be surrounded with great shooters and cutters in Deng and Clarkson with Randle rolling towards the hoop. I like that this team is bringing Ingram along slowly by taking him off the bench and I love that they made a minimal investment in the cult-hero Chairman Yi Jianlan. If everything clicks right, and I end up hating the Warriors as much as I think, these guys could be my league-pass go when I need to find that late night West Coast game.
Last year’s ranking: 6 (-9)