NBA AM: Why Lakers On Rise, No Mention Of Lonzo Ball

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Things are finally looking up for one of the most storied franchises in the National Basketball Association. The Los Angeles Lakers (6-8) have been occupants on the league’s basement ever since future first ballot Hall-of-Fame guard Kobe Bryant’s body began to fail at the end of the 2012-13 campaign.

Since that time the franchise has endured four consecutive losing campaigns, numerous failed free agency signings, three head coaches, ownership power shifts and a front office upheaval.

But as we approach the first checkpoint of the 2017-18 season, the Lakers are hovering around .500, tied for the tenth best record in the Western Conference and sporting an upward trajectory.

Today we’ll take a look at some of the reasons why Lakers fans should be excited for their future without even mentioning the team’s most hyped player on the roster.

Salary Cap Room – Galore

According to the Basketball Insiders Lakers team salary page, the franchise currently has $100.8 million in guaranteed salaries on the books for this season. This puts the team slightly above the $99.1 million salary cap for the season and roughly $20 million below the luxury tax. The team was surprisingly able to quickly move off the contract of center Timofey Mozgov in an offseason deal with the Brooklyn Nets after the previous regime signed the veteran to a massive four-year $64 million dollar deal in free agency.

Now the franchise sits on just $49 million in guaranteed salaries for the 2018-19 campaign which will allow the team to become a credible buyer in next summer’s free agency frenzy. The team will have up to $47 million in cap space available in a market that could include All-Stars LeBron James, Paul George and Chris Paul.

The key to getting better in NBA circles come from three primary avenues – the draft, free agency and via the trade market. Free agency is always the trickiest, but most of the teams currently at the top of the league have been able to make a splash via free agency in recent years.

The Lakers will at least get their shot to do the same.

Rookie of the Year Candidate — Kyle Kuzma

Entering the season, even after a promising Summer League showing, Kuzma was considered the Lakers’ “other rookie” which isn’t too uncommon considering he was selected with the No. 27 overall pick of the 2017 draft. There were no Rookie of the Year conversations or any expectations of the former University of Utah standout logging heavy minutes.

However when you look at title winning or contending franchises in recent memory, those teams typically sport a late round pick that defied the odds and produces more like a lottery pick is expected to perform. The Golden State Warriors drafted Draymond Green in the second round. The San Antonio Spurs were able to nab Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the late first round and late second round respectively. The Cleveland Cavaliers are awaiting the return of Isaiah Thomas to help bolster their title hopes.

All four of those players reached All-Star status. Many believe two of those players are a lock for the Hall of Fame, while a third could make a run with continued success. Those comparisons are lofty for a rookie but to start the season, Kuzma is averaging 14.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.4 assists on 50 percent shooting from the floor.

The point is, players such as Kuzma may not get the hype and mainstream attention but they are the type of home runs a front office needs to drill in order to make a push.

The Magic Johnson Front Office

Back in February the Lakers named Johnson to president of basketball operations. The Hall of Famer is off to a great start. For starters, Johnson was able to acquire former All-Star center Brook Lopez and the No. 27 overall pick of the 2017 draft (Kuzma) in exchange for Mozgov and guard D’Angelo Russell. So far the Lakers have benefited the most from the deal with Lopez and Kuzma producing in the nightly rotation while Russell is hurt and Mozgov is a bit player in Brooklyn.

Johnson has promised to bring more excitement back to the Lakers and the early results for his regime have been positive.

Bird Rights on Brook Lopez

The traditional center is becoming a thing of the past, but Lopez has adjusted his game accordingly. The center has developed his three-point shot and is currently knocking them down at a 35 percent clip (four attempts per game).

Lopez gives the Lakers a proven 20-point per night presence, achieved multiples times during his career, in a lineup filled with young talent. Most importantly, the Lakers own Lopez’s bird rights which means the team will be able to offer him the largest contract next summer when he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

It’s all about flexibility.

Trade Chips, Trade Chips, Trade Chips

To be clear, the Lakers don’t have prime talent available to deal but they have the chips to potentially acquire more talent or become a third party in a three-team scenario.

Former All-Star Luol Deng is owed $53 million through 2020 and is seemingly not a part of the team’s long term plans. The contract is massive and won’t be easy to move, but remember Johnson was able to ship Mozgov, a player with an inferior resume to Deng.

Veteran wing Corey Brewer, owed $7.6 million this season, is in the final year of his deal and will hit free agency next summer. Brewer is currently averaging 14 minutes per game this season and could be an attractive asset for a contender looking for a veteran presence come playoff time.

Lastly, numerous reports indicate forward Julius Randle is unlikely to stick with the franchise long-term.  Randle has shown flashes of double-double potential and is in a contract year. The Lakers could try to flip him for a first round pick or see how his market plays out next summer when he’s a restricted free agent.

The Growth of Brandon Ingram

Lakers fans are breathing a sigh of relief. Across the board this season, Ingram has shown growth. From field goal percentage, three-point shooting, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, the second year forward has taken another step.

Ultimately, the Lakers would love for him to become more dominant but at least the signs point to a high upside after an uneven rookie campaign filled with inconsistency.

When discussing the Lakers this season most eyes are typically pointed toward one particular player and storyline, but Los Angeles has multiple areas of positive growth. The team is still quite far from contention but the future appears brighter than any time post 2012-13.