Why This NBA Season Is More Important for the Lakers Than You Think

The 2017-18 NBA season doesn't really exist for the Los Angeles Lakers. At least, not in the way it exists, for example, for the Golden State Warriors or the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Boston Celtics or the San Antonio Spurs, or even the Brooklyn Nets whose overperformance this year could scupper Cleveland's best-laid plans.

All of those teams, and more besides, have something tangible to aim for.

For Luke Walton, Magic Johnson and the rebuilding Lakers, the 2017-18 NBA season that begins on Thursday night at Quicken Loans Arena when the Celtics visit the Cavaliers is about intangibles, a deliberately frustrating and ambiguous term that stands, in this case, for small steps in the direction marked "Playoffs" and, eventually, the NBA Finals. That's the hope, anyway, and hope and intangibility go together like ham and cheese or Magic Johnson and a hoop.

"Obviously we want to win," Lakers head coach Walton said on Monday in quotes reported by the Orange County Register. "Everybody wants to win. But to me, when you focus on the little things like that and creating who you are, the winning will take care of itself when it's time for that to happen."

It sounds, in more words, like the slogan the Philadelphia 76ers have made famous over the past few years: "Trust the process." For that franchise, that meant taking loss after loss, futile season after futile season to build up enough talent to compete again. They have that stockpile now. The Lakers are not on the same timescale as the 76ers, and they were never quite as bad for quite as long, either. But last season's defeats—56 of them, third-most in the league—gained them a potential All-Star point guard in Lonzo Ball.

And—here's the irony—if Ball and the Lakers put together enough small improvements during the 2017-18 season, a solid basis to build upon could be in place.

The Orange County Register, following on from reports over the summer, notes LeBron James and Paul George will be watching how Ball leads the team closely this season. Los Angeles is an attractive enough destination for a star free agent—especially James who has business interests in the city. Tack on the opportunity to join a team growing into a championship contender—as well as the chance to knock off the Warriors on the way—and the Lakers may become an irresistible choice next summer.

That prospect, in its way, is even more intangible than what the Lakers, and James, and George, hope to see from Ball this season. Put enough of the bricks on top of each other, though, and before you know it, on occasion, a structure becomes apparent before your eyes.

Perhaps this season is less ephemeral than it appears, after all, for Walton, Johnson and Ball.