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Lakers! With or without superstar additions, the Lakers are poised to become a playoff team next year

Lakers! With or without superstar additions, the Lakers are poised to become a playoff team next year
Things are looking up for Josh Hart. (Jim Mone / Associated Press)

Hi, this is Tania Ganguli, here with the last Lakers newsletter for the 2017-18 season.

On the first day of the NBA playoffs, Josh Hart posted something on Twitter that needed no interpretation: "Next year."

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Moments later, Lakers controlling owner Jeanie Buss retweeted his tweet with her own comment: "Can't wait."

Hart's journey in some ways has been a microcosm of the Lakers' season as a whole. He dealt with disappointment early. When the Lakers sent him down to the South Bay Lakers, he remembers staying mostly to himself, upset with his situation. He remembers a phone call with his mom during which she asked him if he wanted her and his dad to come meet him in Iowa, where the South Bay Lakers were scheduled to play. He muttered something indicating they could come if they wanted. About an hour after Hart landed in Des Moines, his parents called to say they were in the lobby.

"I hung out with them that day," Hart said. "It helped me remember where I came from, remember where I am. When you have rocks like that in your life, you're gonna be good."

After his stint with the Lakers' developmental affiliate, Hart slowly but surely turned himself into an important piece for the Lakers. He was consistently achieving double doubles. His nose for defense fit right into what Lakers coach Luke Walton wanted, and he got more comfortable within the Lakers offense.

When he broke his hand, it hurt the Lakers, and when he returned late in the year his impact mattered.

Hart is part of why the Lakers could be poised to make the playoffs no matter what happens next season. Hart, Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball could absolutely form a core that sneaks the Lakers into the playoffs, especially if they can avoid the spate of injuries that slammed them late in the season.

Hart told another story during his exit interview last week. He remembered reading a story early in the year that referred to the Lakers' "young core" (a group whose members have changed a lot over the past few years) as Ball, Kuzma and Ingram. By the end of the year another story, with almost the identical premise, added Hart to the team's young core.

It meant a lot to him to have forced himself into that conversation.

Since this will be our final newsletter for a while, let's do something a little different.

Here are 10 takeaways from this season

1. Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson have patiently put the Lakers in a position to take advantage of whatever situation they find themselves in next summer. They have the salary cap space to sign top free agents. They have the young talent that can be valuable in trades. And if they don't find the right fits in trades, that young talent can help them take another step next season, after they finished 35-47, the best record they've had since before Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles' tendon.

2. The chemistry that the Lakers' rookies, and select other young players, developed during the season bodes well for their future together (provided they get to stay together). I had a lot of fun writing this story about how close those guys got this season — a closeness shown through jokes at each other's expense.

3. Julius Randle changed his market and the Lakers' minds. If you began the season assuming the Lakers and Randle would be parting ways this summer, you weren't alone. I thought so, and so did Randle. After losing his starting job and knowing the team had tried to trade him, Randle felt disconnected from the organization. But he made a decision during the season to change his mindset, even as he couldn't change his situation. He told Walton that he wanted to put their differences aside, and he did. Randle became dominant in his role as the Lakers' backup center and then worked his way back into the starting lineup. Last week, Walton said he would like Randle back with the Lakers.

4. The Lakers are not going to change Ball's shooting motion. Ball made 36% of his shots this season and 36.5% of his three pointers, so there is room for improvement, but they won't look to change his unorthodox windup. They are going to work with him on other parts of his shot, like his balance and his poise when taking some shots this season. But Johnson and Pelinka were clear that they don't believe his windup is a problem. Pelinka said what matters more are the release point and the follow-through, and Ball's release is "beautiful."

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5. This year's Summer League team won't look like last year's. Johnson said Ball and Kuzma will not play. Hart will. Hart missed last season's championship run with an injury. Ball missed some of it. Kuzma was a big part of the Lakers' summer league championship, which was the first time people really saw what kind of player he had the potential to be at the NBA level.

6. Pelinka created lookbooks for the Lakers' young players to give them visual representation of how he wanted their bodies to change. For example, Kuzma's lookbook included photos of Bryant and Giannis Antetokounmpo as rookies, and also photos of them when they became All Stars. When Pelinka spoke about these lookbooks during his exit news conference, he prefaced it by saying that he knows people of that age are very visually stimulated. They relate to images and are constantly surrounded by them on social media platforms like Instagram. He's made it a priority to understand how best to relate to the Lakers' young players who are significantly younger than most of the clients Pelinka used to represent.

7. Andre Ingram's feel-good story gave the whole organization a boost as the season trudged to its conclusion. Joey Buss, who runs the South Bay Lakers and is instrumental in the Los Angeles Lakers' operation, had been looking for the right time to give Ingram an opportunity. In his first game, a nationally televised game, he showed off the shooting skills that made him the NBA's development league's all-time leader in three pointers. His story inspired people because he waited so long for a shot.

8. The Lakers feel good about their position in the draft. I sent this text to a friend who works in an NFL team's personnel department: "The Lakers general manager is in Paris for scouting right now. You picked the wrong sport." He good-naturedly agreed. Pelinka and Jesse Buss, a part owner and the Lakers' director of scouting, flew to Europe over the weekend to continue draft prep. This year's draft class is pretty deep in the middle. The Lakers gave up their own pick as the last vestige of the Steve Nash trade, which will wind up being about the 10th pick, but they got Cleveland's pick, which is 25th. They know from experience that a late first-round pick can have a lot of value. And this year there won't be a huge gap in talent between those picks.

9. Isaiah Thomas doesn't regret playing through his torn labrum for a very personal reason. Thomas said playing basketball helped him cope with losing his sister. Thomas had a generally positive impact on the Lakers, even though they had him for such a short time. He could be someone who returns under the right circumstances.

10. It's entirely possible the Lakers have another year of their awkward situation with Luol Deng again next year. Walton insisted last week that it would not be a problem because Deng was very professional and didn't cause problems in the locker room. But you would have to wonder how long that would last if Deng spent another season with the Lakers. On the other hand, his contract will become a lot more tradable next year. If the Lakers don't need the cap space they'd gain by stretching his contract and waiving him, they probably would be able to get out of the contract before next summer.

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Thanks for following along this year. Until next season…

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Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I'll come right to your inbox. Something else you'd like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter @taniaganguli.

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