Which team would you rather be?
Offensive Rating: 104.3, 13th in the NBA
Defensive Rating: 107.4, 27th in the NBA
Net Rating: -3.1, 21st in the NBA
Winning Percentage: .500
Offensive Rating: 108.9, 12th in the NBA
Defensive Rating: 108.5, 19th in the NBA
Net Rating: +0.4, 13th in the NBA
Winning Percentage: .400
Team A scores less, defends better, has a negative (and worse) net rating, but a better record. Team B scores much better, defends slightly worse, has a (slightly) positive net rating, but has a worse record. Before we get into the answer to which team you like better, know that Team A is the Lakers through their first 20 games where they posted a 10-10 record. Team B is the Lakers as well, but from their last 10 games where they have gone 4-6 during that stretch.
Call me crazy, but I’d rather have team B. Yes, the defense and winning percentage is worse, but when you consider how much better they have been scoring and the fact they have a positive net rating, there’s a case to be made that the way the team is playing now is actually better than they were to start the season. Especially when you consider the lineup data.
Over the last 10 games, the starting lineup of D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Luol Deng, Julius Randle, and Timofey Mozgov has played 121 minutes. During those minutes the they’ve posted an offensive rating of 121.8 and a defensive rating of 99.0, for a net rating of +22.8 for the year. Consider through the first 20 games those numbers were, offensive rating of 112.1 and a defensive rating of 110.0, for a total net rating of 2.1.
Also consider the play of D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle during the recent 10 game stretch. In the 232 minutes Russell and Randle have shared the floor in the team’s last 10 games, the Lakers have had an offensive rating of 113.9 and a defensive rating 107.1. Compare that to the 111.7 offensive rating and the 110.2 defensive rating the team posted in the 316 minutes that duo shared the floor in the Lakers’ first 20 games.
With that, I think Reed’s point is a salient one:
The early W's were encouraging for Luke/culture change. But this current stretch means more as it's showing DAR-JR-BI are 1st rate prospects
— Reed (@Reed_nba) January 9, 2017
I understand the recent samples are small. And the level of competition in this stretch is not what it was in the team’s first 20 games — in that stretch the Lakers played the Warriors three times, the Thunder twice, the Hawks twice, the Rockets, Spurs, and the Bulls. Playing as well as the team did to start the year was important for a variety of reasons, but maybe none as much as how it set the tone for what the team could be. There’s an argument to be made some of the success the Lakers are seeing now is directly related to them having that early season success as proof their approach can actually work.
That said, there’s also an argument to be made that this most recent stretch where the team has been without Larry Nance Jr. for the entire 10 games and where opponents have the Lakers more fully scouted and, thus, are more prepared for what the team is doing on both ends should be weighted more heavily. When you add that Russell, Randle, and, in the last few games, Ingram have really started to elevate their play and been drivers to getting some of these wins, that’s another positive mark towards this iteration of the team than the one which was being more heavily influenced by the play of the 2nd unit.
To speak to the question in the title of the post, I’m not ready to say it definitively but I am leaning towards “yes” — the Lakers are better now. The play of the young guys is not only improved, but what they are doing looks sustainable in several key ways. They are more attentive on defense, attacking the rim more on offense, and in carrying a bigger load have taken on more responsibility in the form of increased minutes.
If nothing else, this might make this recent play more meaningful even if not conceding it as better.