The Lakers concluded their season on Wednesday with a loss to the Warriors to snap their 5 game win streak, then had a marathon session of exit interviews on Thursday to officially close the books on the 2016-17 campaign. We’ll have more thoughts on the this year over the course of a long break from actual games during the off-season, but it was nice to hear the players, coach, and General Manager reflect on the year that was and offer some insights into the next steps.
After listening to most all of the full sessions, a few themes arose.
First, everyone who spoke understood that progress has been made and that over the course of the season the young players improved. Brandon Ingram’s name was almost universally mentioned unprompted, noting his growth over the course of the season and how he really seemed to “get it” after the All-Star break. Luke Walton specifically mentioned the idea of instilling winning habits across the team and cited the attempts to establish the right “culture” as a point of success in the face of the team losing 55+ games.
Another key theme which arose from these discussions was the idea that the team has a clear “direction” of where they want to go. Rob Pelinka was the chief bullhorn of this concept while repeatedly referring to “excellence” as a goal. Pelinka, in no uncertain terms, stated the pursuit of excellence would be a driver of all their decisions, even noting that the players who did not incorporate this into their daily habits weren’t likely to be Lakers very long.
The players too noted this, but from their own perspective. To a man, they all seemed to promote the idea that they got a very clear sense of the direction the front office wanted to take the team. Several of them, whether intentionally or not, even seemed to imply this as a contrast to season’s past. This shouldn’t be a surprise, per se, since the outlook of the team was much murkier in past years as the team negotiated the push and pull of trying to invest in the development of young players while also catering to Kobe Bryant’s final seasons. That said, there is no ambiguity now and the players all understand it.
This brought into question the futures of several players (which we’ll get into in a bit) and the idea of “how patient will the organization be”, but I think one thing is pretty clear — at least to me it is: While the front office and coaches like this group of players, win totals in the 20’s won’t be tolerated any longer. So, while patience and a mindfulness of the young players’ development arcs are real, the organization is looking to take the next step forward and the front office is more than willing to make changes to get there. I did not get the sense that everyone is “on notice” so to speak, but I also don’t think everyone should feel comfortable with the idea they’re guaranteed to be back next season.
One last theme I noticed is that the 5-game win streak at the end of the season mattered to the players, to Luke Walton, and to the front office. Yes, they (Luke, Pelinka) may have been putting a positive face on how the lottery odds were impacted, but I got the sense their desires for the young players to understand how winning is tied to good habits and reflective of the work they were putting in was genuine. Many who spoke on Thursday cited the streak as not only a confidence builder, but as something which could springboard them into the off-season via the desire to have that feeling more and how it would impact their focus in individual training.
Not for nothing, but this resonates with me. I am perfectly happy to also admit that I am predisposed to this argument swaying me because, ta-da!, I believe these things too. But, I did find it interesting that this specific reasoning is something the players and staff seem to buy into as well. We’ll see how much that matters and/or how it translates into the summer and next season. But, I’d be lying if I said this is an insignificant thing to me.
Lastly, a few other smaller points which stood out to me…
- After listening to him talk, I don’t think Nick Young will be back next year. He strong hinted he’ll opt-out of his player option and discussed openly his want to play on a winning team. He ended his media sessions with a “see you next year when I’m playing against ya’ll” comment with a classic Swaggy P smile attached. So, yeah, he gone.
- Tarik Black is an impressive dude. He offers well thought out responses and a perspective to situations which brings a wide angle view. He comes off as more seasoned and grounded than your average 3rd year veteran who’s only 25 years old. His high character also shines through consistently. I don’t know if Tarik will be back next season — the 2nd year of his two year contract is a team option and the team could benefit from the cap space it would open up by declining it — but I like Black a fair amount and do believe he’s going to continue to improve.
- Thomas Robinson sounds like a guy who the light has turned on for. He spoke at length about how the early part of his career was him stubbornly fighting against the “bust” label while trying to do more on the court than he probably should have in order to show people who good and skilled a player he is. This past season, though, he noted that he understands what his role is in this league and while he does not look at himself as only an energy/hustle player, he knows that’s his bread and butter and that he wants to be a “star in his role” moving forward. I’ll write more about Robinson in the coming weeks and months, but he’s an intriguing player who, I think, can be useful on a good team.
- Julius Randle was open about what he needs to do to improve and, as he usually does, gave off a strong vibe of his desires and commitment to do those things. I thought it was important that he cited working on his conditioning to “get in the best shape of his life” was a good admission and reflective of what the coaches want from him. Remember, one of the lasting critiques of Randle this season was Walton trying to find ways for Randle to play harder for longer stretches. Well, that only comes from being in excellent shape. Randle seems to get that if he’s going to unlock his full potential as a player, it’s going to come from being in peak physical condition. As a Randle supporter, but also someone who has questions about specific parts of his game, I am intrigued to see how this summer plays out for him.
- I wish we could have gotten some thoughts from Luol Deng and D’Angelo Russell. I cast no judgment on them not being there — I know there are good reasons. I just wished we would have gotten some soundbites and gotten to hear their perspective.
- I really appreciated Corey Brewer’s positive attitude, but also his candidness. On more than one occasion he noted that some of the young players have been here “two or three years” and that this is a big summer for them to “make a jump” in their games. I fully agree with this assessment and, as noted earlier, speaks to the importance of this summer for everyone — players and front office alike.