I hate to keep beating the same drum, but when it’s the only instrument in the room what really can I say? The Lakers are back in action tonight, facing the 76ers in another standings game which could matter come lottery night. Philly may not be “tanking”, but they’re certainly starved for talent now that Joel Embiid has been shut down for the season (joining top pick Ben Simmons) and Nerlens Noel has been traded. The team still has Dario Saric (who’s good!) and Jahlil Okafor (who’s…I don’t know what he is at this point), but the rest of this roster is holdovers from previously terrible teams and some veterans who were brought in to soak up minutes and mentor the young guys.

This makes Philly a bad team and they have incentive — maybe even more than the Lakers — to continue to be that way through the end of the season to maximize their lottery chances. Philly will get the Lakers’ pick should it fall outside the top 3 and they also have the right to swap picks with the Kings should that pick end up higher than their own. So, Philly realistically could end up with two top 5 picks in what is thought to be a loaded draft and all they have to do is continue to lose to make that happen.

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I’ve long expressed my belief in Julius Randle as a talent. Players — especially PF’s — just don’t often combine his combination of size, strength, and quickness. He’s not a super leaper, but he’s got enough pep — especially as a one footed jumper — to finish above the rim and through contact. Add to this his ability to handle the ball (even if he can be loose with the ball) and that he can be a plus passer, and he has some unique tools with which to build a contributing player.

With that type of uniqueness, however, comes the lack of a template with which to model and offer a path to being the player he could become. I mean, I see shades of Lamar Odom, but Randle has much more of an assertive attitude than Odom and less an outward desire to simply fall into whatever role is slotted for him or to do what is needed rather than what he himself wants to do in order to be a success within the team concept. His physical profile can remind of a LeBron James type, but Randle lacks the shooting confidence, the next level feel and passing ability, and the inherent defensive IQ which LeBron harnessed very early in his career.

So what is Randle and what can he be? A real answer to that question that also I feel confident in escapes me. And maybe it always will.

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To say I was conflicted heading into the Lakers matchup with the Suns would be an understatement. From my game preview:

I’d love to talk to you about the matchups between the young players on both teams. How I always look forward to seeing how D’Angelo Russell plays against good friend Devin Booker. How I’m interested in seeing how Julius Randle deals with the athleticism and length of Marquese Chriss. How I want to see how Brandon Ingram matches up with TJ Warren. On any other night under most other circumstances, those things would matter much more to me.

Tonight, though, these lottery implications really do take center stage. This isn’t to say I am rooting for the Lakers to lose. I’m not really capable of doing that. It’s just not in my heart to do it. But, my head does understand how these things work. The logic side of my brain fully grasps how much the standings game matters here and how it can impact things in May when the lottery order is determined.

This is the battle I think all Lakers fans are facing each night now, me included. I want the young players to do well. I want competitive games where the team plays hard. I’d even like them to win a few more games simply to feel the reward of hard work and see the correlation between effort and positive results. How those goals bump up against the realities of the draft picks the team still owes are a difficult situation to navigate from a rooting interests standpoint.

After the game, those conflicted feelings remain but I can say it still feels good to see the young guys play well and the good feeling of seeing the team win a game still remains. Especially when it’s buoyed by a fantastic performance from D’Angelo Russell who continued his trend upwards and strong play since the trade deadline.

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Oh. “Better Lottery Odds” actually isn’t an NBA team, you say? My mistake. The Lakers play the Suns tonight. But the title of this post is actually more accurate. You see, even though the Suns have won 3 of their last 4 games and are play well lately, that matters less than the fact that it’s the Suns who are two games up in the standings (and loss column) on the Lakers. This game has real lottery implications.

A Lakers win puts that difference at only a single game with only 17 games left on the schedule. That small a margin could easily equate to the Lakers finishing with a better record than the Suns which flip the odds of the Lakers keeping their top 3 protected pick from 55.8% to 46.9%. That margin may not be huge, but it is statistically significant and would mean only one team would need to jump from outside the top 3 to inside it to move the Lakers’ pick into the 76ers’ hands.

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Even though we at FB&G try to focus our attention on the “on-court” happenings with the Lakers, you’d have to live in a cave to not at least be aware of the off-court family drama which persists among the team’s owners. After Jeanie Buss relieved Jim Buss of his duties as VP of Basketball Operations and installed Magic Johnson as the top basketball decision maker, the fallout has been very real.

The inherent drama of these moves and resulting aftershocks is the stuff of tabloids and soap operas. If you would prefer to not even consider these things, I don’t blame you. All of it reeks, a continuation of the dysfunction and in-fighting which plagued the franchise in the immediate aftermath of Dr. Buss’ death through current day. That said, if these things do interest you, Ramon Shelburne of ESPN has a long and worthwhile story up on the behind the scenes activity which got Jim (and the front office) and Jeanie (along with Magic Johnson) to the point they are now.

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Is it weird that I have little to say about a Lakers game? That the strategy doesn’t intrigue me, the match ups don’t matter all that much, and that I don’t really care about the outcome? This usually isn’t the case, but we are at that time of the year where, in reality, those things which typically make up the more enjoyable parts of my viewing experience are losing their luster.

Be it the lottery standings, the roster and front office changes, or simply that we’re now in the 2nd week of March for a season which started, with training camp, way back in September — which was a long time ago. As we say at the beginning of the year, it’s a marathon and not a sprint…well, we’re coming down the home stretch and there’s just little intrigue left.

This doesn’t mean nothing that happens has value. We know that’s not the case.

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There’s not a single player on the Lakers’ roster who receives as much backlash from fans as D’Angelo Russell. Often viewed through a deficit model, there is a vocal group of detractors who like to point out all he does not do and/or all he does do, but not well enough. It’s a fascinating (and often frustrating) thing to observe, especially when most metrics (as well as my eye test) point out that Russell is one of the team’s best players and top contributors.

Thinking what I think and knowing what I know, I have taken to the internet (my site, twitter, etc) to defend Russell’s play; to highlight the things I think he’s doing well and the ways in which he’s helping the team. This is often met with some combination of thank you’s, he’s still a bust tho’s, and a few flat out I don’t care’s. I say all this just so that you know that I know what’s going to happen next. So take this with this preface: I don’t care.

D’Angelo Russell is trending up even if you don’t see it.

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In our latest Laker Film Room Podcast, Pete and I discuss the sea-change of the post-trade deadline Lakers, what we hope some of the individual young players get out of the team’s final 20 games, and offer some assessments and concerns regarding some of the lasting habits we’re seeing from a couple of the specific youngsters.

Click through to listen to the entire talk. I really enjoyed this one…

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