The Lakers have traditionally been built on the premise that stars win. The idea is seemingly embedded into the fabric of the organizational ethos. This is a franchise that does not retire your jersey number unless you get elected into the Hall of Fame. They are the franchise who has always had a leading man (and usually more) — from Mikan to Magic, Baylor to Bryant and all the HOF names in-between — anchoring the roster and driving it towards success.
Recent summers (save for 2016) were dedicated to the chase of the next front-man who would lead the organization out of shambles and back into position to compete for championships. Even though there are high hopes for the youngsters grabbed in the lottery, the team always operated under the guise that the next great team might need to be fronted by a star not yet present.
And maybe that is still true. We don’t yet know how good D’Angelo Russell or Brandon Ingram or Julius Randle will be. Early returns tell us they have the potential to be special. And I am a believer in their respective talents. But if every player with potential reached their ceiling, Anthony Randolph might be the league’s reigning MVP on the Warriors, not that Steph Curry character.
While the young players ply their craft in pursuit of living up to their draft status, a funny thing has happened: the Lakers are winning games and are a fun team to watch play. Even if we thought this was possible, to see it actually happening is surprising. What’s even more surprising his how it is happening.
My guess is that if anyone envisioned the Lakers making a huge leap this season it was going to be on the backs of one of their young players. D’Angelo Russell would break out. Brandon Ingram would be more ready than his thin frame and 19 years would imply. Julius Randle wouldn’t just make the year 3 jump, he’d become the do-it-all forward his high school pedigree suggested was possible.
And while we have seen that all of the above are true to varying degrees, the bigger point is that nearly every player is providing some sort of contribution to the team’s success and there isn’t one single player who stands above the rest as the clear reason the team has improved.
Consider that the Lakers currently do not have a single player who averages more than 27.7 minutes a game (Randle). They play a 10 man rotation where nine of the 10 guys play 20 minutes a night (Tarik Black is at 14.1). They have 5 players averaging double digits, but the leading scorer is at 15.9 points a night (Russell). No player takes more than Russell’s 14.4 shots. I could go on and on.
Sunday’s win against the Suns is a perfect example of how the team’s ecosystem works. The team’s starters pushed out to a nice lead with the reserve group following that up with more impressive play. In the 2nd half, the Suns started to make their push against the 1st unit, so Walton turned to his bench to stem the tide. With that group, Lou Williams played a key role in stabilizing things, but after a couple of dry possessions, he got subbed out and Russell came back in.
When Russell returned, he partnered with Nick Young (marinate on that for a minute and think of how unlikely that sentence seemed even 3 months ago) to take back control of the game to allow the team to pull away. On the night, six Lakers scored in double figures with Ingram (9 points) just missing that standard. The team shared the ball, came up with key stops, and hit the right notes offensively with no single players standing above the rest. As Julius Randle recently said, whoever is open shoots and everyone is buying in.
It was just a season ago where the head coach spoke with complete, unabashed honesty about wanting to funnel the team’s offense through a single player. He’d earned it, was the rationale. The rest of the players followed that direction and, not surprisingly, the team struggled as they tried to depend on a player who was clearly the face of the franchise but no longer able to produce like it. That’s not a knock on Kobe, father time comes for us all and always get his man.
This season things are different. There is no one player to lean on. One night it’s Lou Williams. The next it’s Jordan Clarkson. Then it’s Randle. Or Russell. In the crevices are other guys spackling up the holes — Larry Nance Jr., Tarik Black, Deng, Mozgov, Ingram. The bench cheers and celebrates a big play whether it’s Calderon and Zubac leading the way or if it’s Russell and Clarkson.
The Lakers’ collective is finding its stride and it is fun to watch. And in a year where development and establishing the right habits were chief goals, it seems the Lakers are well on their way. I don’t know if the wins will continue, but as long as these guys continue to play for each other I don’t think fans can ask for more.