A couple of weeks ago I was listening to a podcast between Zach Lowe and David Thorpe about early season trends. The premise was that after a couple of weeks we were starting to get some information about teams and both Lowe and Thorpe were discussing whether these things were “real”. It was a good listen and worth your time even though nothing about the Lakers was discussed.
The caveat to their discussion, though, was that teams had only played about 10 games — thus the question of whether things they were seeing were actually real. Both commented that after 20 games we would have a better idea about whether trends we were observing had staying power and that it might be good to check back in in a few weeks.
Well, guess what, we’re now at the 20 game mark for the Lakers. They are 10-10 after an ugly, but lovely win against the Bulls on the 2nd night of a back to back on Wednesday. Now that we’re at the quarter pole of the season, we have a better idea about what we actually know about this team. What are some of them? I’m glad you asked. Here’s 10.
1. The Lakers can compete for a bottom seed in the playoffs. This does not mean they will make the playoffs and it does not mean I am predicting they will. Before the season I had this team winning around 28 games with a high-end total of 35 or so if everything went right. Well, the Lakers already have 10 wins a quarter of the way through the season and things have not gone right. Through Wednesday’s games, the Lakers have played the 3rd toughest schedule while dealing with injuries to three starters (D’Angelo Russell has missed 7 of the last 8 games, Julius Randle missed games with a hip pointer, and Nick Young just strained his calf and will miss 2-4 weeks — more in him later). The vision Mitch Kupchak sold in Kobe’s final 2 seasons — that the Lakers could compete for the playoffs — was not really true. Those teams, through 20 games, were clearly bad. This team is not bad. I’m not ready to call them good yet either. But they are feisty. They play hard. And, when healthy, they are deep with quality rotation players. I do not think they are going away. What that means in terms of total wins or where they end up in the standings remains to be seen. But they can compete for the 8th seed this season.
2. D’Angelo Russell is important — at least on offense. We will get into the team’s defensive woes later, but with Russell missing time lately, it’s become quite clear to me that he is already proving to be an engine for offensive production. For the season, the Lakers’ offensive rating is 109.4 when Russell is on the court. When he sits, that number dips to 101.3*. During the last 6 games he has missed, the Lakers’ offensive rating is 97.0. Jose Calderon has filled in admirably, but this team misses Russell’s court vision, his ability to stretch the floor, and his ability to threaten the defense at all three levels of the court from his position. (*This number includes the games Russell has not played, so it is obviously skewed downwards. Through 11/20, the Lakers were still 4.1 points per 100 possessions better with Russell on the floor vs. when he sat. Considering the strength of the Lakers’ bench, this is meaningful).
3. Julius Randle has emerged as a real leader out of the group of young players. Yes, his production matters too. 13 points, 9 rebounds, and nearly 4 assists a night should not be overlooked and is the product of a multi-faceted skill set which has had him highly touted as a prospect since highs school. But more than the numbers, Randle’s effort, moxie, and alpha personality and shining through on a nightly basis. He does not back down from anyone and increases his presence on both ends in games that are close late. When he’s in the game, you notice him. And it is easy to see that when he has his game going, the rest of the guys follow his lead.
4. The Lakers’ all bench unit of Lou Williams, Jordan Clarkson, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance, and Tarik Black is one of the best benches in the league. They might be the best. While their numbers have fallen off a bit from where they were two weeks ago, they continue to turn games in the Lakers’ favor, posting a net rating of +13.9 for the season through the end of November. Of the 17 units who have played more than 150 minutes, that mark ranks 5th in the NBA. The 4 units ahead of them are all starting groups (Clippers, Cavs, Warriors, Hornets).
5. Luke Walton can really coach. Before the Lakers’ job was even open this summer, I wanted the team to hire Walton. I thought his age, the style of play he promotes, and his profile (NBA pedigree, laid back, cerebral as a player, strong communicator, relatable) were all major positives and indicators he could succeed as an NBA coach. Even with those things, though, I’d be lying if I didn’t at least wonder about how his successful time as interim head coach with the Warriors would translate to the Lakers. His new team didn’t have Steph Curry or Draymond Green or Klay Thompson, after all. But he’s done wonders rebuilding the team’s culture, inspiring his players to compete nightly and maintaining buy-in. Beyond those things, he’s tactically been very good as well. He draws up some excellent out of bounds actions, he’s playing to his player’s strengths, and managing his rotations as well as anyone could have hoped for. Even through injuries, he’s found ways to keep his preferred personnel groupings together. There may be some on par with his, but I can’t think of a better coaching job this season.
6. He may have a strained calf, but Nick Young is back from the dead as an NBA player. His numbers from the past two seasons were terrible. I fully believed the Lakers would either trade him or waive him outright if they could not find a taker. Young, though, has found his stride in Walton’s schemes by bombing threes and competing defensively. I was not ready to claim Young was back to being a viable rotation player after his strong preseason. And after a rough first week to the regular campaign, I saw rumblings from fans that his strong exhibition play was a mirage. But in November Young 44.9% from deep on nearly 6 attempts per game en route to 13.5 points a night. He’s being depended on and delivering more often than not.
7. Lou Williams is the team’s X-factor. On several nights Williams has been the difference between winning and losing, the difference between comfort and stress. Clutch baskets, key drawn fouls and trips to the foul line, better than expected playmaking. This is the Williams many hoped the Lakers were getting when he was signed last season. In fact, this Williams might be even better. He’s leading the team in PER at 22.8 and scoring at 16.7 points a night. When he has a big night, the Lakers seem to win. And he’s another guy I thought might be traded at some point this year. Needless to say, I don’t see that happening any more.
8. This team is still a bottom 10 defensive team — and maybe bottom 5. A couple of blowouts to the Warriors have skewed these numbers, but the Lakers are down 26th (tied) in defensive rating and teams are starting to scheme their weaknesses more and more. They can compete on that end — especially the all bench unit where Nance and Black offer front line versatility and switchability — but more often than not they simply do not have enough to slow opposing offenses for long enough stretches. They have gotten some timely stops and their ability to score has put some pressure on opposing offenses to match baskets — pressure that has caused mistakes and rushed shots. But this team still needs a full time wing stopper. Maybe Brandon Ingram becomes that player. Speaking of which…
9. Brandon Ingram is going to be a really good two-way player. I know he’s struggling on offense. I also know his skinny build and insufficient strength is showing up consistently enough that it’s causing him problems — especially offensively when he’s facing tight ball pressure or when he’s getting into the lane and trying to finish through and over contact. But he’s already showing plus-tools defensively and better than expected instincts for a 19 year old rookie on that end. As he learns the league and his body fills out, he can be a nightmare defender. And when he starts to better understand how to get to his spots and use his physical tools to his advantage, he’s going to be a fine scorer as well. The seed has been planted and when it sprouts the Lakers are going to have themselves a player.
10. The Lakers are fun again. That is all.