But for a dismal nine-game losing streak that dragged from the end of last year to the beginning of this one, the Los Angeles Lakers would be planted squarely in the playoff hunt right now. Such are the vagaries of professional sports.
Regardless, the team with the fastest pace in the league keeps on running—and in a good way. The youthful squad has dealt with injuries, trades and rumors. Yet here they are, playing their best basketball during the season’s final stretch.
Case in point: In the fourth quarter of the fourth game of a four-game road trip, the short-handed Lakers laid a big hurt stick on the San Antonio Spurs, roaring back from a double-digit deficit and pulling away by four points at the final buzzer. Underlining the win was rookie Lonzo Ball’s surreal stat line of 18 points, 11 dimes, seven boards, two swats and a steal. He also nailed six from downtown, three of which were in the last frame.
And this is the kid with that improbable slingshot form—bringing it up and across his body to the opposite side of his head before launching with a screwy flipper backspin.
Ball’s mechanics have been endlessly discussed and maligned over the course of the season, and not without reason. But Luke Walton defended his prodigy after the game, per Bill Oram of The Orange County Register:
I’m happy for him that he doesn’t have to (hear) that anymore. But more importantly it’s nice to see that he’s starting to figure out how to shoot it from that distance in this league, how to get that shot off. Because it helps our team so much when he’s hitting them.
The Lakers have now won five in a row and seven of their last 10. They’re still in 11th place in the West, however, stuck behind the Utah Jazz in 10th, Los Angeles Clippers in ninth and Denver Nuggets in eighth. Complicating matters, all three of those teams are riding streaks of their own.
The Lakers have been on a rollercoaster all season long. Highlights have certainly included the success of last year’s draft. Second overall pick Ball has dealt with injury but has also displayed a well-rounded game—the lanky point guard is the team’s second-leading rebounder at 7.1 per outing. Meanwhile, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart—both late first-rounders—have way surpassed prognosticators’ predictions.
And then there’s sophomore Brandon Ingram, still impossibly long and lean but morphing from unsteady yearling to graceful gazelle—a multi-positional shapeshifter who isn’t anywhere near his ceiling yet.
Ingram was out of action Saturday night in San Antonio with a hip flexor and Hart may be done for the season after surgery on a broken left hand. More bumps along a road strewn with potholes.
But it is 23-year-old Julius Randle who may be the biggest surprise of all, merging from maddeningly short minutes as a backup center, keeping his head down through incessant trade whisperings and reclaiming a starting power forward slot though deeds not words. Randle, who will be a restricted free agent come June, has perfected the art of physically punishing play while managing not to break all the China in the shop. He’s contributed 16 double-doubles and a triple-double in just 26 minutes per game. From a curious case in December to a cat on a red-hot scoring spree, Randle is building a bomb-proof case for his next contract—wherever it is.
There are too many other storylines to summarize succinctly in L.A.’s topsy-turvy tale. Jordan Clarkson and crowd favorite Larry Nance Jr. exited to Cleveland, swapped for injury-plagued Channing Frye and Isaiah Thomas, both on expiring deals. IT has proved something of a model citizen as he tries to rebuild his cache across the league—accepting a bench role and fueling wins with a combination of play-making and shot-taking.
High-priced rental Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has been a glue guy throughout the team’s ups and downs, and Brook Lopez—while averaging career lows in minutes and points—has continued to showcase his late-blooming propensity for stretching the floor.
The Lakers have finally escaped the bottom-feeding doldrums of recent years, all as management continues to position itself for a boatload of cash during summer free-agency. Is it possible to actually catch that highly sought-after eighth and final playoff berth with 20 games left to go?
Technically, yes. Logically, forget about it—a calamitous about-face free-fall from at least three other teams would have to coincide neatly with the Lakers’ current rise from the ashes.
Regardless, the overarching theme of this year’s model is growth. A still-developing core is romping through a battlefield of veteran teams and more than holding their own. And maybe it’s time to finally stop placing so much emphasis on pie-in-the-sky dreams of elusive superstars and fully embrace our Generation Z culture.
Here then are your Los Angeles Lakers, rounding the final turn and heading for home. And a future that is bright and shining indeed.