The Lakers’ organization is not in the best position at the moment. Amid reports of Kobe Bryant calling out Julius Randle and D’Angelo Russell, or the team winning one game our of their last eleven, it becomes hard to remember that the organization was celebrating the 10th anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s 81 point game only a few days ago.
The Lakers are 9-37, slightly worse than they were at the same point last year (12-34). Using Basketball Reference’s best simulated season for the Lakers (at the time of writing), they’ll finish 29-53 and find themselves out of any realistic chance to net the top three protected pick that could stand as the only saving grace for this season. Lakers’ playoff truthers may want to avert their eyes, but the worst record to ever make the playoffs belongs to the 85’-86’ Bulls at 30-52.
Byron Scott has been the public enemy of Lakers’ fans this season, and who can blame them? He benched Russell and Randle! He plays Kobe too many minutes, he doesn’t even know how to give a compliment!
However, there is also a case to be made that the development of the Lakers’ youth has been going well. It all begins with the number two pick in the draft, D’Angelo Russell.
Russell hasn’t started a game since he got benched after the Pistons blew out the Lakers a few days before 2016 started, but since then, Russell has played like he’s interested in making Scott look like the dumbest coach of all time. He has slowly made a case that he is the best player on the Lakers at this point and is needed on the floor for the best shot at a win.
In his last five games, he has shot 47.6% from three while averaging 26.8 minutes per game. He has to work on improving his free throw shooting (66.7% on the season, 54.5% in his last five games) and lowering his turnover average of 2.4 per game (3.2 in his last five games). Barring any weird circumstances or bad coaching decisions, the time to insert Russell back into the starting lineup should be arriving soon, especially since the Lakers have struggled with moving the ball around without a point guard in the starting lineup.
When Byron gets asked “why should we keep you?” at the end of the season, he should also point at Julius Randle averaging 10.5 points per game and 9.6 rebounds per game. At 26.6 minutes per game, it isn’t difficult to call Randle a double-double machine (He leads all sophomores with 15 double-doubles). The real intrigue comes from his deficiencies. He has been a horrible shooter this season and is only shooting 14.3% from 10-16 feet (for perspective, Roy Hibbert is shooting 39.5% from the same distance). Randle could become much more dangerous than anyone imagined if he could threaten defenses with a mid-range jumper.
The sophomore forward has also struggled bringing the ball down court and finds himself falling victim to tunnel vision quite a bit. The real solution to that should come to Randle when the game begins to slow down for him. The Lakers might have a conundrum on their hands if they end up with the decision to draft Ben Simmons in next year’s draft, but for now, they should be content with what Randle could turn into when he rounds out the edges in his game.
The Lakers also have a few other players that have made an impact regardless of experience. Larry Nance, Jr. has played his way into a starting role and could possibly end up as the best value pick of the draft. Anthony Brown had a very slow start in the NBA and looked like he was lost in the fast paced game, but has adjusted quite nicely lately, shooting 43.8% behind the arc and providing a decent defensive option on the floor in his last five games. It wasn’t clear initially if Brown deserved his starting role whenever Kobe decides to take games off, but he is starting to show that he can provide quality minutes on both sides of the floor, something the Lakers desperately need.
It’s easy to think that the team will come away with nothing if they don’t keep their pick, but that mindset excuses losing and takes away from progress. Ambition should always remain on the mind of competitive organizations, and especially the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers aren’t guaranteed anything with a top-three protection, and it could be fatal for the organization if a few lottery balls undo a whole season’s worth of progress. The Lakers need to compete in every game, establish the value of their assets, and develop those assets for the next head coach to start out the 2016-17 season with a bang.