The NBA’s annual All-Star Weekend has come and gone, signifying the beginning of the unofficial second half of the regular season. This is the point at which different teams in the league go in different directions. Contenders begin preparations for deep playoff runs, mid-tier teams make their final push to get into the post-season, and the lower level teams do their best to just get through the end of the season and start fresh next year.
The Los Angeles Lakers are among those lower level teams, hoping to get a few positives out of what will go down as one of the worst seasons in team history. Now more than halfway through the season, it’s time to look at the State of the Lakers.
The Lakers currently sit at 11-44 (the worst record in the Western Conference), winning percentage of just .200, putting them on pace to win about 16 games all year. That is worse than last year’s franchise worst 21-61 record. In fact, barring an 11-16 spurt after the break, the Lakers are destined to at least match that black mark in Lakers lore.
Not everything has been terrible for the Purple and Gold, however. There have been some positives in a season mostly filled with frustrating moments. Those bright spots have come almost exclusively from the young stars on the team, giving fans a glimpse of what will hopefully be a much brighter future.
D’Angelo Russell has turned what started as an underwhelming rookie season into a surprisingly great one. Though he’s spent much of the year coming off the bench and has had tumultuous moments, Russell has started to become more consistent and at times, downright incredible.
The second overall pick is averaging 12.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 3.3 assists in only 27 minutes per game. His per-36 numbers (16.2-4.8-4.4) are ones that have only been accomplished by eight other rookies at age 20 or younger. All in all, it has been a successful year for the rookie, despite questions about his playing time and role on the team.
Jordan Clarkson has had a mostly steady season of his own. Though he may not have made as much improvement as some may hoped, Clarkson has managed to hold his own. At times, the sophomore guard has looked like the best player on the team, almost always able to create his own shot. However, he has disappointed on the defensive end and he still needs to improve in his playmaking on offense.
What has been most encouraging about Clarkson’s season has been his evolution into being able to play alongside Russell despite not having the ball in his hands as often as he did last year. Russell and Clarkson have not played together as much as most of us would like, but in their short time sharing the court, they’ve been able to improve and become a competent backcourt duo.
Julius Randle has had perhaps the most up and down season of any of the Lakers’ young players. The power forward started the season scorching hot, surprising everyone in the league with his ability. A cold stretch led to Randle being benched, which resulted in an even colder stretch.
Since then, Randle has been reinstated to the starting lineup due to injuries to Larry Nance, Jr. and the second year player has not disappointed. While Randle has often struggled with his shot and finishing ability, he’s shown flashes in both categories. Where he’s been most impressive, however, has been on the boards where his endless energy and effort has led to a 31.2 defensive rebounding rate, the fourth best mark in the league. As it stands now, the 21 year old is averaging a double-double in only 27 minutes per game.
The previously mentioned Nance, Jr. has been one of the biggest revelations of the Lakers’ season. Picked 27th overall, Nance has shown that he can be a part of the Lakers’ core moving forward. The big man has played well, showing his athleticism and energy on both ends of the floor. While still very raw, Nance, Jr. has shown much more potential than most imagined he would.
Tarik Black, who was one of a few bright spots last season, has struggled to find playing time due to his not playing balls out enough. When he has found some minutes, he’s been quite productive, fitting in well alongside ball-handling guards and consistently providing energy. Black has had more time to showcase his skills over the last couple of weeks and hopefully we will continue to see more of what the second year player can offer.
The trade deadline is approaching on February 18th and the Lakers may be looking to make some moves. The team will not be looking at blockbusters in all likelihood, but they do have several veterans they can shop to playoff contenders looking for an extra push.
There have been rumors about the Lakers attempting to offload Roy Hibbert but he may be the most untradeable of those veterans. The front office may instead be able to get some assets (late draft picks or low potential prospects) for the likes of Lou Williams and Brandon Bass, something the team has not been able to do that over the past few years or at least have chosen not to do so. This season, they have at least two players who can be valuable for playoff teams and they should do their due diligence in attempting to get something of value back for them. The Lakers do seem to value these vets’ leadership and experience in leading their young team, so don’t be surprised if they lay low at the deadline.
Finally, I would be remiss not to mention Kobe Bryant. Number 24 will be retiring at the end of the season. In a rollercoaster ride of a season filled with massive drops, there have been occasional moments of exciting brilliance reminding Lakers fans of the earlier rides that often left us speechless. Kobe has struggled this season but as his retirement comes nearer, it is time to cherish the last few moments of his legendary career. The Black Mamba has at most 27 more games in a purple and gold jersey, with his last one coming on April 13th. Twenty years of Bryant’s brilliance has come down to two short months.
Bryant enjoyed his final All-Star Game on Saturday, playing alongside the greatest players currently in the league. He is no longer part of that group. But Kobe is part of an exclusive club, a player that will demand the attention of basketball players everywhere as he concludes his swan song.
It’s time to enjoy the rest of the season as time for the next crop of Lakers’ stars to develop and take over control of the franchise. But Lakers fans should also make sure they take some moments to appreciate and enjoy one of the greatest players in NBA history as he rides off into the sunset.