Outsiders Roundtable: Can the Lakers be a playoff team this season?

Just 12 games into the NBA’s 2016-17 regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers are looking like they could potentially be this year’s surprise team. After notching another win on Tuesday against the Brooklyn Nets, the Lakers’ record sits at 7-5.

Is it too early to include the Lakers in the playoff discussion in the Western Conference? We examine the good and the bad from the Lakers’ surprising start and if it is still too early to raise expectations for the team.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise so far this season for the Lakers?

Gary Kester:

The massive leap that Julius Randle has made thus far. The change in culture and improved play was to be expected, though certainly not to this extent, especially right from the outset. While I figured just about every player would benefit from a new offensive system that emphasizes movement and spacing, I didn’t expect this type of production out of Randle until at least next season.

From Randle specifically, I wanted to continue to see flashes that might suggest some of his bad habits were starting to be minimized. Developing a consistent jump shot will be a process that spans probably a couple of seasons if it actually happens, but his vision, decision making and efficiency have improved tremendously already. He is no longer just a brute force that barrels his way to the rim to throw up an awkward shot in traffic. Sometimes I feel like Randle has been a bit too unselfish, which is a testament to how much better he looks this year.

Jacob Rude:

Is it a cop out to say everything has been a surprise? All off-season and preseason long, we talked about maintaining low expectations for this team, a team we thought would be bad again.

Turns out, however, that we highly underestimated how bad Byron Scott was.

This team plays hard, is committed to both sides of the ball and, most importantly, plays like a team. Players are happy for each other and are putting the team ahead of themselves. To me, that is not something I expected from this team 12 games into the season.

Dillon Hiser:

I think how quick and apparent the upgrade in coaching has worked. This is a team that won 17 games last year, and through just 12 so far, they have a winning record. Granted, there have been some roster changes, but heading into this season I would have never imagined we would be 7-5 and playing competitive, resilient, and fun basketball. Luke Walton has changed the morale of this team so fast that we could be looking at the start of Nick Young’s Most Improved Player campaign. Julius Randle, who was a huge mystery after an up-and-down season last year, is looking like a completely different player and is improving each game.

Thai Luong:

The biggest surprise so far for the Lakers is Julius Randle. Coming into this season, there were a lot of whispers and debates about how much Randle could improve under Luke Walton. Some people even thought that he was no longer the Lakers’ best power forward (Editor’s Note: Anthony Irwin and Ryan Kelapire led this movement. Get ’em!).

Now, I think it is safe to say that not only is Randle the Lakers’ best forward; he is unequivocally their best player. His offensive playmaking has improved tremendously compared to last season. His defense is a lot better. He is shooting 55 percent from the field compared to 44 percent the previous year. It is scary how quick Randle has improved under Walton. Just imagine how good Randle will be when he develops a consistent jumper.

Q: Luol Deng is really struggling. How can the Lakers get him going? 

Kester:

This is the $72 million question facing Luke Walton and the Lakers right now. Deng looks like he’s not fully healthy at the moment, and he is playing out of position. He has racked up so much mileage in his career and it is showing right now. Perhaps he just needs some time off to get healthy.

Even if that is the case, he probably needs to play at the four to be effective, and there are just no minutes for him there because of how this roster is constructed. If he plays at the four, the Lakers are likely sacrificing some minutes from either Randle, Larry Nance, Jr. or Tarik Black. All three have been effective rotation players for the Lakers in the early stages of this season, while Deng has been the opposite.

Hopefully this is simply an adjustment period to a completely new team and role. Deng has been on a lot of playoff teams in his career. Entering this season, playoffs were out of the discussion for the Lakers, winning just 17 games a year ago. The fact that there really isn’t a definitive answer is a bit concerning, though we need to give him time to adjust. Perhaps some time off is needed for him to get healthy, but getting him some good looks inside the three-point line would help him out. If his struggles continue, look for Walton to find different ways to get him some better opportunities on offense.

Rude:

I’m only halfway joking when I say have him call Kobe’s German doctor and have his knees fixed, because Deng simply doesn’t look healthy.

The Lakers invested a LOT of money into Deng. If he looks this bad 12 games into his Laker career, they need to immediately figure out how to fix him.

Now, that being said, there’s a couple of things they can do on the court to help him. He needs more minutes at power forward. I understand you have young players ahead of him, but you also have a significant chunk of your future payroll invested in Deng.

Secondly, you need him play-making less. Deng is not and never really has been a playmaker, yet he’s often forced to create shots for himself. This could be a product of the Lakers, and Deng, learning the offense still. But the more he can be a spot-up shooter (which, granted, he’s sucked at so far this year), the better he’ll start to look.

Hiser:

Send him to Germany to get whatever voodoo magic knee treatment Kobe got.

Honestly, it’s tough because there are multiple issues with his game right now. He’s playing out of position at small forward at this stage in his career and the deepest position on the team is power forward, where he is much better, statistically speaking.

He’s not hitting wide open shots either, and that’s another issue. I would move him to the bench and start Brandon Ingram but I doubt that will happen. If Walton used him with the second unit like he does Ingram, bringing the ball up the court, maybe he would be able to get into a better rhythm. The starters are getting off to slow starts nearly every game and the team’s second unit has been one of the best in the league so maybe if Walton tinkered with the lineups a little it might help Deng and the starters out.

Luong:

Luol Deng has been a disappointment so far. He is not performing nearly as well as he should, especially since he signed a pretty significant contract with the Lakers this offseason. I honestly think the Lakers should move Deng to the bench if he continues to make a significant impact on the floor.

The Lakers don’t ask much of Deng, but his inability to hit open shots is hurting their offense and spacing. For the past few years, Deng found success on offense playing as a stretch four. The Lakers could move Deng to the bench and bring him on as a power forward. Whatever the case might be, the Lakers need to figure out how Deng can be successful on the court, because they are stuck with him for four years.

Q: Is it too early to start thinking the Lakers can be a playoff team this season?

Kester:

Probably, but then again, nobody thought the Lakers would be 7-5 at this point of the season, with a few of those losses coming in close, competitive games. The next 12 games present just about the toughest stretch that any NBA team might face this season. If the Lakers can win just four of those games, they will still be right around .500 with a slew of very winnable games coming up.

Six of those 12 games are at home, and the Lakers have been very good in their own building this year, going 4-1 so far. Typically, playoff teams take care of business when they play at home. If the Lakers are able to keep racking up the wins at home, they can definitely be in the mix for a playoff spot out West. But these next 12 games are going to tell us a lot about whether this team is ready for that kind of leap right now, or if they are still a year away.

Rude:

Yes. By about 12 games.

I know that much has been talked about of the 12 upcoming games, but I think this is the final step in determining whether this is a team that is simply going to exceed expectations (which is fantastic!) or one that is going to fight for a playoff spot.

The Lakers are at 7-5. If they can get four wins out of this stretch and come out on the other side at 11-13, then they’ve survived what has been an absolutely brutal start to the season. Things will get much, much easier for the Lakers.

For example, they would only have to play the Warriors one more time the rest of the season, and that would be the regular season finale. They also have a stretch from March 17 until the end of the season on April 12 where they leave Los Angeles three times — at Minnesota, at San Antonio, at Golden State. Other than that, it’s all home games, meaning even if they survive until the end of the season, it’s an incredibly favorable schedule.

Hiser: 

As someone who had to suffer through the last three seasons, I’m leaning towards yes, but I don’t think it’s THAT far-fetched. The way this team ends the month should give us a good idea of how serious they are, as they have multiple tough games coming up. But when I look at the standings (the Lakers are tied with four teams for the 4-seed), and out of the teams in our range right now, I could see the Lakers fighting to be one of those bottom seeds come playoff time.

The bottom half of the seeding looks wide open at the moment and if this team wants to make a run at the playoffs, they have to sustain this level of play for the next 70 games. Regardless, this team is probably going to shatter preseason expectations for this year and that alone is something to be excited about.

Luong: 

It is crazy that the thought of playoffs is slowly creeping its way into the Lakers discourse. As of right now, I think we should revisit the playoff talks after the Lakers complete the next 12 games, most of which are against playoff contenders. If the Lakers find themselves in a good position (somewhere close to .500) after the next 12 games, then I think we should seriously start looking at the playoff positioning. The West is considered weak compared to recent years, and essentially the battle for seeds five through eight is up for grabs. The next few weeks will be imperative for the Lakers.

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