The Los Angeles Lakers are virtually at the halfway mark of the 2016-17 season. They’ve played 40 games so far, with game number 41 of 82 (the official halfway point because #math) set for Sunday against Orlando. We’ve learned lot about this team, from its young core to its rookie coach to its ragtag group of veterans. 40 games isn’t a lot, but this stretch has given us plenty of clues as to what this team’s future will look like. Here’s four of them.
1. Julius Randle is indispensable
As recently as the preseason, there was a not-insignificant portion of #LakersTwitter arguing that Randle should be benched or traded in favor of the supposedly more athletic, better shooting, and better defending Larry Nance, Jr. Then the season started, and the seemingly one-dimensional third-year forward added brand new facets to his game. He’s become a force in the paint, finding new ways to put the ball in the basket even when he faces a formidable frontcourt defense. He’s still a solid rebounder, but his most noticeable improvement has been his passing ability, where he’s averaging two more assists per game than he did last season. Randle is also making strides on the other side of the ball, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe recently noted:
Randle has shown when he plays hard, he can defend decently– including around the rim. Lakers people talk about his up + down “motor” a lot
— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) January 4, 2017
The biggest concern with Randle right now is his consistency. During the Lakers’ 8-game losing streak in December, the big man averaged a pedestrian 10 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 assists per game. In his past seven starts, however, he’s averaging 17 points, 9 rebounds, and nearly 6 assists. That includes an impressive triple-double against Memphis on January 4th, which reaffirmed Randle’s status as a valuable member of the Lakers’ young core.
2. Nick Young could be a valuable member of this team for years to come
If you had told me that I would be unironically typing that above sentence six months ago, I would have laughed in your face. Yet here we are, in a world where Young has transformed himself into one of the best three-point shooters in the entire NBA. Whether it’s due to a new coaching staff, a contract year, increased focus, or all of the above, Young has gone from complete liability to effective veteran faster than you can say Swag El:
Not only is Swaggy P shooting a career-best 46.2 percent (including 43.7 percent from deep!), but he’s also become much more willing to pass and defend in order to help his team out. What’s even more amazing is that he’s accomplishing all this by sharing a starting backcourt with D’Angelo Russell, whose feud with Young after #snapchatgate seemed irreparable. Despite his success this season, however, Young’s reputation around the league still seems shaky at best, and it’s fair to wonder how that will affect him in free agency. While it wouldn’t be a shock to see the Lakers let him go, it might be in their (and his) best interests to re-sign him to a team-friendly deal, betting on Young’s improvement as a solid veteran scorer as their young guys continue to improve.
3. Brandon Ingram looks a lot more like Giannis Antetokounmpo than Kevin Durant so far
Our good friend Harrison Faigen of Silver Screen and Roll recently compared watching the second overall pick’s NBA career thus far to seeing all the ingredients for a cake laid out on a table. You can see his potential, but he’s still got a long way to go before he reaches it. As concerning as Ingram’s shooting has been – 36 percent from the field, 25 percent from three – his playmaking skills have been extremely impressive so far. Luke Walton (more on him in a second) has made him the primary ball handler for the second unit, and the Duke product has displayed a court vision well beyond his years. Walton even gave the rookie some starts at point guard when Russell and Jose Calderon were injured. In one such start, opposite Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, Ingram recorded 9 points, 10 rebounds, and 9 assists in one of his best games yet. Afterwards, Walton told reporters that it was “the best and most confident” the rookie had looked all season. The Lakers’ coach went on to specifically praise Ingram’s ability at running the offense (h/t to Faigen and ESPN’s Baxter Holmes:)
When he was playing point today, he was kind of controlling and demanding the offense and getting people into position and coming off looking not just to shoot every time, but reading how the defenses were playing.
Ingram’s build is not that of a prototypical point guard. In fact, his lanky 6’9 frame is exactly what invoked those comparisons to Durant in the first place. But while Durant is first and foremost a scorer, Ingram’s focus on creating shots for others more closely resembles another unique superstar. The rise of Antetokounmpo, the 6’11 Bucks point guard whose assists are equally as impressive as his wingspan, is not only an exciting look into the future of the NBA, it could also have a direct impact on how the Lakers use Ingram in the long term. Yes, Russell is still the team’s point guard of the future. Ingram’s Giannis-like abilities could add a whole new dimension to the team’s plans going forward.
4. Luke Walton is still learning
Walton is a far better coach than Byron Scott in almost every way possible, and that’s not even a controversial take at this point. But that has more to do with the latter’s utter incompetence at running an NBA team than it does the former’s brilliance. Walton is still a rookie in his own right, and he’s still figuring out how to juggle rotations, develop his youngsters, and put the team in the best position to win every night. Through the his first 20 games, it seemed like he had figured it out, with the Lakers at 10-10 and boasting the best bench unit in the NBA. The team has gone 4-16 since then, however, partially due to injuries, partially due to youth, and partially because their defense is still arguably the worst in the league.
Walton’s done a lot of juggling with his lineup, sometimes evening out the distribution of minutes and other times playing certain starters for most of the game. Could a better feel for when certain guys should be on the court and when certain guys should sit have helped the Lakers not blow as many second-half leads? Sure, but the Lakers were on track to vastly outperform even their most optimistic preseason projections in the first place. Most importantly, the Lakers are finally on track to improve their win-loss record for the first time in seemingly forever:
Lakers through 65 games last season (14-51)
Lakers through 40 games this season (14-26)
LAL need 3 more wins to match last season’s total
— Thai Luong (@thailuong33) January 7, 2017
The past 40 games have definitely been up and down, but it’s clear that the purple and gold are trending in the right direction. Walton may still be learning the ropes, but he seems like he’ll be manning the sidelines at Staples Center for a very long time.