The Lakers aren’t back just yet.
If there were anything Lakers fans aren’t used to, it would be the inordinate amount of losses that have continued to pile up for the fourth consecutive season. Heading into the last stretch of the season, the Lakers find themselves again at the bottom of the standings.
Once more, we are having debates about who the Lakers should send to the Draft Lottery. Depending on how the ping pong balls bounce on that night, the team could be adding another piece to the team, which is part of what people lose sight of. The big picture.
The team is in a unique spot in their history, having gone through their fourth straight losing season– the second-longest such stretch without a winning season in franchise history. There has been a large looming cloud hanging over the Lakers throughout the last few years, mainly cast by a fanbase that has grown querulous going through unfamiliar territory in a rebuild.
When the Lakers were atop the NBA or at least winning games, everyone around the NBA was less critical of what was going on in Los Angeles, which was first pointed out by Chris McGee on the Locked on Lakers podcast. Nobody cared about the 15th spot on the roster. There were no reports on Jeanie and Jim Buss’ relationship and whether they talked to each other. Everyone trusted the moves the front office made. Now, everything is under a microscope, everything is in the public eye.
With a team as young as the Lakers (25.7 average age) and a rookie head coach, inconsistency and growing pains are among the only constants. A now-21-year-old kid playing the league’s toughest position is under daily scrutiny for not immediately averaging over 20 points and eight assists per game.
Since the team shipped Lou Williams to Houston, that same 21-year-old has been playing pretty well.
Over his last 5 games, D’Angelo Russell is averaging 20-3-5-2 on 43-41-90.
— Justin Russo (@FlyByKnite) March 1, 2017
Russell’s passing usually does not show in the box score, which hurts his case among fans and basketball minds alike because counting stats are easiest for them to tell good players from bad. In his second year in the league, Russell again finds himself in a situation where instant success cannot be obtained.
In a circus of a rookie year where Byron Scott was the head coach and Kobe Bryant paraded around the league on his farewell tour, Russell’s development fell to the wayside. In big moments, which were few and far-between, Russell often was on the bench or had to defer to Bryant.
This year comes around with a new coach, bringing an entirely new system, and a new front office regime led by Magic Johnson. The best way to describe the setting Russell has been placed in is to call it unusual.
Lou Williams benefitted from said system more than any of his teammates. Russell has started every game he’s played in, but he was not the closer for most contests, with coach Luke Walton riding with Williams’ perennial hot hand in the fourth quarter.
Since Williams’ departure, Russell has had his best three-game scoring stretch of the season, stringing together performances of 29, and 18, and 23.
Russell’s defensive effort leaves something to be desired and his turnover percentage is too high, but for a point guard in his second year, he has been successful despite his surroundings. He has struggled at times, yes, but to say he’s nearing his peak and leveled out as a player is a moronic take. Russell finds himself at the center of Laker wins, whether it is with a gaudy (by standards set for a sophomore) scoring performance or setting new career-highs with assists.
Another Laker directly affected by trading Williams to the Rockets is Jordan Clarkson. Now that Williams is out of the picture, Clarkson is the main ball handler coming off of the bench, and with a new role came a new demeanor for Clarkson.
When he gets the ball, Clarkson is looking to move it, rather than dribble around until he finds a half-decent shot. Clarkson knows now that if he surrenders the ball to a teammate, he can move around the court knowing there is a better chance of him getting the ball when he is open. This is a familiar yet new role for Clarkson and there needs to be time allowed for him to adjust to being the bench’s go-to guy.
Going back to the counting stats point, those are the biggest knocks against rookie Brandon Ingram. On a night-to-night basis, Ingram makes a jaw-dropping play that is otherworldly. It could be a poster dunk, a wraparound pass, or a series of dribble moves to a pull-up jumper.
And for as many plays like that as he makes, there is an empty trip to the free throw line or a three-pointer that goes far too long. His impact is hardly found in the box score. However, Ingram is as far from a finished product as you could expect a 19-year-old to be.
Out of every player in the Lakers’ young core, Ingram “flashes” the most potential in highlight plays. When he is out on the floor battling with the likes of Paul George or Kawhi Leonard, not backing down from the challenge in front of him, that is a quality found in a future star-caliber player.
You see it when he jumps and stretches up to block a shot or pull down a rebound with his seemingly never-ending limbs. Even after a rebound, when he runs the floor like a gazelle to find a teammate open for a corner three or to drive through the lane for a layup. But Ingram is slowly starting to figure things out.
Brandon Ingram had his best month of the year in Feb:
39 3pt %
career high 22 pts on 10/15 FGs
— Dillon Hiser (@DillonHiser) February 27, 2017
Ingram is not close to being “there” yet, but he is on his way. As is third-year man Julius Randle, who has the ability to put up 23 points and 18 rebounds, but needs to contribute the same effort night in and night out.
When he’s aggressive getting to the rim, the playmaking aspect of his game opens up and that allows him to truly show what he is capable of. Randle has said himself that consistency will be the key for him going forward, which is spot-on self-analysis.
Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac have potential to post a double-double on any given night, each collecting rebounds off altered shots, but doing it differently on offense. Zubac makes a living out of the pick and roll, where he can dive to the rim or fade off of the pick to set himself up for a 15-foot jumper. Nance finds the open spot on the floor, scans the court to look for open teammates, then decides if he can shoot.
Once Nance picks up a more consistent jump shot and gains the confidence to let it fly, it’ll cause a myriad of problems for those defending him. Zubac, 19 years old, can better learn to stay out of foul trouble and put himself in better spots on defense to alter shots with his verticality.
The frontcourt of the future looks set, but not yet completely molded. Zubac, Randle, and Nance all have work to do defensively, the whole team does. As the team continues to grow with each other under coach Walton, they will become more assimilated on the defensive end of the floor.
Luke Walton is just 36 years old and in his first head coaching gig, he needs to find his groove as much as any of the players do. His plays and system are rock solid, but his rotation is a little wacky, although that is to be expected with a first-year head coach.
Yes, rebuilds can take time and exhaust fans, but patience is necessary. Especially with a front office overhaul. The kids are coming together and scrapping tooth and nail for to contend in games.
For lifelong fans, it takes some getting used to seeing the Lakers at the bottom of the standings, but rebuilds don’t happen overnight. Looking around the league, however, the Lakers are far better equipped for the future than some of their NBA counterparts. The team has the right coach, a group of talented young players, and finally, a front office that has a clear vision for the future.