Another 10-game stretch of the 2018-19 season has come and gone successfully for the Los Angeles Lakers. The team now stands at 18-12, in sole possession of the fourth seed in the Western Conference and just 2.5 games back of the conference-leading Denver Nuggets.
With that said, it’s time to look back on the latest 10-game stretch and evaluate the good and the bad for LA.
By the Numbers:
The Lakers are 7-3 over their past 10 games, winning the stretch pretty heavily. They had their highs (strong wins over current playoff teams like the Grizzlies and Hornets) and their lows (blowout losses to the Rockets and Wizards) but took care of business overall.
The Lakers’ outscored opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions, a number that ranked fifth in the league during that stretch and would rank fifth over the course of the year. The strong net rating was accomplished through four blowout wins and two more by eight points while suffering three blowout losses.
Injuries and ailments have ravaged the Lakers during this stretch with Brandon Ingram (six games), Rajon Rondo (ten games) and JaVale McGee (one game) have all missing playing time. The Lakers have suffered (especially defensively) without their key contributors, falling out of the top ten in both offensive and defensive rating for the season, although they have retained the ninth best net rating in the league.
To further put into perspective how the Lakers performed against their competition:
On average, the Lakers held opponents to 3.05 points per 100 possessions below their season average while scoring 1.92 points per 100 possessions than their opponents regularly allow.
The Starting Lineup…still
Since Brandon Ingram went down with a sprained ankle against the Spurs, the Lakers have put together one of the starting lineups that many fans were clamoring for before the unfortunate injury. In the five games that Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma and JaVale McGee have started next to each other, the lineup has amassed a dominant 19.6 net rating (113 offensive, 93.5 defensive) in 76 minutes. Over the course of the season (15 games and 133 minutes), that lineup has a 15.0 net rating.
Ingram will be returning from his injury soon (perhaps as soon as Friday) and Luke Walton may have the most important decision of this season to make. On the surface, the current starting lineup is miles better than the previous iteration featuring the third-year forward, albeit in 100 fewer minutes of a sample size. It makes sense that amidst Ingram’s struggles to play alongside James, Hart’s shooting is more useful for the starting lineup.
Of course, banishing Ingram to the bench could have effects on totally opposite ends of the spectrum. Either Ingram flourishes as the primary playmaker and scorer in the bench lineups with a level of freedom that playing next to LeBron, Ball and Kuzma doesn’t allow or his confidence is shot further and his development is skewed.
The Lakers are caught in the middle of two worlds. On one hand, they have as valid of a claim as anyone that they are the second best team in the West after the Warriors and should look to compete for a conference finals berth and a title.
On the other, they have been adamant that this team is not the final iteration of their roster, that they will pair another star alongside James and some combination of the young core they have been so supportive of. If that’s the case, shouldn’t they continue to try to make things work between James and Ingram who is arguably the player with the highest potential? Or should they stagger their minutes enough to raise Ingram’s trade value behind a potential growth off the bench?
It’s not an easy question and there’s probably no wrong answer. Walton has been supportive of Ingram but he’s also shown his willingness to go with the hot hand. Whether that means keeping Hart in over Ingram when the latter comes back remains to be seen.
The Rooks are Alright
For the first time in five years, the biggest storyline of the Lakers’ season has not been a rookie. The team drafted a trio of players in June but it’s taken some time for any of them to crack the rotation.
The leader in the clubhouse right now is Svi Mykhailiuk who has played in nine of the past 10 games after amassing 10 DNP’s in the first 20 games. Svi is averaging 13.4 minutes per game and the increased playing time has done wonders for his confidence. The Kansas product is averaging 4.9 points per game and shooting 39.3 percent from behind the arc in those nine matchups.
Walton has been patient with Mykhailiuk despite an early-season shooting slump and it may pay dividends in the end for a team desperately in need of shooters. In the Lakers’ best iteration, Mykhailiuk will be replacing Lance Stephenson in the rotation.
Moe Wagner has a tougher road to cracking the rotation, playing behind McGee and Tyson Chandler who both look indispensable for LA. But he has appeared in five games of his own during the last stretch (mostly in blowouts) and shown some of the pick-and-pop prowess that could be an interesting weapon for the Lakers moving forward. It’s more likely that Wagner would have to play the power forward position for this team, in a Michael Beasley-esque role and who knows if he will get any significant playing time this year. But at the very least, the Lakers have an “in case of emergency” option.
Kyle Kuzma BYKE
The most positive development for the Lakers in December has been Kyle Kuzma’s resurgence. The former rookie phenom has struggled thus far in his sophomore season but the past 10 games have shown incremental growth for him. In that stretch, Kuz is averaging 20.9 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game while shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 33.8 percent on 3-pointers. Those are all major improvements over his season numbers.
The Lakers desperately need Kuzma’s shooting to revert back to last year’s form but in the meantime, the forward has found other ways to score and has even been getting teammates involved with well-timed dishes both to the interior and behind the arc. Kuzma has even been flashing some much-improved defense, especially on some of the league’s most notorious isolation scorers, giving hope that he can continue growing in his biggest weakness.
The Lakers have some crucial games coming up against teams with whom they will be jostling for playoff positioning. Over the next ten games, they have matchups against the Pelicans, Grizzlies, Warriors (on the road), Kings (on the road), Clippers, Kings again (at home), Thunder and Wolves (on the road). Their other two games are against the Nets and Knicks.
All of those games are winnable and the Warriors game should be the only “sure” loss in the group. Beating the Grizzlies and the Kings both times would give the Lakers the tiebreaker against both teams.
Meanwhile, the games against the Pelicans, Warriors, Clippers and Thunder will be the first of those matchups. The matchup against the Wolves will be the third of four for the season.
Based on the current standings, six of the next ten games will be against winning teams but only two of those are on the road.