After winning 17 games last year, not much was expected from the Los Angeles Lakers in 2016. After all, they return the same young squad from last season, and their big offseason acquisition was Timofey Mozgov, who rode the pine during Cleveland’s championship run.
But here we are 11 games into the season and LA is sitting at 6-5 while laying claim to a blowout victory over the Golden State Warriors. So are these Lakers for real? Or just overachievers?
Signs could point to the former right now because the Lakers contain the right mix of youth, athleticism, and good coaching.
Speaking of coaching, Luke Walton is proving that what he did in Steve Kerr’s absence last season is no fluke. As Forbes points out, Walton has this team playing 2016 NBA basketball, rather than Byron Scott’s old-school approach that didn’t properly fit this young squad.
Specifically, the Lakers can space the floor, push the pace, and share the basketball. If they continue at this rate, they’ll win a very surprising 45 games.
“There’s no doubt he’s in charge,’’ said Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak. “I wouldn’t say he’s easy-going. He knows what he wants and he’ll enforce whatever it takes to get what he wants to get on the court. He does have a little bit more of an edge as a coach than I thought he would’ve.’’
While Walton may be demanding and push players towards his vision, the 36-year-old also remains approachable for his young players.
“He wants to run through a wall for us, too,’’ said forward Julius Randle. “He has our back. And when you have someone that truly cares about you, it’s a different feeling. It’s an open and honest relationship. I can text him, call him, talk to him after practice or whatever. He’s genuine.’’
Another factor going in the Lakers favor beyond coaching is that Kobe Bryant is no longer with the franchise. This certainly isn’t a shot at a guy who helped guide LA to 5 championships during his 20-year career. But it was hard for the Lakers to give Bryant a farewell tour while simultaneously developing young talent like Randle, D’Angelo Russell, and Jordan Clarkson.
Furthermore, Bryant wasn’t the greatest mentor to these young players, skipping most practices and shoot-arounds as he made post-retirement plans. Bryant also shot just 35% from the field while playing nearly 30 minutes a night.
The good news for LA is that giving so many minutes to an aging Bryant helped them lose enough games to get the No. 2 overall pick, Duke’s Brandon Ingram.
The bad news is that they played a lot of isolation basketball with Bryan that stunted the young players’ development. This iso ball led to a league-worst 97.0 PPG, and the second-worst offensive ranking (101.6).
Contrast these numbers to the 2016 version of LA, which is averaging 107.0 PPG thanks to improved ball movement and team basketball. One example of how willing this team is to share the ball is their road win over New Orleans, where they dished out 36 assists—the most for this team since 2014..
“It’s just a confidence thing, honestly,” Walton said regarding his team’s passing and ball movement. “It’s them having faith. Trusting in each other. Recently, you can see them staying calm and making the extra pass and trusting that the next guy will make the right play and the next guy will knock down the shot. That’s why you see so many different guys for us make big plays so far.”
Russel paces the team with 4.7 assists per night, while Lou Williams (3.7) and Randle (3.2) are also distributing the ball well.
Speaking of Williams, the 11-year veteran is leading this club with 16.5 PPG, and the best part is that he’s coming off the bench. Clarkson also comes off the bench to deliver 15.0 PPG, proving that this Lakers square has far more depth than last season.
Other important contributors off the bench are Ingram and Larry Nance Jr., who are averaging 6.8 and 6.7 PPG respectively. They help form a consistent 9-man rotation where nobody plays more than 28 minutes a night. LA has enough solid players to keep everybody fresh if they fight for a playoff spot down the stretch.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of all for LA is how well this unit has gelled together in 2016. Few knew what to expect from a mix that includes young players like Russell, Clarkson, Randle, Ingram, and Nance, along with veterans like Williams, Luol Deng, and Nick Young.
As for Young, many thought that the Lakers would cut him if they couldn’t work out a trade, due to his declining production and the Russell prank turned bad. After the tape Russell took of Young admitting that he cheated on fiancee Iggy Azalea went viral, this team’s chemistry issues got even worse.
Amazingly, Young has turned around his play (14.2 PPG) while he and Russell are starting in the backcourt. They aren’t the only ones gelling on this team since the rest of the entire rotation has good chemistry.
“We don’t want to just be a team that has a winning record,” Russell explained. “It’s not satisfying for us. I know we’re capable of being a playoff team. That’s the main focus.”
Walton was quick to point out that the postseason is quite a ways off: “When you start focusing on the playoffs and not on those little things, we won’t be close toward making the playoffs at the end of the year.”.
Odds are that the Lakers won’t be in the postseason when 82 games are up, even if they do focus on the little things. The likely scenario is that they’ll win 35 games while still showing marked improvement.
But on the other hand, they have a deep roster that mixes veterans and young players. So it feels like the playoffs aren’t totally impossible if the core stays healthy.