None of this was supposed to happen. By all accounts, the Lakers should be absolutely terrible this season. They are supposed to miss the playoffs for a fourth straight year, and fan interest should be waning now that they are competing without the draw of superstar guard Kobe Bryant. Complicating things, the franchise that has always been a magnet for the spotlight will also soon have to publicly navigate the uncomfortable waters of Jim Buss’ infamous deadline.
Meanwhile, the team itself is reminiscent of Major League, with a rag-tag group of rough-around-the-edges, unproven youngsters mixed with past-their-prime veterans (in case you are wondering- D’Angelo Russell is Rick Vaughn, Metta World Peace is Jake Taylor, and Nick Young is Willie Mays Hayes).
Generally, a combination of front office complexities and a not-ready-for-prime-time roster results in a ticket straight to the NBA lottery, where good-luck charms abound and ping pong balls are worth millions. That was the fate that the 2016-2017 Lakers were predestined for, with any other outcome being dismissed as fantasy.
However, as Walt Disney once said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible”, and Los Angeles is proving it.
The sample size is certainly small, but as of this writing, the unflappable Lakers are a playoff team in the West with a .500 record of three wins and three losses. Their point differential is (just barely) positive at plus .3 and they have yet to look completely outclassed in any game, something that was a regular occurrence last season.
They aren’t feasting on bottom-feeders, either. Their first six games featured a murderer’s row of opponents who all expect to easily be in the playoffs, and feature All-Stars like James Harden, Paul George, Dwight Howard, Paul Millsap, and the quartet of Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Stephen Curry.
The Lakers, who don’t have a true star, didn’t seem to mind one bit.
It was a string of David vs. Goliath matchups, but the Lakers showed up full of confidence and ready to sling some stones, ultimately slaying three giants, including the biggest of them all – the Golden State Warriors.
With four stars on their payroll, the Warriors are the clear favorites to win an NBA title, but the star-less Lakers apparently didn’t get that memo. They routed Golden State by 20 points in a game that they never trailed in, turning in a performance that won’t soon be forgotten.
Their wins aren’t ugly, either. Los Angeles doesn’t walk the ball up the floor, hoping to muck up the game and limit possessions in an attempt to hide a lack of talent. No, not this bunch. There are times when their youth shows and plays don’t come together exactly as they were drawn up, but this Lakers team is playing entertaining, compelling, and above all else, fun basketball.
New coach Luke Walton’s fingerprints are everywhere. His team holds the turbo button down from the opening tip to the final whistle, blitzing opponents whenever they take a second to catch their breath. They have the third-fastest pace in the NBA, and their offensive rating is an impressive 10th in the league, a remarkable improvement from last year’s 29th-place finish. Off-ball screens and player movement, once a rarity, have now become commonplace, and shots are routinely passed up in order to send the ball to a teammate with a better look.
It has only been a few months since Walton was brought on board to replace ousted coach Byron Scott, but the difference is already night and day.
The starting five races up and down the court, firing shots and scrapping for every possession. Lumbering center Timofey Mozgov is just quick enough to keep up and make it all work, setting massive screens to free up de facto leader D’Angelo Russell and a resurgent Nick Young, while Julius Randle is a constant threat to ignite the fast-break. Luol Deng, the team’s most expensive free agent signing of the summer, does his part by being the glue man and keeping everything running smoothly.
When the starters step aside, the bench mob of Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Tarik Black are more than capable, and they lead the league in bench points by a wide margin. It’s not uncommon for the bench to outplay the starters, and crunch-time minutes are handed out on the fly to whichever players are clicking at the moment.
Walton is also brilliantly unconventional enough to allow Ingram, a 6’9” rookie, to play point guard on the offensive end, and it’s working. Ingram has the advantage of being able to see over the top of the defense and consistently finds Clarkson and Williams for open looks. Nance and Black do all of the dirty work in the paint, and both have the agility to switch onto guards on the perimeter, which combines with Ingram’s length to wall off large chunks of the floor.
When the situation calls for it, Walton goes small with Randle replacing Black in the middle, which gives the team a bit of an extra offensive punch.
As a team, the Lakers’ defensive rating sits at 14th, and they are currently holding opponents to a league-low 27.9 percent from three. That stat may be a result of a small sample size, as the Lakers are 17th in the league in number of threes contested. Opponents won’t continue miss open looks the way Golden State did, but the way the Lakers get after it on both ends of the floor is still a sight to behold.
Across the board, they have an endearing “Little Engine That Could” quality to them, with an unyielding belief that together they are better than the sum of their parts. It’s not false bravado either; despite all the predictions of a losing season, these guys legitimately think they can prove everyone wrong.
It’s that determination that has kept them in games that would have been unmanageable blowout losses last season. Even when they are down by double-digits, these Lakers don’t quit, with each man convinced that the next play will be the one that sets them on the path to victory.
They have the youngest head coach in the league, a 6’1” shooting guard as their go-to scorer in crunch time, and Nick “Uncle P” Young is not only a starter, he’s also somehow the team’s defensive stopper. None of it makes any sense. In a city filled with stars, it’s the team without one that is bringing basketball back to Los Angeles.
Disney undersold it. Doing the impossible isn’t “kind of” fun, it’s an absolute blast.