The Los Angeles Lakers could make the playoffs this season.
Yes, I know. I’m probably just hyped up because the Lakers defeated the Sacramento Kings in a 101-91 comeback road victory on Thursday night, and I should chill.
But, there’s something about this team that’s real. The Lakers (now 5-4) will either be at or above .500 after the 10-game mark on Saturday, and that’s something to be excited about if you’re a Lakers fan. More importantly, they’ll be at least .500 having played more than half of their games on the road.
The Lakers managed just 17 wins last season (the worst in franchise history) and were projected to have the least amount of wins in the entire league this year.
Part of the projection was a result of the tough schedule the Lakers would face this season, especially to start the season.
Well, so far the Lakers have managed to defeat the Houston Rockets on opening night, beat the Atlanta Hawks on the road, and dominate the superstar-laden Golden State Warriors. All were playoff teams last season, and will likely be there again this year.
So how could they possibly turn a 17-win year into a playoff-bound season?
Well, they’ve already started with the basics. They’ve got a young, hungry and talented group to go along with the best coach they could have for this type of team in Luke Walton. The players absolutely love Walton and the system he’s implemented. In turn, Walton enjoys the team he has so much that he’s playing as many players as he possibly can.
Most teams utilize an eight — sometimes nine — man rotation. Luke, however, has frequently used a 10-man rotation, and it’s working so far.
The Lakers start D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Luol Deng, Julius Randle and Timofey Mozgov.
Then, the Bench Mob (are we calling them this again, or should we create something new this year?) filters in Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr. and Tarik Black.
Nine players on the team are averaging over 20 minutes per game, but nobody is currently above 30.
As a result, everyone on the team (except for Luol Deng, so far) has performed well on average, with players trading big nights on a daily basis.
D’Angelo Russell is showing leadership; Nick Young is having the best start of his career; Julius Randle is aggressive on both ends of the floor; and Timofey Mozgov is delivering on his expectations.
Jordan Clarkson is picking his spots; Tarik Black is battling around the rim; Lou Williams is getting buckets in the clutch; Brandon Ingram is making impact plays down the stretch, and Larry Nance Jr. has been the heart of the team with all his intangibles.
Collectively, they’re playing hard and competing for 48 minutes each and every night.
The brilliance here is that even though the team is young, none of the players are are burning out and are fresh enough to keep up with the fast-paced style of play. And if someone’s having an off night, another player who’s in rhythm can step right in and fill the void.
As a result, the Lakers are currently the sixth-highest scoring team in the league with 107.9 points per game. More impressively, they have the highest scoring bench in the league with an average of 48.9 points per game.
It certainly isn’t all about scoring, though.
Having a deep rotation allows for quick changes in matchups while maintaining cohesion and energy.
Typically Luke has gone small to finish ballgames, but against the Kings, he kept Mozgov (who played a season-high 33 minutes against Sacramento) in towards the end to battle against DeMarcus Cousins.
Mozgov was averaging just over 20 minutes per game before facing the Kings but was fresh and in rhythm at the same time when he was asked to go the distance.
When you’ve got a herd of talented young players with just a few veterans in the mix, you have to maximize their talent somehow but also allow for structured growth. Luke has seemingly found the perfect formula for this, and it can only get better as the team grows individually and as a unit.
So far, each game they’ve played has been competitive, and they’ve pulled out more victories than losses.
Last season, the eighth seed in the Western Conference was .500 with 41 wins and 41 losses. If the Lakers maintain their current level of play and cut down some of their mistakes (*cough* “Turnovers!” *cough*), they might be able to stay on track with .500.
It’s a very long season, but when you’ve got a deep team to rely on, anything is possible.