Young Lakers play 12 of next 14 games at home … will they step up?
Young @Lakers play 12 of next 14 games at home … will they step up?
— NBA.com (@NBAcom) December 29, 2016
Maybe it’s because they haven’t been a heavyweight in almost 10 years, or because they’re the No. 2 team in town, or because it was All About Kobe last year, or because they’re young and frisky, or because basketball folks are just too impatient.
Whatever the reason(s), there’s almost a collective and premature push to put some shine on the Lakers well before they’re ready or worthy of any fuss.
When the Lakers began the season 7-5, beat the Warriors, Rockets, Thunder and also Hawks twice, a segment of the purple and gold populace in L.A. began to lose its mind, along with a fair amount of critics. Certainly, you heard it: The Lakers were playoff ready, Luke Walton was a genius, Swaggy P was unleashed and unburdened, D’Angelo Russell was prepared to make a major leap, and so on.
Eventually in an 82-game season, reality tends to interrupt the fantasy and slap some common sense in those guilty of being unreasonable. And the plain truth is the Lakers, while definitely a step beyond the 17-win sludge that inhabited Staples Center last season, remain a work in progress and there’s no guarantee they’ll be an elite team anytime soon.
Just last week they were keeping company near the bottom of the NBA with the Sixers, Nets and Suns, three other teams whose makeup isn’t that much different than the Lakers. At one stretch the Lakers lost 12 of 13 games and the usual issues that dog a young team — sloppy defense, an inability to hold leads (19 points on the Heat and Hornets), careless decision-making — weighed them down.
That makes the next few weeks the most important stretch of the season. The Lakers are in a stretch were they play at Staples 12 times in 14 games. That schedule is stuffed with beatable teams: Pacers, Nuggets, Pistons, Magic, Heat, Mavericks and twice against the slumping Blazers. With the exception of Larry Nance, who’s out a month with a bone bruise, there’s good health. At the very least, the Lakers should distance themselves, perhaps for good, from the lesser teams in the West. At best, they can revive some of that playoff talk that was guilt of jumping the gun in November.
As always, the truth is somewhere in the middle. This team isn’t ready to pull a surprise in either direction. You can understand why their fans are anxious after being spoiled for decades. Yet it’s best to pump the brakes and come to grips with the following:
There’s no superstar
Not even the storied Celtics have been able to keep a conveyor belt of stars like the Lakers. From West to Wilt to Kareem to Magic to Shaq to Kobe, the Lakers managed to stitch together all-time greats since the 1960s and create a legacy, collect titles and enhance the value and visibility of the franchise. The reasons for this: Jerry West and Jerry Buss.
Neither are around anymore, and the other advantage the Lakers held — sunshine and Hollywood — aren’t catnip to superstars anymore, or at least at the level it was during Showtime.
The perception of L.A. being a magnet for A-list free agents was overblown, anyway. Most of their franchise players were home-grown (Magic, West, Elgin, Kobe), and the last marquee players who finessed their way to L.A. were Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and how’d that turn out? Kevin Durant didn’t bite last summer. Russell Westbrook, born and raised and schooled in L.A., signed up for at least two more years in Oklahoma City. His UCLA teammate, Kevin Love, chose to re-up in Cleveland.
Do they panic and offer up young talent for DeMarcus Cousins? That would be a reach.
In free agency, players choose money first, and with the new labor agreement making it more rewarding to stick with your own team, any great-player defection to the Lakers in the neat future suddenly appears more far-fetched than ever before. Just the same, the money will allow the Lakers to keep their own, but is there a budding superstar in the mold of Magic and Kobe currently on this roster? We’d probably know by now.
Brandon Ingram needs work
If the All-Rookie team was selected tomorrow Ingram probably wouldn’t make the cut. The No. 2 pick is shooting 35 percent, doesn’t draw respect from the defense or get his number called in the clutch just yet, and there are times when you barely notice he’s on the floor.
This doesn’t mean he’s having a poor season, just an unremarkable one. Which is often the case when you’re only 19 and figuring out what time the team bus leaves.
Among other things, Ingram’s body is still developing. He needs time in the weight room and second helpings at dinner. Until he clears 200 pounds on a 6-9 frame, he’ll struggle to get points or rebounds in traffic near the rim, which will allow for easier shots and a higher shooting percentage. He could be another year from learning how to mix it up in the paint.
Free agent additions have become subtractions
The Lakers surprised more than a few rival GMs with the steep price paid for Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Their impact has been mild and there’s no hints that either will be starters beyond this season.
The Lakers were partly paying for leadership when they signed Deng, and while he does bring a steady voice to the locker room, he’s posting career lows across the board and isn’t the trim, athletic defender and shot-maker he once was. Mozgov is getting just 21 minutes and is usually on the bench for crucial fourth-quarter minutes. Unless something changes, this wasn’t money well spent.
Russell’s still learning to direct a team
His talent is obvious, his head is screwed on a bit tighter and some nights his play is infectious. Still, Russell’s point guard instincts are suspect, in terms of creating shots for teammates, establishing a flow and looking the part of a firm floor leader.
The position demands more control and discipline and wisdom than any other, and that’s why Russell is so inconsistent. He hasn’t put all of that together on most nights. He does, however, have a better relationship with Walton than Byron Scott and that is helping his confidence, knowing that he can make a mistake and not worry about being yanked. Look, he’s 20. His development must be timed by a calendar, not a stopwatch.
Walton isn’t a finished product, either
Can we say, with no disrespect intended, that Walton, much like the players he coaches, is developing as well?
His fill-in for Steve Kerr last season with the Warriors was a professional game-changer for him. A few years earlier, Walton was a second assistant and suddenly, he was a wanted man with the Lakers last spring. He does have the necessary even-keel personality which serves him well with players, and grew up in a basketball family, and learned plenty in his short time with the formidable Warriors.
But the guy is 36, a young man in a middle-aged man’s job. He doesn’t have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson and Draymond Green anymore. Coaching the Lakers requires a bit more, even if the stakes are lower. Comparatively-speaking, the egos are a bit more fragile and the effort on defense needs work.
There’s much to like about the Lakers, in that they’re not going backward, subtle signs of growth are evident and young players are getting enough playing time to make their mistakes. They’re aggressive and often spunky, which is what you get when the playing rotation is barely old enough to buy a drink. They didn’t get their 11th win last season until February; of course, that year was sacrificed so Kobe Bryant could enjoy a six-month going away party, so let’s keep the comparisons in perspective.
“It’s important for us to keep focus on getting better at the simple things of the game, to build the game from the ground up,” said Walton.
That means everybody needs to take a deep breath and understand a few things about this strange new era the Lakers find themselves in. The good news is a 37-year-old Kobe isn’t coming back. But the bad news: neither is a 19-year-old Kobe.
Growing in the NBA isn’t always fun or pleasant or as fast as some would like. Best not to get too caught up on the promise, or discouraged by mistakes. These Lakers are guaranteed to give a lot of both.