The Los Angeles Lakers just completed one of their toughest stretches of the season, a grueling five-game road trip against opponents from the Eastern Conference. The team finished with a record of two wins and three losses, which is not bad for a squad that had previously won only five road games all year. There are two more games this next week leading to the All-Star break, a time when the Lakers will huddle to decide how they will approach the final stretch of the season.
There were a number of interesting developments during the Grammy road trip that not only clarified where the team stood at the moment but showed a glimpse of the future.
1. When they are at full strength, the Lakers are better than their record would indicate
Two-thirds of the way through their fourth consecutive losing season, which has left even the fans physically exhausted, it is easy to forget that the Lakers were a pretty good basketball team last November when they started the year with a record of 10-10. They have beaten some of the best teams in the league including the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Memphis Grizzles.
Yet, two-thirds of the way through the season, they sit with a 19-37 record, leading many to ponder the question, what happened? One theory is that the Lakers were never very good, they were just feeding off the initial excitement created by the hiring of new head coach Luke Walton who brought a more positive, encouraging approach than his predecessor and implemented a new faster-paced system the players enjoyed more. The rest of the league studied footage of how the team was playing and they adjusted, at which point the Lakers reverted to their old bad habits.
That is a possible explanation, but there is another theory which may be more accurate. After the solid start, the team suffered a rash of injuries that disrupted the rotations and, in truth, thwarted any hope of building on their early season momentum. This included injuries to D’Angelo Russell, the team’s only viable option at point guard, who missed 16 games in two separate blocks of time. Larry Nance Jr., the team’s best defender, was also injured at two separate points. Nick Young, Julius Randle, Tarik Black, Luol Deng, and Jose Calderon also missed games. For the longest time, it seemed like whenever one player returned another went out.
Shortly before the Grammy road trip started, the team was suddenly at full strength again for the first time in a long time. Except for a listless loss to the Detroit Pistons, the Lakers played well in the other four contests and very well in the wins against the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks. If they can stay healthy the rest of the season, there is reason to believe the team may surprise quite a few opponents the remainder of the year.
2. The rotations were adjusted, finally
When the season started, Luke Walton decided on his rotations and never deviated. The starters were Timofey Mozgov, Julius Randle, Luol Deng, Nick Young, and D’Angelo Russell. The second unit was Tarik Black, Brandon Ingram, Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Lou Williams. While the starters struggled much of the time, the reserves usually played very well, so much so that even when there were injuries, Walton tried very hard to keep the second unit intact no matter what.
As the losses mounted and the starters continued to flounder, fans were calling for changes, but Walton would not relent. That is, until the middle of the Grammy road trip, when out of the blue he announced that the new starters were Russell, Young, Black, Ingram, and Randle. Since the change, the Lakers won two of three games, and in the two wins, the starters got off to a blistering start.
The casualties in this shake-up were the team’s two highest paid players. Deng became a reserve although he has continued to play the same number of minutes overall. Mozgov, however, fell out of the rotation entirely and has not played in the last three games.
If Clarkson eventually replaces Young, so that all five starters will be members of the young core, that would be a worthwhile experiment. Zubac might even replace Black, although the latter is continuing to play well. For the moment, fans are just happy to see that the role of Deng and Mozgov has been reduced and there is a greater emphasis on developing the young players.
3. The continued growth of Black and Zubac could make Mozgov expendable
The Lakers signed Mozgov to a very lucrative long-term contract in the offseason, which at the time everyone but the team’s front office knew was a mistake. As it turns out, the criticism was justified. Mozgov is a great teammate and a solid human being. He is also a competent basketball player and in the right setting could contribute as a valuable reserve. However, he has struggled with the Lakers and does not fit the other personnel, or in the system, Walton is utilizing.
Black, now a starter, continues to beat the odds and impress. He is active, brings energy, fights for rebounds, and scores well at the rim. In the Lakers recent win over the Knicks, he finished a +34 for the game, which is astounding. People tend to discount Black because he is undersized for a center and his only ability to score is from very short range. Still, while it may not look pretty, he seems to always find a way to impact the game with a block, a rebound, or a ferocious dunk.
By the time the season is over, Zubac may have emerged as the story of the year for the Lakers. Unless LeBron James is on your roster, every team needs a skilled big man, and the Lakers had no real option in their sights which is why they settled for Roy Hibbert and Mozgov the past two seasons. Enter Zubac, a young European player the Lakers stumbled onto last summer. This is a teenager who no one heard of or knew anything about, who didn’t get a real chance to play until mid-January. In fact, when the season started, Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak all but announced that Zubac would not play this year.
Yet, in the span of less than a month since he started playing, Zubac has already proven he is the real deal. One can only imagine what he would be doing by now if he had gotten the same opportunity to play this year that Ingram has received. Still, if he continues to receive 20 plus minutes a game for the rest of the season, Zubac is likely to be playing at a consistently high level by mid-April. Just imagine how good he will be when he grows up.
4. Brandon Ingram continues to struggle
Most observers believe Ingram is the most likely player on the roster to achieve superstar status one day, but for the moment he is struggling more than anticipated as a 19-year-old NBA rookie. The recent road trip was a good example of the consistency that has eluded Ingram all season.
In their final game of the trip, the Lakers scored 47 points in the first quarter alone en route to one of their best offensive performances of the year (at least through three quarters). Yet, Ingram, who is now a starter, took only three shots, made one basket (a lay-up), and grabbed two rebounds with no assists, no steals, and no blocks. For the season, he is averaging a mere 8.1 points per game on a very subpar 37 percent shooting overall and 30 percent from three-point range.
Most people were very disappointed in Russell’s rookie season when he averaged 13.2 points per game on 41 percent shooting and 35 percent from three-point range. Somehow, Ingram manages to avoid the criticism that followed Russell around last year even though Russell’s offensive statistics were far better across the board. It may have something to do with their personalities and the effort Ingram shows on both ends of the court whether or not he is playing well.
There are nights when he scores 14 points and grabs seven rebounds, but there are too many nights when he takes three shots and scores two points. In the 26 games remaining in the season, it is important that Ingram finds a way to score in double digits each night and finish the season strong.
5. A shake-up is coming in the front office
Perhaps the most significant development during the Grammy road trip was the unexpected announcement that Magic Johnson was returning to the Lakers as an advisor. It made headlines when team president Jeanie Buss was seen sitting with Johnson at a Lakers’ game, but the subsequent announcement still came as a surprise since Johnson sits atop a real estate empire and has a formal role with the Los Angeles Dodgers which no doubt keep him very busy.
Further, since the announcement was made, Johnson has continued to issue statements that make it more and more likely that his return to the Lakers portends a large restructuring over the summer. Johnson said the other day that he wants to be the final decision maker, which would appear to clash with the roles played by Kupchak and Jim Buss for many years now. There are further rumors that Jerry West, whose son is already a well-respected member of the front office, is interested in returning in some capacity this summer.
Whatever the outcome, and regardless of who goes and who stays, it looks like Jeanie Buss has finally run out of patience and is ready to change the course of the franchise even though it may force her to make some painful decisions. As if all the intrigue surrounding the lottery, the draft, free agency, and the summer league is not enough, it looks like the biggest drama this offseason may involve a restructuring of the Lakers front office for the first time in a long time.