The road back to relevancy has been a long and difficult one for the Los Angeles Lakers. They have endured countless injuries, the retirement of superstar guard Kobe Bryant, and an extended playoff drought while they attempt to rebuild following the failure of the infamous “Now This Will Be Fun” team featuring Steve Nash and Dwight Howard.
However, despite all of the hardships the team has endured, Thanksgiving provides a moment to reflect and count our blessings. Even when a championship isn’t in the cards, there are still plenty of positive things going on in Los Angeles, especially in this surprisingly fun 2016-17 season.
Here are five things for Lakers fans to be thankful for this year.
First and foremost, the fact that the Lakers are a .500 basketball team as of this writing is an accomplishment in and of itself. On Thanksgiving Day last year, the purple and gold had racked up a whopping two wins. This year they sit at eight, and even more impressive, they have victories over some of the best teams in the league, including the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Houston Rockets.
We don’t know if the young Lakers will be able to keep up this pace, but considering the fact that just about everyone predicted that Los Angeles would be the worst team in the Western Conference, the fact that they are currently a playoff team is phenomenal.
They may not be a championship contender, but for the first time in years, the Lakers are winning again, and it feels great. Even the fact that the losses hurt more is an improvement over the numbness that had set in after years of futility, and that’s certainly something to be thankful for.
Julius Randle Lending A Helping Hand
For most of last season, Julius Randle seemed to be defined by what he can’t do rather than what he can. He doesn’t fit the mold of the prototypical stretch four, as he lacks the ability to shoot from outside, finish efficiently in the paint, and the wing span necessary to protect the rim. Randle does have impressive athleticism and ball handling capabilities for a bruising power forward, but his shortcomings seemed destined to keep him from becoming the high-level player the Lakers hoped to get with the 7th overall pick in 2014.
What a difference a year makes. This season, Randle has arguably been the Lakers’ best player. He still isn’t much of a shot blocker or shooter, but his efficiency finishing at the rim has improved tremendously, boosting his field goal percentage from 43 percent last season to an impressive 53 percent so far this year.
Perhaps even more importantly, Randle has become an excellent passer. He used to have tunnel vision, regularly missing open teammates when he drove to the paint. The new, improved Randle uses his athleticism to beat defenders off the dribble, and collapse defenses then deliver pinpoint accurate passes to perimeter shooters. As a result, Randle’s assists have gone up from 1.8 per game to 3.9, and his unselfishness has helped foster the team-first mentality currently enjoyed by the Lakers.
Nick Young’s Lazarus Act
Over the summer, rumors spread that the Lakers would waive Nick Young if they were unsuccessful in their attempts to trade him. The happy-go-lucky swingman had worn out his welcome thanks to issues off the court and poor performances on it, and it appeared that his time in Los Angeles (and possibly the NBA) was at an end.
New head coach Luke Walton decided to give Young one last chance to prove himself and challenged him to become a better defender.
Fast forward to today and Young has a vice-grip on the Lakers’ starting shooting guard spot. His shot, as well as his swagger, have returned, but perhaps most surprisingly, he has morphed into the Lakers’ best perimeter defender. Somehow, Young has gone from having one foot in the grave to having a career year.
It’s a turnaround that was absolutely unfathomable just a few months ago, and certainly one of the feel-good stories of the year. Young’s NBA career was being read its last rights, and now not only has he come back to life, but he’s thriving in ways that no one ever thought he could.
The Bench Mob
While the Lakers starters boast a nice mix of veterans and youth, it’s the reserves that have truly been captivating. The five-man squad comprised of rookie Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, Larry Nance Jr., and Tarik Black uses hustle and scoring prowess to give the Lakers, and their fans, a major boost.
With Nance and Black both possessing the agility necessary to switch on pick and rolls, and Ingram’s long arms helping section off large areas of the floor, the reserves can play high-level, stingy defense. On the other end of the floor, Williams is playing the best basketball of his career, scoring almost at will. Clarkson pitches in with frenetic drives to the basket or threes. Those two, combined with timely baskets from the front court, have given the Lakers the highest scoring bench in the league.
While the starters are a formidable group in their own right, there is no question that the Lakers’ bench has stolen the show.
Earlier this year, Lakers President Jeanie Buss said she considers Luke Walton to be the Lakers’ best free agent acquisition of the summer. Based on early returns, she is absolutely right.
As the youngest coach in the league, the 36-year-old Walton has managed to connect with the young talent on the team and empower them as they work together to rebuild the franchise. In a short period of time, he has completely transformed the culture around the team into a fun environment that players are thrilled to be a part of.
It’s an exciting shift for an organization that for years was accused of living in the past. There is a lot for Lakers fans to be thankful for, but Luke Walton has to be at the top of the list. It’s fitting, because looking at all Lakers fans have to be thankful for, Walton’s fingerprints are evident at nearly every turn.
Happy Thanksgiving, Lakers Nation!