This season has not been kind to the Los Angeles Lakers, as the team currently sits with the third-worst record in the NBA. Moreover, they are headed in the wrong direction, as they just lost by 36 points to the team with the second-worst record, the Phoenix Suns, who are now only a half-game behind the Lakers in the standings. The All-Star break could not have come at a better time, as the team badly needed to regroup and decide how it will approach the remaining 24 games this season.
When the year started, coach Luke Walton told anyone who would listen that the months ahead are not about wins and losses, they are about playing hard and improving. Curiously, that is not how Walton acted once the season began. The emphasis has been as much (or more) on Lou Williams and Nick Young as it has been on D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. Russell and Randle have suffered for it, or at least they have not developed as fans, and the front office had hoped.
Byron Scott was criticized last year for not playing Russell more, but shockingly, he is getting even fewer minutes this season. The top 20 point guards in the league are all averaging more than 30 minutes a night, while Russell is playing a meager 26.5 minutes per game. That ranks 27th among point guards, and the only three players behind him, Tony Parker, Rajon Rondo, and Jameer Nelson, are close on his heels and are near the end of their careers.
For Laker fans, all you need to know is that Luol Deng, who has been a huge disappointment, is averaging more minutes than Russell. Scott was also criticized for not playing Randle more last year, but he is getting precisely the same number of modest minutes under Walton.
What is especially alarming is that the past month, as it became certain the Lakers would not make the playoffs, Russell and Randle both saw fewer and fewer minutes. Recently, it is not unusual for them to play closer to 20 minutes a game, and they are not playing in the fourth quarter at all. If the goal is development instead of wins, does this make any sense?
The obvious explanation is that despite his words, Walton is chasing victories and feels that playing veterans Williams, Young and Deng give the team a better chance of winning. That may be true, but there are two obvious retorts. First, the team is not winning no matter who plays more minutes and who is on the court in the fourth quarter. Thus, Russell, Randle, and even Ingram are missing an opportunity to gain very valuable experience. Second, the team is not going to make the playoffs or finish with a respectable record no matter what, so what is the point of emphasizing the veterans?
As the Lakers use the All-Star break to ponder what to do the remainder of the season, the answer is staring them in the face. To salvage the situation, they need to return to the original mission which Walton announced last summer. The starting lineup the rest of the season must be Russell and Clarkson at guard, Ingram and Randle at forward, and Zubac at center. They need to all play thirty minutes a game or more. Nance and Black need to be the first two players off the bench.
Would the Lakers win more games if they featured Williams, Young, and Deng instead? Maybe one or two, but so what? While most rational-thinking fans frown on the concept of tanking, after enduring such a miserable season, it would be a shame if the Lakers suffered the further loss of their top-three protected selection in this summer’s draft because they squeezed out another meaningless win or two in the waning games of the year.
Right now, after three years of meaningful draft choices, the Lakers still do not have a clear indication of what they have in their young core. Do Russell and Randle have the mental toughness and competitive fire to play hard for an entire game? Was Ingram overrated, or is he on course to dramatically improve once his body matures? Can Clarkson regain the promise of his rookie season and can he play effectively as a starter alongside Russell? Can Nance learn to become more aggressive on offense? Does Zubac have as much raw talent as it seems, and can he learn to go toe to toe with the league’s dominant big men? Is Black a legitimate NBA center albeit in a reserve role?
All signs suggest that this will be an important offseason for the Lakers. Jim Buss and/or Mitch Kupchak could be replaced — the disastrous Mozgov and Deng signings last summer were probably the final straw. Magic Johnson seems to be in control, and he may be joined by Jerry West if the rumors turn out to be true.
No matter who is calling the shots, after another full season to evaluate the young core, it would be disastrous if the team entered yet another offseason without a crystal clear picture of just what they have in their young core. This is the only effective way to prepare for the draft and map out a strategy for potential trades and free agent signings. Two of the top three picks in the draft are likely to be point guards, so the Lakers may face a critical decision.
In sum, the way to salvage this season is not to finish with another couple of wins. It is to give the seven young players on the team as much playing time as possible the remaining 24 games. It also means that any veteran the team can trade for a first or high second round selection, or for another young player with promise, they should pull the trigger. If the Lakers do not vigorously pursue this strategy, it may be time to seriously question if anyone in the organization has any real idea how to run a basketball team.