The 2016-17 NBA season began with such promise for the Los Angeles Lakers, as the plucky group of youngsters quickly developed a reputation as a squad that could not be taken lightly. Even when outmatched, they frequently managed to hang tough and give themselves an opportunity to compete in the fourth quarter. They were a .500 team at the end of November, causing cautious whispers of a playoff push, but then the wheels fell off as a long December saw them record just two wins in 16 tries.
Now, with 14 games left on the schedule, it appears that the season is all but over for the once-impressive Lakers. They possess the second-worst record in the league, which may end up being a blessing in disguise if they can keep their top-three protected pick in May’s NBA Draft Lottery.
With that being the case, winning is no longer a priority. While that fact is disappointing, it also provides the freedom for head coach Luke Walton to tinker with his lineups and rotations to his heart’s content. Veterans have become persona non grata, as Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov have been shut down for the season in an effort to provide more minutes to the young players. Even Tarik Black, just 25 years old, has seen the starting role he inherited from Mozgov disappear in favor of 19-year-old rookie Ivica Zubac.
Tinkering with lineups now allows Walton to assess whether certain combinations work well together in a real NBA game, which can be difficult to simulate during training camp. Answers to questions like whether or Julius Randle can play extended minutes at center or if D’Angelo Russell is effective off the ball will help inform the X’s and O’s decisions that he makes for the team this summer.
It is easy to forget, after all, that Walton himself is a rookie, and needs time to learn about the pieces he has to work with and develop his identity as a coach.
Additionally, the thinking is that with more minutes now, the young Lakers will develop that much faster, which should provide for a better future. Sometimes the best way for someone to learn is to allow them to work through their mistakes.
Lose a lot now to win tomorrow, or as the Philadelphia 76ers would put it, trust the process. While the basketball hasn’t been pretty, the strategy makes plenty of sense, and actually, benefits more than just the players on the floor or Walton on the sidelines.
Now is the time to gather information and veterans like Deng, Mozgov, and even Nick Young are well-known quantities. The kids, though, are a mystery box, and the only way to have any real certainty about their potential is to throw them into the deep end and see if they sink or swim.
The results of this experiment could very well dictate the team’s moves this summer.
For president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka, the more they know about their players, the better chance they have of making wise, informed decisions about their value. The personnel decisions made during the summer, when the Lakers will attempt to put together a team that will be more competitive than the current one, will have a major impact on the long-term future of the club.
For example, if the Lakers keep their pick and select a point guard like Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, or De’Aaron Fox, it helps to know whether or not Russell can be effective as a shooting guard. Likewise, Jordan Clarkson started his career as a point guard before ultimately sliding over to the two, can he successfully transition back to the one? That’s important information to have on hand in case the Lakers have an opportunity to obtain a star this summer via trade and Russell be part of the package.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that shuffling minutes and lineups to see what sticks will be entirely beneficial.
For example, Russell was playing his best basketball of the season following the Lou Williams trade, averaging 20.5 points, 5.5 assists, and 2.9 threes per game. In two games since moving to the bench so that Walton could experiment with Clarkson at point guard, Russell’s numbers have plummeted to just 7.5 points, 2.5 assists, and 0.5 threes.
As a player who depends on rhythm perhaps more than any other Laker, Russell saw his role completely change just as he started to get into a groove.
Still, difficulties aside, mixing and matching the lineup now is probably the right move for the Lakers to make. It helps the tank, gives Luke Walton a chance to experiment and grow, and allows the front office to assess the assets that they are working with.
As unpleasant as it is now, if things finally begin to break the right way for the Lakers, the hope is that they won’t find themselves in this situation again next season.