When the Los Angeles Lakers started off the 2016-17 season there was a fresh, almost electrifying vibe in town, and it wasn’t just the excitement of having new head coach Luke Walton at the helm. It was the product on the court, producing victories in the wins column, opening up a relatively low expectations season with a .500 record (10-10) and beating some of the most talented teams in the NBA (Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Oklahoma City Thunder).
Since then, the Lakers record (16-32) has taken quite the tumble, winning just six of their last 28 games, the second-worst record in the Western Conference. And, that vibe amongst Lakers fans that Lakerland was back on the upswing after three straight seasons of missing the playoffs, pretty much went out the window after the Lakers suffered their worst loss in franchise history, a 49-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks.
“It’s embarrassing for us, as a team, for us as an organization, for our Laker fans that are so good to us,” Walton said minutes after the loss on the Spectrum SportsNet broadcast.
So, what’s the measure of success for the Lakers this season now?
In reality, it hasn’t changed. It just feels a little different after being teased and let down with playoff possibilities and the novelty of laid back Luke slowly wearing off.
The measure of success for the Lakers this season has always been and will continue to be the development of their young core. Over half of the Lakers roster is 25 and under, three of which aren’t even of legal age to consume alcohol.
The three players averaging the most minutes on the team are Julius Randle (29.4 minutes per game), Brandon Ingram (28.2 mpg) and Jordan Clarkson (27.4 mpg) who have a mean age of 21.6 years old. Those three guys have also played the most total minutes this season, with the rookie leading the pack at 1,354 minutes, which happens to be 147 more minutes than Luol Deng, who the Lakers signed to a $72 million contract this summer, and 361 more minutes than four-year $64 million center Timofey Mozogv.
“The big picture is all about the team but 100%, it is just as important right now, that we’re getting individual growth from the young core, mainly, but everyone that’s here,” Walton said. “With the amount of guys we have that are 25 and under, it’s really important that we see them grow and put them in challenging situations that’s going to allow them to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and down the road be better for it.”
So what type of growth are we seeing exactly?
Individual statistics of the Lakers young core compared to last season won’t tell you much. D’Angelo Russell, the Lakers No. 2 draft pick in 2015, is averaging 26.3 minutes, 14.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.4 assists, and 2.6 turnovers this season in comparison to 28.2 minutes, 13.2 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.5 turnovers. His field goal percentage has dipped just below 40% and his three-point shooting percentage (34.6%) hasn’t improved. His defensive rating is the same as last year.
Jordan Clarkson, who’s minutes have gone down about five minutes per game this season (as his role has changed from starter to second unit) is averaging: 27.4 minutes, 13.9 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 turnovers and 1.3 steals. Last season, his averages were 32.3 minutes, 15.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.7 turnovers and 1.1 steals. His field goal percentage has increased to 45.1% this season, up from 43.3% last season, though his shooting from beyond the arc (34.2% this season) hasn’t improved. Clarkson’s also found himself less at the free throw line this year, and is still trying to find his way defensively.
Julius Randle has probably made the biggest improvements this season, but although his ability to impact and takeover a game has surfaced, his play has been inconsistent. On the stats side, his numbers have improved in many categories, averaging 29.4 minutes, 13.2 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.9 assists and 2.6 turnovers per game this season. Last season, Randle’s averages were: 28.2 minutes, 11.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.8 assists, and 1.8 turnovers. His shooting has also improved, up 49.0% from 42.9% last season.
With Larry Nance Jr., it’s just a matter of getting him back to a place where he’s 100% healthy, as he has improved in every category (offensively and defensively this season), but he’s missed 19 games. Ingram has started to come into his own the month of January and Walton’s been giving him opportunities and experience, even if he’s not the number one option on the floor (proof that Walton is all-in on the priority of developing what might be the Lakers most prized asset).
Ivica Zubac, who’s been going back and forth between the D-Fenders and Lakers has even been starting to show his potential. In just his third game playing more than 15 minutes (January 17th, 2017 vs. Denver Nuggets), Zubac recorded 13 rebounds and 11 points, becoming the third-youngest Laker to ever to record a double-double.
So, there is certainly some individual growth happening, but even more needs to be done. For Walton, the individual development is also dependent on the team playing the right way, as Walton explained after their win over the Indiana Pacers last week.
“If Lou Williams went for 57 (points), and we ran nothing but high pick-and-rolls all night long, and we outscored them 120-119, that type of win doesn’t really mean much to me,” Walton said after their 108-96 win over the Indiana Pacers. “But because we got a win by playing our tails off on defense, by tagging cutters, by getting out and pushing the ball in transition, and for the most part making them make challenged, contested shots, that means that we’re playing the right way.”
But, with 34 games left in the season, wins and losses aside, Lakers fans are going to need to see a lot more of “playing the right way” to consider this season a constructive one, especially after not only enduring back-to-back seasons of the worst records in franchise history, but likely four years of missing the playoffs.
“At the end of the season, to me if we’re at a place where we’re actually doing our defensive rotations every time and guys are giving the effort that we need to give, and we’re playing consistently, unselfish basketball where we’re looking to attack and then make plays for our teammates, then that means to me like we have a great place to start the next season on,” Walton said about how he will measure success this season. “If, we’re at a place where right now, some games we do it, and we look really good, and it’s a lot of fun and we fall back and maybe get a little bit selfish, or not work as hard on defense, then obviously we’re not as satisfied with the season as a whole.”
A lot of that development won’t be noticed on the stat sheet, but certainly some of it should be. Including, having enough heart and pride not to allow another 40+ point blowout loss to one of the worst teams in the NBA.
“We’re going to put our stamp on the culture that we want,” Walton said at his introductory press conference back in June. “It’s going to be joy. Our players are going to like coming into practice every day. We’re going to play a brand of basketball that LA fans will appreciate.”
So, win or loss, give the fans something to appreciate every night. Give fans heart when you step on the court, give them pride when you put on your jersey and give them hope for a better future.