With the All Star break in sight, the Los Angeles Lakers are at the bottom of the Western Conference standings and the losses continue to mount, punctuated by yet two more defeats Wednesday and Thursday night to the Portland Trail Blazers and Utah Jazz.
The Lakers are lost at sea and facing an ocean of trouble at the moment, but in the midst of their travails, this may be the perfect time to step back and acknowledge that there are some positives. Yes, there are good things about this team which are worth celebrating.
Here are five things that Lakers fans should focus on and be happy about in these otherwise dark times for the purpose and gold.
1. The Draft
Historically, the Lakers remained in contention by astute trades and free agent signings. Unfortunately, in the modern NBA, teams are severely hampered in their options as they try to rebuild from the bottom of the heap.
Big time free agents are not available because they all want to go to contenders. Further, under the brand new Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams can re-sign their top free agents for a commitment which is as much as $50,000,000 more than any other team can pay. In this context, Laker fans should be pleased for two reasons.
First, they have drafted well and often in the past three years, snagging Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance, Jr., and Ivica Zubac. That is two guards, two power forwards, one small forward, and one center, who are all 24 or younger, and they form the nucleus of a brighter tomorrow.
While the team is experiencing another poor season, a big part of it is the injuries which have dogged them since the team started a strong 10-10. The players can never grow together on the court and gain confidence because they are never all available at the same time. For example, improvement is not possible when Russell is out and Jose Calderon is taking his place. At some point the coaching staff will figure it out as will the players, and things will improve.
Further, although Lakers fans hoped for better when the season started, it looks like they may very well keep their top three protected draft choice next summer. Teams that were struggling earlier like the 76ers, Nuggets, Kings and Suns, are starting to improve and win more, while the Lakers are going in the
opposite direction and thus could potentially finish the season with the second worst record in the league ahead of only the Brooklyn Nets.
2. Ivica Zubac
Speaking of the draft, few fans knew who Ivica Zubac was when he became the team’s second-round selection last summer. A few short months later, after registering two straight double-doubles on Wednesday and Thursday, it seems more and more likely that Zubac is going to be an important member of the roster for many years to come.
Although there has been a lot of talk the past few seasons about small ball line-ups, the fact that the Golden State Warriors can be effective playing that style is more a product of their personnel. It is still inescapably true that having a dominating big man is absolutely essential for most teams.
Look at what Karl-Anthony Towns, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Rudy Gobert have done for their respective teams. They are not traditional centers from a generation ago, they are nimble big men who are versatile and can score in a variety of ways.
This is the kind of center the Lakers need badly, and Timofey Mozgov does not fit the bill despite his large, long term contract. Enter Zubac, who barely played all season until recently when Walton seems to have discovered that Mozgov is not the answer. Suddenly, Zubac is not only playing, he is earning more and more time on the court as evidenced by his career high 28 minutes against the Trail Blazers. Zubac is a modern NBA center who has an array of ways to score around the rim but can also knock down outside shots.
Zubac is only 19 years old, is just starting to play, and is very raw. But he has intriguing potential on both sides of the floor. The Lakers would be wise to spend the rest of the season giving Zubac serious minutes so he can learn and improve. He looks like an unexpected gift who can flourish.
3. Larry Nance, Jr.
Nance is a second year, high flying power forward with intangibles that allow him to contribute in a variety of ways. He is the Lakers’ most mature young player and their best young defender, by far.
The Lakers lost to the Trail Blazers because they couldn’t defend for the most part. The lone exception was Nance, who not only registered three blocks, but made impressive stops and rebounds in the limited minutes he played in only his second game back after recovering from a knee injury.
Julius Randle is continuing to struggle, which was never more evident than Wednesday night when he missed lay-up after lay-up and played such poor defense that the coach finally pulled him for good with the game on the line in the fourth quarter. ESPN’s play-by-play man Dave Pasch noted that Randle has great physical tools but struggles with focus. Nance does not have that flaw, and his consistent, all-around game makes the team better when he is on the court.
At long last, the coaching staff is reported to be considering changes in the starting line-up. It would be a huge, controversial move, but if there is going to be a change is it possible that Nance could supplant Randle as a starter? If he can finally stay healthy, he needs more minutes and with a suddenly crowded front court, it has to come at someone’s expense.
Nance needs to be much more aggressive on offense, to become more of a threat to score. If he plays more, he has the potential to improve in this area. Unless Randle can straighten out his game, and possibly straighten out his head, Nance may be the better option. Even if he continues to come off the bench, Lakers fans should be very happy that Nance is on their team.
4. Swaggy P
You have to be happy for Nick Young in his highly unexpected comeback year. Young was so deep in Byron Scott’s doghouse that absolutely no one expected him to be on the roster this year. The Lakers reportedly tried for a long time to trade him but without success, so Walton, when he was hired, decided to change course and embrace Swaggy P. The results have been a miracle.
Young is playing 26 minutes a night and has started every game in which he was healthy enough to play. His shooting statistics are a solid 45% overall and an outstanding 42% from three point range. He has been consistent all year long except for a brief dry spell earlier this month. Moreover, Young, whose defense has been criticized all his career, has been singled out by Walton as one of the team’s best defenders.
Young has probably endured more losses in his four years with the Lakers than any other player in franchise history, but he retains his enthusiasm for the game. Young is in his 30s now and has shown greater maturity this season than at any time in his career. His precise future in the NBA and with the Lakers is unclear, but certainly this year he has been a real bright spot that fans should enjoy.
5. Luke Walton
If he can avoid contracting post-traumatic stress syndrome from all the losing this season, Luke Walton is still the right man to be the head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. He remains upbeat and enthusiastic, and there is something about his words and demeanor that makes you believe he is going to figure things out.
When he was hired, many fans wanted to believe that Walton was a savior who would turn the team’s fortunes around immediately. After an upbeat offseason and a much better than expected start once the games began to count, it looked like he might really be a magician. Some of the luster may have worn off, but the expectations were unrealistic. In the end, Walton is just a talented young coach who, like his young players, will grow into his role. It was unfair of fans to expect more.
Walton comes across as a calm, supportive kind of coach, but fans should never be fooled by the outward appearance. He is very competitive and has a burning desire to build a winner. It will come, but it will take time. Meanwhile, Lakers fans must be patient and look for signs of improvement, which will come once Russell returns if his teammates stay healthy and the rotations are tweaked. Fans should appreciate that the team has finally found the right head coach and he will likely be around a long time.