The Los Angeles Lakers are about to complete their final full month of the 2016-17 NBA season. In two short weeks, they will begin the long offseason having missed the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year. For the franchise, It has been a tumultuous time on and off the court, but if one thing has been accomplished this year, the composition of the front office has finally been settled, and they are moving forward with clarity and structure behind the scenes.
The same cannot be said for the product on the court. There is reason to believe the roster may see significant changes this summer. In the pursuit of a star to join the team, parts of the young core is at risk of being packaged in a trade should the right player be available.
The Lakers stuck with their veterans too long this season, especially in the starting lineup, when they should have focused more heavily on better developing and evaluating their young players. This past month, however, the evaluation process began in earnest, as most nights the team has played only nine players all of whom are 25 years old or younger.
Whether it is a coincidence or not, this change started after Magic Johnson took over as president of basketball operations. The question is, what has Johnson learned about the young core this past month?
1. As Individuals, the Lakers Young Players Have Improved This Season and Are Talented
For much of the season, it was not clear that the young players had improved much from last year. Their play this past month, however, has shown they have progressed in more than an insignificant manner. As individuals, the Lakers have a good deal of talent on the roster. This past month alone, D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson (twice), Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, and Ivica Zubac, all set career scoring highs.
Russell has been mostly maligned since he joined the team last year. He struggled again for much of this season and missed considerable time due to injuries. Yet, post-All-Star break, he has finally shown the kind of player he can become. He has averaged 19.8 points per game, shot 44 percent, and made nearly 38 percent of his three-pointers, numbers which are far improved from earlier this season. He has been aggressive on both ends of the court. Russell has responded to Johnson’s challenge.
Clarkson has also thrived post-All-Star break when the Lakers traded Lou Williams which opened things up for him to play more with the ball in his hands. He has been aggressive as usual, but with each start, he is running the offense from the point guard position (where he has not played much since he was a rookie) with improved confidence, which has taken some of the burden off Russell. He has averaged 19.5 points per game in March.
Brandon Ingram has likewise shown a considerable boost in confidence this past month when he started to resemble a No. 2 overall draft choice. He has been very aggressive on both ends of the court and started making the outside shots which eluded him most of the season, averaging 13.5 points per game on nearly 52 percent shooting from the field, a vast improvement over his stats pre-All-Star break. He continued to show that he can rebound and play defense. Ingram has missed the past two games, but hopefully, he will return soon to finish the season strong.
Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. play the same power forward position but could not be any more different. Randle has shown an improved outside shot this year and is starting to finish more with his off hand, which were his biggest weaknesses. There are games when he is dominant, although he continues to be wildly inconsistent. Nance, on the other hand, is a picture of consistency and has developed a skilled, all-around game. He excels on defense, in grabbing rebounds, and making steals. He has also shown that he can shoot, and if he ever starts doing it aggressively as people are begging him to do, he may prove to be a very good NBA player.
Centers Ivica Zubac and Tarik Black have also shown talent this year. Zubac, who just turned 20, has a sophisticated offensive game. If he learns to play defense, he could earn himself a long-term spot in the starting lineup. Black has rebounded this season after languishing on the bench all of last year. He has excelled coming off the bench, giving the team 14 high-energy minutes a game, where he usually manages to have at least one eye-opening dunk, block or offensive rebound in every contest.
Two new young players joined the team at the All-Star break, and this past month, but have started to thrive. David Nwaba is shooting a high percentage, grabbing rebounds, and playing tough defense. Tyler Ennis is running the offense with confidence, has been aggressive, and is showing he can score from outside and around the rim.
These nine players, ages 19 to 25, have provided clear evidence this past month that they are improved and have real NBA-caliber talent.
2. While the Players Have Thrived As Individuals, They Have Not Done So As a Team
The level of talent in the modern NBA is astounding, but talent alone does not win championships. As individual players, the Lakers young core has improved this season and demonstrated they have real talent. But they have not yet shown that they can play well together as a team. Thus they languish at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
The front office has seen this past month that the Lakers are not a good “team.” The trick is figuring out why that is the case if the players have the requisite skills. Is it a just a matter of being patient? Do the players, despite their individual skills, not fit well together? Is the coaching staff not putting them in the best position to win? Why does the team play with so little energy many nights? What the Lakers have learned this past month is that there is not yet a clear answer to any of these questions.
Until the Lakers learn to play together as a team, moving the ball on offense and rotating to cover for one another on defense, they will not win many games.
3. The Defense Is As Bad As Ever
For the season, the Lakers rank dead last in the NBA in overall defensive efficiency. This past month has not provided any tangible evidence that the defense is improving. While there are nights when the Lakers struggle to score, for the most part, scoring has not been the problem this season. The problem has been that they can’t stop other teams from scoring at will.
You can’t win games when night after night the opponents have 65-70 points at halftime and 120 points or more for the night. Yet, that is what the Lakers have faced this season. The coaching staff has made defense a priority since the start of training camp, but it has been utterly to no avail.
Instead of mentioning all the players who are poor defensively – a very long list – it is easier to talk about the only players who excel on that end of the floor. The list consists of two players only, Nance and Nwaba. The interesting thing is that both lack a consistent spot in the rotation, as Nance is asked to play from moment to moment alongside Zubac, Randle, or Black, with no particular pattern. Nwaba often plays in a three-guard set with two bigs, meaning he is essentially the small forward.
Zubac and Randle have offensive skills, but if they are going to continue to start together in the frontcourt, they have to improve defensively. It might make more sense to team Nance in the front court with Zubac while the latter, a rookie, is still learning the game, although Randle would not handle the demotion well.
Whether they need to bring in a consultant to teach the team how to play defense, or they just need new defensive-minded players, the front office had better figure it out this summer if they want to improve their record next year.
In sum, what the Lakers have learned about the young core this past month is that each has improved this season, each has good individual talent, but they have not shown that they can play effectively together as a team. This is in no small part because they play very poor team defense. The key to this offseason is for the front office to figure out why this is the case – is it the wrong mix of players, poor coaching, or just the players’ inexperience?