Lakers first-month grades: Only one reason to curb enthusiasm, otherwise L.A. is aces
To say L.A. has surpassed expectations would be a huge understatement
The Los Angeles Lakers are one of the happiest stories in basketball, even after two demoralizing defeats at the hands of the Golden State Warriors this past week. A month into the season, their young roster is 9-9 coming off a win over a solid Atlanta Hawks team Sunday night, and their offensive rating is top-10 in the league. Let's put that in perspective: Los Angeles didn't get its eighth win until Jan. 3 last year.
Here's an early report card:
Developing the youngsters: A
This is the most important part of coach Luke Walton's job. D'Angelo Russell is 20, Julius Randle is 21, Brandon Ingram is 19, Jordan Clarkson is 24 and Larry Nance Jr. is 23. Together, they are the future of the Lakers organization, and they know it.
Encouragingly, Russell has accepted his role as their primary playmaker, and Walton has given him much more freedom than he had as a rookie. Randle is drawing Draymond Green comparisons because of his excellent passing. Clarkson has improved his mid-range game. Nance is a fan favorite not just because he's a dunk machine, but because of his versatility. Ingram is still finding his way, but he's showing flashes of potential, especially on defense. All of this is exciting, especially when you start thinking about what they could look like in a few years.
Cultural studies: A+
Most new coaches who take over lottery teams pay lip service to "changing the culture." Walton has actually followed through. Even when they were losing preseason games, you could see the Lakers playing with a sense of purpose that they didn't have last season under Byron Scott. There is much more ball movement, which facilitates trust. It appears that they have genuinely bought into the idea of proving doubters wrong, and they do not back down against teams that are more seasoned.
Under Scott, the Lakers were rarely fun. Occasionally, Kobe Bryant would have an offensive explosion during his retirement tour. Russell had his moments as a rookie, too. Overall, though, they were not particularly compelling, and they were certainly not anybody's favorite League Pass team. This has totally changed under Walton -- the post-Kobe Lakers are playing a brand of basketball that has forced critics to pay attention and even wonder if they might be able to speed up the rebuilding process.
Integrating the vets: A-
Some observers mocked the Lakers front office when it invested big money in forward Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. These guys probably weren't going to make them a playoff team, after all, and it wasn't clear where returning veterans Lou Williams and Nick Young fit in, either. The laughs have subsided now, however, as the coaching staff has found a nice balance of youth and experience.
Mozgov looks like the player who helped the Cleveland Cavaliers make the NBA Finals two years ago, not the injured guy who collected DNP-CDs when they won the title last June. Williams is playing the most efficient basketball of his career and could be a candidate to win Sixth Man of the Year for the second time. Young earned a starting spot and has been rejuvenated after the worst season of his career.
The only disappointment here is Deng. He's a steadying influence, sure, but he has started the season shooting woefully. It's clear he's better suited to play power forward than small forward, and he can't do that much because of Randle and Nance.
The Lakers needed to contemporize, and that's part of why they hired a 36-year-old coach. Walton hasn't turned this team into the Warriors, but he has encouraged them to push the pace, shoot 3-pointers and use their athleticism. With Bryant's departure, there's much less isolation basketball and fewer midrange jumpers. None of this is revolutionary anymore, but it's refreshing to see the Lakers looking like a normal NBA team.
No one has been a bigger beneficiary here than Young. As motivated as he was after getting DNP-CDs under Scott, it would not have mattered much if the offense didn't set him up for success. Now that he's getting open looks in rhythm, Young is launching a career-high 6.6 3-pointers per game and making 40 percent of them.
Improving the defense: D
This is where we have to put a damper on the enthusiasm. While these Lakers have been impressive, competitive and downright riveting at times, that has all been a result of their running and gunning. The immense progress they have made this season has not extended to the defensive end, where they still rank 29th in the NBA.
Technically, this is a slight step up -- Los Angeles was dead last in defense in 2015-16. It is also a little skewed because of the two recent games against Golden State -- the Lakers were 26th in defensive rating before the Warriors dropped 149 points on them on Wednesday. It's clear, though, that this group has a long way to go on that end before it becomes a real threat in the Western Conference.
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