The Los Angeles Lakers have been a lot of things in their 56-year history since moving to Southern California in 1960: dynasty, the best drama on TV, the consummate runners-up (to the Celtics early on in their history), the most popular franchise in the league, and most recently, absolute dreck. What they have almost never been is what this year's squad embodies.
Yes, the Lakers are the lovable, feel-good, underdog story.
They're young, plucky, and have zero expectations. We knew that coming in. What we didn't expect coming in was that they would turn out to be ... pretty good?
With a win vs. the Thunder Tuesday night, the Lakers improved to 8-7, meaning they will be no worse than .500 on Thanksgiving after Wednesday's game vs. the Warriors. That's an incredible plot twist in a season already full of them.
So how did we get here?
1. The Luke Walton effect is real
Steve Kerr played for Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich and that helped influence his approach to the game -- an approach that took the Warriors from a great-shooting, isolation-heavy, under-performing No. 6 seed into the greatest offensive team ever seen. Similarly, Luke Walton played for Phil Jackson and coached under Steve Kerr, and that impact is helping the Lakers big time.
It's night and day from last season, to the point where you feel awkward pointing it out. Byron Scott was a good coach in New Jersey, a good coach in New Orleans, and I genuinely believe he did good things in helping the Cavaliers in their transition years with improving Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson. He laid a groundwork that they expanded on. Maybe those two would have been the contributors they are for the Cavaliers no matter what, but there were things Scott added, even if his overall performance was poor. That was a tough situation.
The Lakers, though, were a disaster under Scott. It wasn't all him, it never is. But this team didn't need a gruff schoolmaster, teaching the youngsters discipline and life lessons about the league and punishing them for mistakes. They needed to learn discipline through trial and error, through experimentation and play. That's not to say that discipline isn't needed, and hey, maybe Walton would have struggled with the team the way it was constructed last year, with those players at those ages, with those attitudes. Whatever the difference, they are playing inherently differently.
You might think there's more ball movement with the Lakers. You'd be wrong. They were bottom-five in passes per game last season, and they're bottom-five in passes per game this season. But their passes have a lot more purpose. This is a subtle, but important difference. The Lakers were 30th in the league in points off assists last season with just 42.7 points from assists. They're 12th so far this season at 53.7.
They are making more passes that actually go somewhere and that makes you better. The vibe is different, the flow is different, the pace is different (16th in pace last season, 5th so far this year). Walton has brought a lot of good and it's unlocked the potential of a young roster.
2. The Julius Randle effect
I call him T-Rex, because he's a monster with short, stubby arms. Randle is averaging 13.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, shooting 53 percent from the field, and logging a 17.4 PER.
The Lakers are worse with Randle on the floor (6.6 points better with him on the bench), but Randle unlocks a lot of what they do. For starters, he's just a bull in a china shop. He's strong as an ox. Ignore the pretty blatant offensive foul on this play:
But he wouldn't get very far with just that. His skillset is impressive. One interesting wrinkle that the Lakers have toyed around a very little bit with is using Randle as the ball-handler, with Nick Young screening. When you switch, that gets Randle in space vs. a smaller defender. The problem with that advantage is that usually, the guard can just flop when the big tries to bully him and to draw an offensive foul. But Randle's handle and footwork is good enough that instead he gets this:
And if the defense traps, he can kick to Young. He misses the shot here, but this is a really good look for Swaggy, especially if they can stretch it out in the future.
Randle's in the 25th percentile defensively this season via Synergy Sports so there are still big issues. He has to be paired with a top-level rim protector, and even then, with Timofey Mozgov and Randle together, the Lakers give up 110 points per 100 possessions. There are still problems, as you would expect with a young player. But what Randle is capable of, especially next to Russell and Jordan Clarkson, is the real future of L.A.
3. The Nick Young renaissance is... complicated
Young was very nearly cut in preseason. He was almost off the team. He had the whole D'Angelo Russell, Snapchat episode last year. He's Nick Young. But he is, genuinely, a better player this year. Offensively, it makes a lot of sense that he'd fit. He's a long, tall shooter in a high-octane offense taking 6.8 3-pointers per game and making 39 percent. He's been a firestorm in a bottle on that end, and that's all a plus for the Lakers, who need the shooting.
Defensively is where it gets interesting.
Young has basically taken over as the team's top on-ball defender of top wings. This is a big reason why his defensive numbers are a disaster. Opponents are shooting 8.7 percent above their average vs. Young when he's contesting, via NBA.com. He's good, but not that good. The effort's there, though, and that matters a lot. Watch him give Russell Westbrook the business here.
So on-ball, he's a good defender, who is matched up with the elite players every night. Against the Bulls, for example, Jimmy Butler up 15 points on seven possessions with Young defending. That's just a great player earning his money.
Where Young still struggles is off-ball. It's not that he's constantly asleep, in fact, he gives up significantly fewer spot-up shots than other Lakers wings. (D'Angelo Russell has given up 39 compared to Young's 23, for example, via Synergy Sports.) But there are still times when, you know, he's Nick Young. Like... whatever this is.
Or here, where he helps down in a situation where there's not much to do, and leaves Devin Booker in the corner.
So there are ups and downs here, but Young's trying, and for this team, in this position, that's a really good sign. Even if the Lakers are eight points per 100 possessions worse with Young on the floor, he's still contributing. It's like the play he made Tuesday where he stole the gamewinner from a teammate. Sure, there's a lot wrong with the process, but you like the effort, and you like the results. Until that changes, he's a positive.
4. We probably have to talk about Kobe
It's a giant elephant in the room that no one likes talking about. The Lakers themselves have hinted at it. The Lakers have had their worst seasons in franchise history the past two seasons. In fact, last year, the Lakers had four of the top ten worst plus-minus seasons since 2000. Bryant was among them.
Last season devolved into a farewell tour, and everyone was in on it. Management, fans, coaches, everyone. It was all about saying goodbye to the Mamba. And that's fine, he deserved it, but the cost was development and encouragement of the young players. Bryant has scarcely been seen this year, and the Lakers are coming into their own. Bryant doesn't owe any of the younger players, or the franchise anything. He'll no doubt pick up for any of his former teammates calling. (Well, maybe not Smush Parker.) But his absence has freed the franchise on multiple levels.
These are things that are hard to explain in concrete terms. You can pour over stats and they're not going to tell you about how the team feels about the way it's playing. You can break down film, with professional scouts, and it won't give you insight into the vibe that the team is enjoying. These immeasurable things impact the way a team performs. It encourages unselfish play, it inspires confidence, and it enables the best in squads.
The Lakers are way better with Kobe Bryant gone, and there's just no getting around that.
5. There are dark clouds on the horizon
First, there are injuries. D'Angelo Russell has a balky knee, and while he says it's not serious, he's not playing Wednesday night and Luke Walton has hinted at shutting him down. Julius Randle has a bad hip, and will likely miss Wednesday's game vs. the Warriors. Hips are tricky, scary, and problematic. When something's wrong with them, something's really wrong with them. In the meantime, a thin roster is going to have to cover, and that could be problematic.
Then there's the schedule. The Lakers are in their toughest stretch so far. They lost to the Spurs and Bulls, got a good win vs. the Thunder, and now face the Warriors twice, then the Hawks. Then they start a road trip vs. the resurgent Pelicans, the Bulls again, the Raptors, and the Grizzlies, before facing the Jazz and Rockets. They've enjoyed a well-balanced, 15th-ranked schedule so far, and have some good wins in there. But it gets more difficult for a while, and this will be a test. Playing well when things are easy and feel good is one thing. Will the good vibes keep up if that goes away? It's all part of the process, but individual results are one thing, the overall trajectory is more important.
And for the Lakers, the future is looking like nothing but blue skies.