Halfway through the season, the Lakers are 16-30 and plummeting in the standings. The playoffs are a pipe dream at this point, as well as a fully healthy squad as the front office planned it. With over half the basketball year gone, is this where you thought the team would be at this point when the year started? What has been the most surprising development? What has been the least surprising?
The Great Mambino
As the Lakers yo-yo between 12th and 15th place in the Western Conference, I'm not at all surprised with where they are in the standings--in fact, I fully expected this to happen. Many of the things I predicted have come true: injuries piling up and a horrific defense as the primary culprit for losses night after night. I wrote about this a couple weeks ago, that this performance isn't surprising in the least--in fact, we all should have seen it coming to begin with. The team was constructed as an injury-prone unit, with a high premium placed on the bodies of high mileage players who spent all summer rehabbing injuries, as well as little depth built in behind them. The result: the dominoes have all fallen into place and we're looking at a 16-30 squad that's responsible for some of the most abhorrent defense in the NBA. At their current clip, the Lakers are due for about 30 or so wins--I predicted roughly 34. Everything considered, I'd have to say that the Lakers' putrid defensive performance has to be the least surprising development of the season, for me anyway.
However, the most stunning development has to be far and away how great Nick Young has been as a Los Angeles Laker. Before the season, I skewered Young, calling him a selfish ball player, an able but unwilling defender and on the fringes of being sent packing to the Chinese Basketball Association. Let's not get crazy now--Swaggy P has fulfilled some of those preseason predictions, as he's still very much a gunner who would much rather shoot than pass. However, he's been a very willing (though flawed) defender, who tries on more possessions than not. He's been an above average shooter and a great offensive spark plug off the bench, single-handedly bringing the Lakers back into games they had no business being in. He hasn't been perfect and he's certainly not everything he could be considering his ceiling, but he's worlds better than I ever could have imagined. He's made himself quite a bit of money this summer, as I expect him to get a multi-year deal...stateside. I'm blown away by what a professional he's been this season and how he's embraced a leadership role on a team that should have crumbled long ago.
It has been one heck of a season thus far. After the disaster last year, I was hoping things would get better, but they haven't. I predicted the Lakers to win 35-37 games, so I haven't been very surprised. However, I am a bit surprised at how well the team is doing -- yes, I know they've only won 16 games. If you had told me a lineup of Kendall Marshall, Jodie Meeks, Nick Young, Pau Gasol, and Ryan Kelly were going to be competing with teams like the Pacers, Heat, Bulls, and Knicks, I would have laughed at you. Of course, it doesn't really matter if the wins aren't there, unless they're tanking. The defense and lack of wins have been the least surprising part of the season. Mike D'Antoni's teams have never been known for their defense, and this defense is bad. When Wesley Johnson might be the team's best defender, they're in trouble. In the last 13 games, the Lakers have given up 100 or more points. Yeah, it's been that bad.
Although the team isn't winning many games, Mike D'Antoni deserves more credit than he gets. The biggest surprise for me is the way Coach D'Antoni has somehow turned Kendall Marshall into Steve Nash. It hasn't been just Marshall, though. Before their injuries, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, and Xavier Henry were all putting up good numbers. Marshall was in the D-League, Xavier Henry was on his way out of the league, and Farmar was overseas. Now, all three have huge roles on this Lakers team. It's not only the fringe players, either. Nick Young, Jodie Meeks, and Gasol have been playing really well, too. The Lakers may be tanking, but at least they've been somewhat fun to watch.
Heading into opening night of this season, I was blindly optimistic about this team's chances at making the playoffs. The addition of youth and athleticism would keep the Lakers afloat until the return of Kobe Bryant--or at least I thought it would. While the team did do their part to start the season, going 10-9 with a healthy Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar manning the PG spot, the consistency in which this roster has dealt with nagging injuries was beyond predictable, at least by me. The Lakers are currently on pace for 30-32 wins, a little less than AccuScore's projection in October of 36 games. That projection, however, had a healthy Kobe Bryant as a variable starting in mid-January.
While I didn't expect anything to change defensively this season, the lack of playing time for Chris Kaman, and even Jordan Hill at times, is easily the least surprising development of the season for me. Kaman's previous career-low of 20.7 minutes per game (last season in Dallas) has now dropped down to an average of 16.7 minutes per game this season--not the most perceptive of moves signing a guy like Kaman to a roster already filled with average to serviceable big men.
In a season filled with so much frustration, the most stunning development, outside of the play of Nick Young, has been D'Antoni's ability to get some solid, productive minutes from Kendall Marshall and Ryan Kelly. While I still have very little faith in keeping D'Antoni as the coach long-term, it would be unfair not to give credit where it's due. D'Antoni has dealt with an overly-fragile roster that doesn't seem to believe in staying healthy. While they might just be empty stats, Marshall's average of 10.5 points and 9.5 assists over 18 games played deserves some sort of acknowledgement. D'Antoni's system is highly dependent on a competent and healthy point guard, something that he hasn't had on a consistent basis during his time with the Lakers so far; with that said, it's impressive that, albeit for a small sample size, D'Antoni has been able to showcase a player who was close to falling off the league's radar as a double-double machine.
Hate to say it but this is where I expected the team to be. Going into the season, even if you thought the personnel was a "better fit," there was plenty of reason to handicap the team based on health alone. We had no idea how Kobe Bryant would come along and we still don't. Steve Nash missing significant time was a safe bet. Pau Gasol having minor ailments stacking up to reduce his effectiveness seemed like a given. Steve Blake always gets hurt one way or another (see: parking lot spikes).
The team deserves heaps of credit for holding it down to start the season, though. Before the other injuries like Jordan Farmar and Xavier Henry going down they were playing good, fun basketball. Maybe the most fun I've had just watching the Lakers in years. The roster was built around players who sought refuge after being slapped with "bust" labels and were playing like they had something to prove. Slowly but surely they were proving it.
Then it all fell down.
The most surprising development is the one-and-only Jodie Meeks playing well above the ceiling he crashed into last season. He's averaging 14.6 points per game on 45% shooting from the field and 41% shooting from deep. All of those are career highs for the sudden open court maestro. The least surprising thing is all those damn injuries slapping the team in the face again.
The team is roughly where I imagined it would be from the start of the season, as I predicted that a subpar defense and a lack of health would drag down what could otherwise be a fairly competent offensive team. The circumstances of how the Lakers got to this point were quite contrary to the expectations, however, as the entire team while healthy and sans All-Star level play from Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, or Pau Gasol was shockingly competent, a testament to Mike D'Antoni's coaching acumen. To quote Iron Man, D'Antoni essentially was given a box of scraps in a cave and turned it into tangible results, only losing that success once the linchpins for his success in his point guards were taken away from him. The team was even competing decently on the defensive end earlier in the year despite a uniform lack of good on-ball defenders, energy and pluckiness substituting for ability on that end. The flood of injuries has more than compensated for the law of averages coming into play for the Lakers this season and their current iteration averaging out with their good start leaves us right in line with where most thought they would end up. As a result, the "least surprising" development in the Lakers' poor defense has a few odd wrinkles in that claim seeing that if anything, circumstances have forced the team into meeting expectations rather than their own talent level.
This year has provided an unexpected bounty, however, in the form of possible future rotation pieces where there previously were none on the roster. "Evaluation" was a common word thrown about before this year in terms of the Lakers gathering reclamation projects and seeing who could stick after this season, but it was thought that they would have to ultimately re-sign all those players this upcoming offseason. Now, a good chunk of those future rotation players are already signed at least through next season in the form of Kendall Marshall, Ryan Kelly, and Robert Sacre. In particular, Marshall's deal, which extends through next season and includes a qualifying offer for the 2015-16 season, has been one of the savviest signings Mitch Kupchak has made in quite some time, tethering what appears to be a very solid playmaker to the team for a good chunk of his formative years. To a lesser extent, this applies for Sacre, who received an extension through 2016 last offseason in what was viewed as a quizzical move at the time but a nice move to keep a decent backup defensive big, and Kelly, not coming with the security of Marshall's or Sacre's deals but at least available next season on a cheap qualifying offer.
As a result, the Lakers have essentially already succeeded in what should be viewed as one of the stated goals of this season: coming out of it with a variety of useful pieces for hopefully the competitive team they plan to field next season. This was supposed to be a process fraught with risk in that many of the reclamation projects wouldn't pan out or would price themselves out of the Lakers' price range (especially with Kobe's extension strangling the team's flexibility), and not only has the team nabbed several pieces already, there remains the possibility that they can walk away with more of them should Xavier Henry, Jordan Farmar, or others be available for retention at a reasonable rate this offseason. The injuries that have plagued the roster have thus ended up greatly aiding the Lakers this season in pushing them towards a better draft pick and providing the opportunity for many of the aforementioned players to distinguish themselves. Sad as it is to say, aside from Kobe's extension, it is hard to say that this season could have gone better for the Lakers in the long-term. The only remaining domino pieces are whether they can turn whatever pieces they do not plan to keep into assets at the trade deadline and ensure that the tank results in a foundation piece in the draft that will possibly be the flag-bearer for a new era of Lakers basketball.