The Los Angeles Lakers are off to a 6-5 start to the year, well ahead of pace to beat the 24.5 win total projected by Las Vegas books heading into a fresh season. That doesn’t happen without something astonishing happening, so we figured we’d gather some of our thoughts on what the source of the immediate improvement the Lakers have shown.
The Lakers didn’t win their sixth game until Dec. 30 last season, so being over a month in front that is a stunning turnaround. That kind of improvement doesn’t happen without a few surprising developments, so we’ll also kick around what’s been the most stunning positive development.
1. Why are the Lakers playing so much better than anyone expected?
Daman Rangoola: It goes beyond just Luke Walton. I fully credit the growth of the young players. Sure, the coaching change has empowered players like D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle to "be themselves" and the style of play is better suited to the personnel, but we can often forget that it is up to the players themselves to come into the season better. The work ethic, the passion, the IQ — all of the young core came back stronger. If the improvements these players made was marginal, I think the Lakers are looking better, but not THIS much better. It remains to be seen how long the wins themselves can last, but the spirit and the fight of this team will hopefully continue.
Jameson Miller: I don’t care how obvious an answer it is, I’m sticking with Luke Walton. Of course there’s more to it than that, and incremental improvements across the roster have played their part, but the way Luke has this team competing and believing in itself every night is nothing short of stunning. After falling behind by 19 points against Sacramento on Friday, they outscored the Kings by 29 points from there on out to ultimately win by 10. I could just never, ever imagine a Byron Scott coached team doing something like that. Walton is still ironing out kinks in his coaching style, rotations, etc. but, to echo one of the favorite cliches held dear by former players turned talking heads, one of the first things you look at when evaluating a coach’s performance is buy-in from his players. Walton has that.
Tom Fehr: Luke Walton and Byron Scott. Going from Byron to Luke has clearly energized this team in ways I'm not sure even the most optimistic of Lakers fans thought possible. Luke has them fighting in every game, and the players are clearly significantly more comfortable under his leadership than his predecessor.
The CDP: The most direct answer is Luke Walton, but in reality there are a ton of contributing factors. Yes, Luke has brought in a culture change and cohesive offensive system that is already paying dividends. He's a breath of fresh air. At the same time, the Lakers have a much more balanced roster, including a real rim protector in Mozgov and savvy vet Luol Deng. The young guns are also making Mitch look smart, with each of them buying into Luke's philosophy wholesale and bringing new dimensions to their games that were added over the summer. So much is going right with this team right now.
Chinmay Vaidya: It's a combination of the previous young talent (Russell, Randle, Clarkson) finally fitting into the right roles and Brandon Ingram having a positive impact immediately on both ends of the floor. Nick Young is no longer dead weight and Lou Williams is having major success as a closer. Timofey Mozgov is healthy and gives the Lakers a big lift defensively and makes enough plays on offense. Head coach Luke Walton has connected with the players and gotten his message across well. Everything comes together and you get a team that is exceeding initial expectations.
2. What has been the biggest surprise to you so far this season?
DR: Julius Randle. Nick Young is a clear contender here, but I have to confess in my overly negative assessment of Julius Randle as a prospect almost from Day 1. He has changed all that. The amount of work he put into this summer to getting stronger has paid off. His ability to isolate, drive, make the right passes have all been impressive but not even close to my favorite trait of his — I love Randle's demeanor SO much. The Draymond Green comparisons are silly only because Randle has so far to go to be a true defensive impact player like Draymond, but the emotional energy he brings to this team is Draymond-esque. No good team is incomplete without that sparkplug X factor type, and Randle has shown that he can be that guy. I LOVE MY TEAM!
JM: Though I remain an eternal optimist, I’ve been a bit disappointed in D’Angelo Russell’s play thus far. There have certainly been positives, and I think Russell has done a nice job of running the offense and setting his teammates up for opportunities that don’t necessarily show up in the stat sheet (hockey assists, passes that lead to free throws, etc.), but the first handful of games have been a far cry from the breakout season many expected from the former Ohio State standout. Russell’s turnovers are up and his field goal percentage is still not quite where you’d like it to be. Again, yes, a trained eye can see plenty of the positive things D’Angelo brings to the game, and yes, it’s very early, and yes, I do expect him to pick things up as the season progresses (as he already has in the last couple of games), but a 40.5 percent mark from the field and an assist to turnover ratio hovering a bit too close to 1:1 are fair grounds for some early season concern, even if it’s only temporary.
TF: I'll go one good and one bad: Nick Young and Luol Deng. I'm not completely sold this is who Nick Young will be for the rest of the year, but it's certainly a pleasant surprise to see him comfortable in the offense and actually exerting effort on defense. Luke Walton has Young playing harder than I can ever recall watching him play. On the other end of the spectrum, the Lakers are playing so well that it's drawn away from the fact that Luol Deng has been atrocious so far.
I thought going into the year Deng had a pretty good chance to be the Lakers' best player, mostly due to his pedigree and how the rest of the talent on the roster was still figuring it out. Right now, Deng doesn't look like an impact player on either end, and I don't think it's a stretch at all to say the rookie Brandon Ingram has been outplaying him from the bench. Going into the year I thought the Deng contract was fine but could end up biting the Lakers by the end of it, and the Mozgov contract was terrible. Right now, it looks like those roles have switched.
CDP: I'm going with Randle here. He's been amazing, our best player thus far, and has matured so much since last season. Yes. he's amassing great stats and has been flashing an improved outside shot that will unlock so much of his game, but I've been most impressed by his decision-making. Julius has not been forcing it with his bull in the china shop approach into a mass of opposing defenders (well, not nearly as much at least). Instead, he's letting the game come to him, racking up assists and making the right basketball play. Against the Suns, when he had a chance to go one on one against Tyson Chandler after a double tech, he chose to make a sweet pass to Clarkson for a game-sealing three pointer. I never would have thought we'd see that from him after last season. He's continuing to swallow up rebounds and has become a much improved shotblocker. Suddenly, the Draymond Green comparisons don't seem as crazy as they once did.
CV: Nick Young's transformation. He was a dead man walking going into the summer and at one point it even felt the Lakers might part with a second-rounder to unload him. Instead, Walton has turned Young into a reliable wing player who is consistently scoring. I don't know how it's happened or what Walton said, but it's working and it's awesome.