The NBA, in its current state, is pretty intimidating. Lakers fans — myself included — found themselves managing expectations of this roster largely due to the talent level seen across the league, let alone the Western Conference. Night after night, though, these Lakers refuse to back down, and one can’t help but wonder how much that has to do with the attitude of their best player to this point: Julius Randle.
You hear it all the time, really. Any team takes after its best player, develops the character of its coach or whatever it might be. Heading into this season, you’d think this young Lakers squad would take after their brand new head coach’s laid-back demeanor. This isn’t to say they haven’t (they most definitely have), but it feels like more than that.
If it wasn’t Luke Walton they’d take after, you’d imagine D’Angelo Russell’s carefree playing style would set a tone across the organization. Again, I’m not here to say that hasn’t happened to a certain extent, but just as surface of a lake remains calm as a duck swims, more is going on beneath the surface.
A laid-back or carefree nature is afforded to the NBA’s most talented teams. In such situations, teams win on the combination talent and hard work it took to get them to that point fans don’t often see. Organizations in the first year of a clean-slate rebuild? Nope. The aforementioned characteristics rarely lead to the kind of success that would have fans as happy as they are with this Lakers group.
In steps Randle.
Guards can dance around the perimeter and pick their spots for when they might attack the interior. I don’t mean to sound like some kind of curmudgeon remembering the days of yore, before the three-point line, but playing inside requires a forceful attitude. Yes, Russell Westbrook basically screams “eff everyone” on his way to the basket on those drives that defy the laws of physics, but he doesn’t regularly have to move mountains like his teammate Steven Adams might have to.
When a frontcourt player enters the league, he must immediately figure out ways to move seven-foot tall, 280-pound-plus grown men into spots more conducive to their team’s success. Doing so consistently requires an almost psychopathic attitude that enables them to look their opponent in the face and dominate them physically, consistently.
Julius Randle has this, and he has it in droves. And as he continues to show it, his teammates continue to thrive off that “f*** you; I own this” attitude.
The Lakers are coming off the three worst seasons in franchise history in arguably the most talented era of basketball the NBA has ever seen. It would be all too easy for the entire organization to look around the league and pace themselves for playoff competition in a few years. And who knows, after this next stretch of a brutal dozen games, they might find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs. Yet just as so many of their games have gone after they’ve stared at double-digit deficits, one can’t help but feel like they’d be ready to fight themselves back into contention.
But listen to Walton talk about his best player after arguably his best game of the season, and tell me he sound content with just competing in a tough league.
“He’s continuing to get better and realize what he’s capable of doing. And, as good as he played tonight, there’s probably nine or 10, 11, 12 times tonight where he didn’t get himself involved in the play. Whether it wasn’t getting all the way back on defense, not plugging the paint on help-side drives. So, I mean, his ability to create for others and to get to the rim, and now he’s hitting that mid-range jumper a little more consistently, he’s figuring out and starting to really believe in what he can really do in this league. But still we need more an every type of possession mentality.”
Luke went on to explain how that mentality he desires wasn’t specific to Randle, but on the night of a win and triple-double, it would’ve been easy to just heap praise on a player who continued his stellar play. No, Walton understands more was needed, and has no problem asking for it, because he knows more can be given.
One night, against the Phoenix Suns, Julius Randle stared down Tyson Chandler, laughed about it, and made the correct play (a swing pass to Jordan Clarkson for a dagger three). A few nights later, he looked DeMarcus Cousins in the face and laughed when, yet again, he was challenged. That night, the Lakers had already won and his teammates were there to dissuade the emotional Cousins from doing anything he might regret.
This entire organization is fighting an uphill battle back to the type of contention its fan base has come to expect, but with Randle leading the way, it’ll smile and meet each challenge it’ll take to get there.