The Los Angeles Lakers have already had success at a more consistent level than almost anyone expected this season. The young team has not only been fun, but they have won games, too. The baby Lakers have done so by fielding the 18th most efficient offense in the NBA (a drop from sitting much higher before their recent struggles).
The Lakers (10-12) currently sit in ninth place in the Western Conference after going 3-7 in their last ten games, sitting 1.5 games of back of the Portland Trail Blazers (11-10) for the eighth seed. It’s unknown if the Lakers can bounce back to grab that final spot, especially with D’Angelo Russell (knee) still out and his health situation unknown.
According to Russell himself, however, making a run for the playoffs is just part of his grander plan for Los Angeles. In a larger feature story on his relationship with his father appearing in ESPN the Magazine, Russell made it clear to Baxter Holmes of ESPN that he has high aims for the Lakers (emphasis mine):
“I don’t want that ever again,” Russell says. “I don’t want to come in with a losing record. I don’t want to to go to a losing team and you’ve got guys going every which way after practice — the chemistry just wasn’t there. I feel like with this team and with this organization, people want to be a part of it. People want to be Lakers. There’s just so much pressure, and some guys handle it and some guys can’t. I’ve always been a guy that, I don’t know, just attacks pressure. I want to be a part of this whole thing turning back around. I’ve seen what it was to be at its lowest point. I want to be a part of a playoff run this year ... next year, Finals.”
Those are certainly bold words (pun not intended) from Russell. Can the Lakers actually do it? Well, there is not a very recent precedent for a 17-win team heading to the playoffs the following year and then the NBA Finals the next, other than one notable outlier that springs to mind.
The 2013-14 Cleveland Cavaliers won 33 games and missed the playoffs, but followed it up with a Finals run the next two years, winning in 2016 when the 73-win Golden State Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
The Cavaliers were a young team in 2013-14, but of course made a few fairly notable additions in LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Timofey Mozgov the following season to power themselves to the Finals. The Lakers have one gem of that proverbial Infinity Gauntlet, but assembling the other two would seem to be fairly difficult.
The only way the Lakers appear have much of a shot to live up to Russell’s bold proclamation would be to hope their fun run this year is enough to entice a notable name to join them in free agency a la LeBron seeing Kyrie Irving’s success and deciding to come home.
Beyond the unlikeliness of that happening, the most important takeaway here is probably Russell’s supreme confidence. Think about the sheer guts it takes to see the worst record in franchise history and declare that it motivates you to go to the Finals in two years.
The best part of this was that it appears like that was Russell trying to be conservative. Like he thought to himself “oh, if I say Finals this year people are going to laugh at me. I better predict next year.”
Russell’s confidence aside, it seems safe to predict the Lakers won’t be hanging another banner at the end of 2018. Still, the player arguably at the centerpiece of the team’s rebuild showing his belief in himself and his teammates is unswayed despite their struggles a year ago is encouraging.