The Los Angeles Lakers have become known for blowing second half leads this season, and if that trend extrapolates outside of individual games and applies to the whole season, the Lakers are in trouble because we’re officially halfway to the end.
It helps that their record isn’t much of a lead on most teams. The Lakers are 15-26 with their first 41 games in the books. That’s the 12th-best record in the Western Conference, and whether or not the Lakers will make a significant push toward the playoffs remains the biggest mystery surrounding the second half of their season.
Though this may sound blasphemous to some Lakers fans, there are still other things that matter outside of postseason contention. Here are two more key things we’ll be watching for in the season’s second half:
Will Brandon Ingram and D’Angelo Russell continue to roll?
Julius Randle (other than the stretch Russell missed with injuries) has mostly shown what he is this season: a phenomenal secondary playmaker and rebounder who can credibly defend when he’s suitably engaged (lately, that’s been the majority of the time).
The Lakers other two lottery picks have been bigger wild cards. Russell hasn’t blown up to the level some expected entering the season, partially due to being less ball-dominant than predicted but also due to injuries and the trials of being a young point guard. Ingram has shot woefully for most of the season (a rotation-player-worst true shooting percentage of 45.7 percent).
Over the Lakers’ last five games, however, both seem to be hitting their stride. Ingram has a team-high true shooting percentage of 64.4 percent over that stretch, while Russell is not far behind with 60.5 percent.
D’Angelo has also been turning the ball over just 5.9 percent of the time over the last five games as compared to 12.2 percent on the season, and has used his newfound efficiency to fuel averages of 20.5 points per (team-high), 5.2 rebounds, and five assists.
Ingram’s other box score numbers are about the same, but he is scoring 11.4 points per game while tying his career-high of 17 in the Lakers’ last two outings.
While we can’t extrapolate a five-game sample size to the rest of the season, it does appear the two have found sustainable strategies for success. Lakers head coach Luke Walton and Russell himself credited his increased production to a simultaneous uptick in his professionalism, and Russell has seemed to find his comfort zone from a basketball perspective as well.
The 20-year old guard is finishing around the basket more efficiently (72.2 percent versus 53.9 percent on the season) and it’s allowed him to find rhythm from distance as well (shooting nearly three percent better on threes). He may not continue to be quite as en fuego right at the cup, but the way Russell is scoring is much more sustainable.
As for Ingram, he’s taking half-a-shot less per game on average over his last five games, but how much better of a rate he’s converting at can only truly be illustrated by his shot charts.
Ingram’s last five games
That’s a lot more green. Ingram is taking slightly more (of this small sample size) of his shots at the rim, and he’s spoken about making a concerted effort to use his length to score at the basket more.
If both player’s increased production is a random statistical blip or evidence of a change in mindset is unknowable now, but certainly worth keeping an eye on over the final 41 games.
Will the Lakers trade or shut down any of their veterans?
The above, while not quite a million-dollar question, is at the very least a “one million Lakers trade rumorzzzz” posts question. The Lakers front office has indicated over and over again that they like the young core they’ve assembled and aren’t in a rush to trade them, so barring a home run offer, guys like Russell, Randle, Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance, Jr. would seem to be safe.
Less known are the fates of Lakers veteran guards Nick Young and Lou Williams, the team’s two most tradeable assets outside of the young guys. Both have given the Lakers more production than most expected this season, but it’s still hard to see the team getting much for either of them even if they did want to move on (and it sounds like they may not want to).
Why would the Lakers want to stand pat? Well, Lou Williams has been a controlled inferno off of the bench for Los Angeles this year. Only two Lakers have positive net ratings (meaning how many points the team outscores or is outscored by their opponents per 100 possessions while they’re on the floor) and Williams has been one of them at 1.2, which ranks second on the team only to Tarik Black (2.9).
He’s done so while remaining efficient despite using the highest percentage of possessions while on the floor of any Laker (29.9 percent). Williams ranks third on the Lakers in true shooting percentage (58.7 percent, the highest mark of his career), and the team scores more points per 100 possessions while he is on the floor (109.3) than any Laker other than Ivica “Small Sample Size God” Zubac (110).
Williams’ dirt-cheap salary of $7 million for this year and next gives him value, especially under a rising cap, but it’s hard to find a team motivated enough to be better right now that also needs 30-year old bench scorer, which means it’s more likely than not he spends at least the rest of the season in Los Angeles.
It’s no easier to find a potential suitor for Young, despite him having the best season of his career. Young has a player-option for $5.6 million next season that his play all but ensures he’ll decline, meaning teams would have to give up assets for what would essentially be a half-season rental.
Those interested teams could be getting a hell of a rental, though. The borderline miracle of Young even being on the Lakers has been well-covered, and his level of play has been just short of being evidence of divine intervention.
Young is somehow LEADING the Lakers with a true-shooting percentage of 61.9 percent, easily the highest mark of his career. He’s done so by knocking down an absolutely scorching 41.9 percent of his three-pointers, which is not just a career-high but ranks third in the entire NBA among players to attempt more than 170 total threes.
Still, some teams may be wary of how happy Young would be outside of Los Angeles and the Lakers’ ecosystem, and just like with Williams, it’s hard to find a team motivated enough to be better right this second that they would offer up assets to rent Young’s particular set of skills (as valuable as they might be) for half of a season.
Whether the Lakers deal Young or Williams is also tied to another question: if the team falls from playoff contention, will they “tank?”
U sound stupid. That's the mindset of a 30 yr old living with mom still lol https://t.co/LFUUyMYcZf— Lou Williams (@TeamLou23) January 10, 2017
I’m only 25, okay Lou?
In all seriousness, “tank” is a loaded word that in this case is just shorthand for “play the younger players more.” Trading Young and/or Williams would factor into that, freeing up larger roles for Clarkson, Russell, Ingram and even Randle.
But how much bigger of roles do those guys need? Those four players are all in the top-five on the team in minutes per game. Russell, Clarkson, and Randle also rank second, third and fourth, respectively, on the team in usage rate. The younger Lakers could all probably do with slightly larger roles down the home stretch. The team just doesn’t necessarily need to move Young or Williams to make that happen.
If the Lakers fall out of contention for the eighth seed and do decide to reorganize their rotation, it’s worth seeing how they handle not just Young and Williams, but Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov.
Neither of the Lakers’ big offseason additions have blown expectations out of the water, alternating solid play with disappointing stretches, and the Lakers could decide to reduce their minutes if they fall from sniffing distance from the eighth seed. Deng either coming off of the bench or seeing his role reduced would allow more chances for Ingram to come in and take his lumps as he continues to learn how to succeed in the NBA, as well as keeping his mileage down in year one of his four-year deal.
Mozgov only ranks ninth on the Lakers in minutes per game, but scaling his usage back would have a similar benefit, as well as the added bonus of freeing up a bit of game time for Zubac to get some real NBA minutes after doing the majority of his work in the D-League this season. Zubac might not end up being able to contribute positively right away, but the playing time could help the Lakers as they continue to figure out what they have with their promising seven-foot tall rookie.
Whether the Lakers’ season comes to that or if the awful bottom of the West allows them to stay in playoff contention is a mystery. The team has a lot of options for how they want to proceed, all that’s left now is to watch the second half and hope the team doesn’t blow it. With a promising young core leading the way that seems unlikely, and the last 41 games look to be a positive whether the Lakers grab the final postseason spot or not.