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Tank Watch: Are the Lakers a better team than when they left on their road trip?

The answer (probably) won’t surprise you, but you can read how here.

NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Los Angeles Lakers’ 2-1 stretch over their last three games has effectively ripped the treads of their tank, so there really aren’t traditional tanking categories to discuss this week.

What the team has given us instead is winning basketball (despite hiccups against the Detroit Pistons and in the fourth quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks). How has the team done it? A starting lineup change has injected purple and gold nitrous into the Lakers’ play and left the team feeling like a whole new outfit.

“All in all, I think we’re going home a better team than we were when we left,” Larry Nance, Jr. told Bill Oram of the Orange County Register after the Lakers held on to beat the Bucks.

Is he right? Since the Lakers left Los Angeles on Feb. 1, the team has posted a net rating of -1.3, meaning they’ve only been outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions over those five games.

That’s not great (17th in the league in that stretch), but it’s downright juggernaut-ish (is that a word?) compared to the would-be-29th ranked -6.8 they had averaged until the road trip.

Things have been even better since head coach Luke Walton flipped the Lakers’ starters three games ago, inserting Tarik Black and Brandon Ingram over Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng, respectively. Since the move the Lakers have outscored teams by 1.7 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 13th in the league during that time frame.

For most teams, benching their two highest-paid players wouldn’t be a good thing (and it still arguably isn’t for those that are solely focused on the Lakers keeping their draft pick), but it’s certainly looked good for the Lakers.

The team got blown out of the building against Detroit and Andre Drummond, but in the lineup’s debut they manhandled the New York Knicks while doing unspeakable things to the Bucks for three quarters before narrowly avoiding collapse in the final period.

The new starting unit of Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell, Nick Young, Black and Ingram has especially acquitted themselves well. They’re net rating of 17.8 is the second-best of the Lakers’ 14 lineups to play more than 40 minutes this year, and they’ve been so efficient by sharing the ball.

The new starters have assisted on 61.9 percent of each other’s baskets while on the floor while also posting the third-best assist to turnover ratio among high-usage lineups.

And make no mistake, that group is already a high usage lineup, having already played the 12th-most minutes of any Lakers five-man unit so, even though those minutes haven’t exactly come against world beaters, we aren’t dealing with small sample size either.

As one would expect, a frontcourt featuring Randle and Black has also killed it on the offensive boards, rebounding 31 percent of their own misses (third-best rate on the Lakers among high usage lineups).

(An aside on Black, who I already wrote on extensively this week, and Ingram. Part of Black’s effectiveness is due to just how bad Mozgov has been for most of the year in his stead, but he just makes the Lakers better. Same for Ingram, who despite his inefficiency has helped the team when he’s on the floor):

Anyway, the Lakers new starters have also shot the ball incredibly well, posting a true-shooting percentage (which factors in the added value of free-throws and threes) of 67.6 percent, the second-best mark among lineups to play more than 40 minutes.

TL;DR- Yes, Nance is right and the Lakers do appear to be returning a far better team than when they left. It’s not great for the team’s lottery odds, but the Lakers have actually gotten better by using the acceptable tanking strategy of playing their younger players and benching their veterans.

If those young guys are winning games, the Lakers just have to let the chips fall where they may.

Top-Five Today (courtesy of Tankathon):

Weekly Lottery Sim:

The Lakers still kept their pick despite their recent surge while Boston fell as far as possible? Los Angeles might actually riot like they won the title if this played out on lottery night.

All stats per and Harrison Faigen is co-host of the Locked on Lakers podcast (subscribe here), and you can follow him on Twitter at @hmfaigen.

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