The Los Angeles Lakers strung together five wins in their last six games, much to the dismay of the pro-tank Lakers crowd. The team struggled for most of the season and the young core that holds so much promise seemed to hit a wall. After a surprising 10-10 start, it seems all the Lakers have done is disappoint. However, even in a lost season, there’s always a silver lining.
The Lakers got off to a hot start behind one of the league’s best benches. Head coach Luke Walton effectively used different lineups and it seemed like everything had clicked for the Lakers. The team jumped on opponents, providing some optimism for the fan base.
Then, injuries hit and no one knew what to do. Walton had to scrap his rotations and the starters had to take on a bigger role. The Lakers went on an eight-game losing streak after their hot start. With Larry Nance Jr., D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young all missing time, the team struggled to adapt to new roles. Opponents didn’t overlook the Lakers anymore. How would the young team respond to adversity after halting the losing streak with a win in Philly? By blowing double-digit halftime leads in consecutive games. The veteran free agents expected to help the young core struggled themselves.
Lakers management was undergoing a change of its own. After it became evident the team wasn’t going to get back into the race for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, Jeanie Buss pulled the plug on her brother Jim and GM Mitch Kupchak. Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka assumed front office roles and immediately went to work, trading Lou Williams for a first-round pick and pushing Walton to play the young guys. The Lakers finished last in the Western Conference and now hold the third-worst record in the NBA. Their protected first-round pick is slightly less than a coin flip at this point.
So where exactly is the silver lining?
Let’s start with wins. The Lakers improved by nine wins, which is impressive considering their blatant attempt to tank at the end of the season. A nine-game jump might not seem like a lot, but let’s take a look at previous rebuilding teams the Lakers are attempting to emulate.
Every team experienced a jump of 7-13 wins over a single season. The Lakers experienced a jump in wins under a first-year head coach trying to instill a new culture in the organization. With fewer injuries, another year of growth for Walton and the young players and a stable front office, the Lakers could make another leap. The core players themselves improved under the new coaching staff.
Russell added 1.5 more assists while only seeing a .3 increase in turnovers. His shooting percentages didn’t change, but his points per game jumped by 2.4. The most important change was on the offensive end, where Russell saw his offensive rating jump from 96 to 101. His defensive rating was still terrible, but it didn’t get worse than his rookie season. Russell faced a lot of criticism during the season and has so for most of his career. He isn’t Karl-Anthony Towns or Kristaps Porzingis yet, but those are exceptions to the rule. Russell has all the tools to be a star, but he might need a little more time to get there.
Julius Randle improved his overall field goal percentage to a respectable 48 percent while improving his offensive rating from 97 to 107. Randle doubled his assist total, often playing a point forward role in transition. If Randle can continue to turn defensive rebounds into transition opportunities, his lack of a perimeter shot and short wingspan will be less detrimental.
Prized rookie Brandon Ingram looked lost early in the season, averaging 7.8 points on 34 percent shooting in the month of November. Ingram’s shooting, which was supposed to be his strength, was looking like his biggest weakness. Pre All-Star break, Ingram averaged a paltry 8.0 points on 36 percent shooting.
After the break, it was like a flip switched. Ingram didn’t set the world on fire, but his improvement was evident. The forward averaged 13.2 points on 47.5 percent shooting post All-Star break and looked more like the second-overall pick in the draft.
As a team, the Lakers jumped to 17th in the league in points per game after finishing dead last in the league a season ago. Los Angeles scored seven more points per game and improved its field goal percentage from 41 to 45 percent. The Lakers shot the ball slightly better from three-point range as well.
The Lakers still have a long way to go to return to the postseason. The team played horrendous defense once again and struggled to maintain its intensity throughout games. The front office hasn’t been able to find quality free agents to surround the young guys with. A lot of problems still exist in Lakerland but this season provided a silver lining, even if it didn’t seem like there was one.