Glimmering with new aspirations of winning a championship and an eclectic roster of wily veterans and young talent bursting with potential, this season’s Lakers were constructed to be something LeBron James — and the rest of the league — had yet to experience.
Unfortunately, the squad has simply been unable to maintain any traction or truly gauge whether this combination of polarizing players could actually mesh because of the nihilistically cruel timing of each of their injuries.
James, who continues to miss games due to a groin strain he sustained on Christmas Day, has been relegated to only being able to sit and watch as his teammates have lost eight of their last 13 games they’ve played without him.
During this span, the team has also been without their vocal back-up point guard, Rajon Rondo, and recently got more bad news as Lonzo Ball will reportedly miss “4-6 weeks” due to a diagnosed “Grade 3 ankle sprain” he suffered during the team’s recent overtime loss to Houston.
While the unlucky timing of these incidents have led to persistent feelings of pessimism about how this season will play out, there have been underlying silver linings that suggest there should still be optimism about this season, and going forward for Los Angeles.
The Defense is the Real Deal
Heading into the season, many experts believed the Lakers’ offense, not defense, would be their eventual calling card. Yet after 47 games, it continues to be made clear that the team’s scrappy defense is not only legitimate, but one of the league’s best.
As of this article, the Lakers are allowing only 106.8 points per 100 possessions to their opposition, which accounts for the sixth-best defensive rating in the league.
One huge reason for their success thus far on the defensive end has been their particularly elite ability to stymy their opposition in the half court. According to Cleaning the Glass, Los Angeles is allowing the second-fewest points (89.6) per 100 half-court plays of any team in the NBA, a mere fraction off the current league leader, Indiana (89.4).
Their jarring success is even more impressive given the aforementioned injuries, and the simple fact that there is no bonafide upper-echelon defensive talent on the roster, even if Ball looks to be well on his path to potentially reaching such a status.
What the team does have however, is a knack for simply giving a damn. There definitely have been occasional lapses, and slow first quarters, but the collective effort, foot speed on the perimeter and length near the rim has proven to be absolutely swarming.
During this stretch without James and Rondo, the defense has encouragingly continued to flash impressive sequences and produce even better numbers.
Since Christmas Day, the Lakers have allowed the fewest points in the half court (per 100 plays), and possess the third-best defensive rating in the league, allowing just 105.1 points per 100 possessions.
Offensively, the team has continued to struggle to score points with any consistency. With the lack of skilled perimeter spacing threats, and a frighteningly poor efficiency at the charity stripe, the Lakers will likely still bank on James to shoulder the load once he returns.
If the defense can continue its stellar play, that could prove to be a recipe of success.
Ivica Zubac is starting to figure things out
One of the biggest bright spots in what has been an otherwise rough stretch of games continues to be the play of the Lakers’ 21-year-old back-up center, Ivica Zubac.
Drafted by the team back in 2016, Zubac has had an up and down career with the purple and gold, struggling to both find minutes and produce. Yet, when given the opportunity this season due to injuries, he has showed to be shockingly effective and better than he’s ever been.
In 15 minutes per game over the Lakers’ last ten contests, the Croatian big is averaging 10.7 points and 5.6 rebounds on nearly 65.6 percent shooting.
In the team’s victory over the Thunder, which was also arguably their best win of the season, Zubac was dominant as he scored a career-high 26 points (12-14 from the field) snatched 12 rebounds and was game-high +33 in a contest that featured the likes of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.
Put another way, Zubac — who was nearly a roster casualty last summer — showcased fantastic big man skills all night against the second-best defense in the league.
Flashing soft hands that are almost always in the “ready” position, keeping the ball high over smaller defenders and an overall improvement in finishing (career high 71 percent shooting within four feet this season) Zubac’s coming out party has opened a ton of eyes.
Plus, having already proven to have impressive chemistry with James prior to his injury, Zubac’s stunning improvement may have not only earned him more minutes, but possibly a new contract with the Lakers going forward.
They have been competitive against playoff-caliber teams
Although it’s obviously not ideal to have losses to New York and Cleveland on their ledger, the young members of the Lakers simply continue to get up for their contests against the elite teams — regardless of who is in the lineup.
The team has notched an impressive blowout win against Golden State on Christmas, their aforementioned road win against Oklahoma City and most recently, nearly pulled off an overtime nail-biter in Houston and were well ahead in the scoreboard prior to Ball’s deflating injury.
Even if they’re ultimately just regular season games, the young players’ impressive play and the resiliency they showed in these contests could bode well for the squad down the road come playoff time when they likely will have to face off against these very same teams.
The Lakers’ struggles during this stretch without LeBron has not been entirely surprising given who has been sidelined. The losses hurt doubly within an extremely tight Western Conference playoff race, as do the actual pile of injuries, yet despite this, the team continues to give a ton of effort — which is a good sign.
It’s hard not to feel as if the Lakers have had a looming cloud that has surrounded them whenever a glimmer of optimism begins to sprout out this season, but hidden amongst the difficult moments thus far have been small, but notable, moments and performances that could eventually carry over and pay off when fortunes begin to bounce their way again.
For the Lakers’ sake, hopefully that time comes sooner than later.
All stats and video per NBA.com unless otherwise noted. You can follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexmRegla