Dressed in matching black polos and grins, Lakers president of basketball of operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka gleamed from their podium after observing their newly constructed team practice firsthand. This was last September.
And even when both local and national writers tossed questions their way regarding some of the questionable offseason moves following their inking of LeBron James to a multi-year deal, the two thwarted what were then initial concerns from the public and responded with not only overwhelming optimism, but confidence, that they had solved the most daunting question in the basketball world of the last few years — how do you beat the Warriors?
They cited toughness on multiple occasions. Leadership a few more times after that. But now, as the Lakers are only a single game away from officially ending their 2018-19 campaign and missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season, that once beaming vision of hope that was painted last fall never transpired, and has crumbled by the wayside.
It would have been easy, and in many ways logical and fitting, to call it quits and jump on the ever-familiar tank once officially eliminated from the postseason, but the Lakers have not done that, or at least not successfully.
The team has won six of their last nine games, and their most recent have come against playoff-bound teams in the Clippers and the Jazz, both of whom had dire seeding implications at hand when the ball was tipped.
Almost more shockingly than the wins themselves though, especially when considering the level of competition and potential lottery impact at play, is who have been responsible for the Lakers’ drastic turnaround.
No, it has not come by proxy of James’ dominance, nor has it come from the handful of veterans the front office brought in to harden and mentor the team’s young core, whom also are not responsible for this success.
Instead, the main proponents of the spirited recent efforts have come in the form of a group of players many casual fans of the sport would have difficulty recognizing walking into Staples Center.
Spearheaded by some of the organization’s G League talent, namely Alex Caruso, Jemerrio Jones and Johnathan Williams alongside rookies Moe Wagner and Isaac Bonga, the Lakers have not only racked up wins, but have also given fans something to cheer about.
The figurative and literal “Outsiders” of the NBA have exhibited the same fight of the fictional crop of Greasers, and have played with a contagious energy that has helped breathe desperate life into a dormant on-court product.
In many ways, Caruso, the team’s starting point guard by almost mere necessity during this stretch, is the perfect embodiment of the group.
Physically, the un-drafted 25-year-old does not reflect what many individuals would envision when they conjure up an NBA athlete in their heads,
“Stereotypically, I don’t fit the mold for what I’m doing,” Caruso said over the weekend. “So for me I’m just kind of going out there and hooping, and whatever is happening on social media and all that, that’s just kind of the world we live in.”
But what Caruso lacks in appearance and brand name, he makes up for with bloodied grit and toughness, two attributes Johnson and Pelinka echoed several times in that now infamous press-conference but had failed to actually show up until now.
When he is not draining his threes at a 50-plus percent clip, or dunking on the Warriors and his teammates, Caruso sparks and leads this eclectic bunch to some joyous and effective basketball through the combination of fundamentals and simply playing hard.
Although appearing in only 24 games this season, Caruso is already just three charges drawn away from tying for top on the team, and is also third in deflections per contest, subtle aspects of the game that have waxed and waned this season for Los Angeles.
Collectively, the group have wonderfully played off of one and other, and for one and other. When the trio of Caruso, Jones and Williams have been on the floor together, the Lakers have a +11 net rating and are allowing only a stifling 84.1 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Not bad for three players who not too long ago were scrapping for minutes in the G League.
Within this aforementioned group, playing hard is not forced, but is rather second nature. Composed of three un-drafted players, and two rookies who have seen little playing time all season, this last week has been their postseason — and in many ways, their sole chance to solidify their future in the NBA.
If nothing else, these wins have proven that injuries, while a major factor in the Lakers’ failings, they can’t be the only excuse, something to remember as exit interviews and a summer where there will be drastic changes due to how this season played out is just around the corner.
Talent may be the most weighed aspect of success in this league, but at the end of the day there is ultimately no substitution for playing hard regardless of who is available to suit up. This group does so happily, and thanks their staff for the opportunity after they leave it all out on the floor.
With that said, there is definitely a sense of frustration among some segments of the fanbase as it relates to the team’s draft positioning due to this recent winning stretch (Los Angeles is currently 11th in the draft standings, half a game behind Minnesota for the tenth best odds at the number-one-overall pick).
While there is definitely merit in hoping for the Lakers to fully go down the toilet because of the benefits it could bring to their lottery chances, and by extension, their asset accumulation, it’s difficult to ignore the potentially valuable lessons this front office and the players involved with this season from the success these G Leaguers have managed.
When trying to add toughness, and grit to a team, relying on past reputation and name value is fool’s good, especially when expecting it from players on one-year deals and after countless years of roster turnover.
Building a team isn’t easy. There are no shortcuts. Even after signing James, which is undeniably a significant feat, there has to be a dedicated process to bringing in players who add tactile attributes like shooting and effort. Basically, as exemplified this season, there is no faking results and hustle.
And even with the Lakers’ recent wins, there still lies a chance for the team to snag a consolation top-ten pick to cleanse the palate of a disappointing season. But, even if they are unable to do so and stay pat, the difference between the tenth pick of the draft and the 11th, coupled with the experience given to these individuals, is a trade-off that still seems pretty positively in the Lakers’ favor — especially if they keep some of this found talent around.
This season obviously did not go the way many would have hoped for, but it is incredibly impressive for this group of Outsiders to rally together, and play their hearts out without any other motive than to simply win a basketball game, and to have some fun in the process.
There is a lesson in that, and hopefully it’s one the team can learn moving into a crucial summer.