LOS ANGELES — After dropping last night’s game against the Knicks, the Lakers are in a four-way tie for ninth-place in the West, but only a game out of seventh, two out of six, and two-and-a-half out of fifth. With 16 more games to go, L.A. has bought themselves a real shot at not just playing an 83rd game, but maybe even making a little playoff run. As the team gathers steam heading into some of the most important games of their season, here are a few trends to keep an eye on:
1. Austin Reaves, Present Day Sniper
Despite exhibiting a clean shooting stroke from the free throw line and preternatural touch around the rim in his breakout rookie campaign, his jump-shooting percentages weren’t reflective of the kind of shooter Reaves looked like he could, or even should be — he finished last season with 46/32/84 splits. This season, he’s taken a huge leap in efficiency, climbing to 51/39/87 shooting numbers across the board.
When I asked him what’s made the difference for him, he cited his acclimation to the mental grind of the 82-game season, the strength gains he’s made since the Lakers’ season-ending win over Denver, and all the work he’s done in the gym:
Here’s Austin Reaves answering my question about what’s fueled his jump from below-average 3-point shooter last season to one of the league’s premier snipers (and being just a stone’s throw from the 50/40/90 club): pic.twitter.com/pPyUMWDxia— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) March 8, 2023
2. The Lonnie Walker IV Experience
At the start of the season, Lonnie seemed like a steal. For the taxpayer midlevel exception of $6.5 million, he was the Lakers’ highest-paid player added over the summer, and looked like he was making good on the potential he displayed since being picked in the mid-first round by the San Antonio Spurs. He frequently started games at the 2-guard spot and was the team’s third-leading scorer at a time when they desperately needed it. With Talen gone, but not forgotten, Lonnie looked like he had a chance to become the face of the Lakers’ new youth movement.
As the season went on, though, his minutes faded with his defensive consistency, and he is now on the outside of the rotation looking in. Lonnie hasn’t even seen the floor in either of the last two games, and wasn’t playing meaningful minutes for long after the trade deadline until injuries to both LeBron James and D’Angelo Russell took the bulk of the Lakers’ offensive playmaking out of the lineup. The last time he did play was against Memphis, where he missed all four of his threes, and finished at minus-six despite the Lakers winning by nine. And even that might undersell how disruptive his presence on the floor was.
Just look at this offense-to-defense disaster:
Early in the first quarter, a point in the game where you might still be looking to establish an offensive rhythm for your team, Lonnie steps into a semi-contested three with 19 seconds on the shot clock and AD sprinting to get up the court.
Immediately after bricking the ill-advised, quick-trigger triple, Walker helps off of Santi Aldama — even though Anthony Freaking Davis is there to protect the rim — and yields an open three.
This is a particularly egregious sequence, but into his fifth NBA season now, Lonnie Walker hasn’t been able to turn talent into winning basketball. Tellingly, no Laker with more than 68 possessions played has a worse on/off rating than Lonnie Walker IV’s season-long mark of -11.0 points per 100 possessions.
He has some on-ball juice, but lacks the pop, vision, or touch to be a centerpiece of an efficient offense, even coming off the bench. He also hasn’t shown the general awareness on either end necessary to be a consistent cog in a bigger basketball machine. On a one-year deal, it’s unlikely he’s a Laker again next season, given his lack of relevancy to their current corps, but will need to round out his game to find a new home in another rotation.
3. Minimum Signings Making a Difference
Coming into this season, the Lakers’ need for a 3-and-D wing was glaringly obvious. It was a hole the team has been trying to plug since trading away their championship-winning wings of Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma in successive off-seasons. Of the free agents the Lakers signed this offseason, Troy Brown Jr. was one of the most promising candidates to step into that role, but had yet to do so in four seasons spent between the Wizards and Bulls. Since finishing the calendar year with merely league average 3-point shooting, he’s lifted his season average to almost 38%, especially helped by 46% shooting from downtown since the trade deadline (before Sunday’s 0-8 brick-fest).
Despite TBJ’s hot shooting of late, it’s another minimum signing who’s been the Lakers’ plus-minus hero through six March games. Guaranteed $81.4 million less this season than the total value of the deal that the Lakers perhaps apocryphally offered him two seasons ago, Dennis Schroder has been a member of four of the Lakers’ six best two-man lineups this month in terms of total plus-minus. He’s also fourth on the Lakers’ season-long plus-minus leaderboard, as the team has played 5.6 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. That’s not too shabby for a guy the Laker literally couldn’t have paid less to play for them this season.
Considering Troy and Dennis’s play, it stands to reason why these are the only two minimum salaried players signed this offseason left on the Lakers’ roster. We’ll have to wait and see if they can do enough to win games, withstanding LeBron’s absence, and collectively carrying this squad into the postseason.
Cooper is a lifelong Laker fan who has also covered the Yankees at SB Nation’s Pinstripe Alley — no, he’s not also a Cowboys fan. You can find him on Twitter at @cooperhalpern.