The Lakers Have Made Strides in the New Year
Lakers fans have been waiting for years for this: the young Lakers are starting to show consistency. After starting 11-27, the Lakers have turned a corner and have been playing their best basketball of the season. In all honesty, this is the best basketball they’ve played over the past multiple seasons. In the last 17 games, the Lakers have gone 12-5, one of the top 3 records in the NBA over that stretch. Their glowing record is not only a marked improvement over what they logged at the beginning of the season, but it also highlights the growth the Lakers have shown over the season in building consistent play, both as a team and individually.
This is how they’ve been able to do it:
They’ve been buying into the team’s identity. All season long, Coach Walton has been preaching two things: play defense, then get out and run. Since the start of the Lakers’ winning stretch, the team has ranked 7th in defensive rating. The six teams who rank above them are all currently in the playoff standings. With an attention to defense, the Lakers are able to more fully execute the full-court, semi-transition game that has been the hallmark of their wins throughout the season. Whenever the Lakers get stops, they promptly start the break going the other way. Sometimes Ingram brings the ball up, sometimes Caldwell-Pope, sometimes Randle. Regardless of who brings it up, the entire team recognizes that their best chance to outscore their opponents comes from getting the ball up the court before the defense can properly set up. On the season, the Lakers score the second most fastbreak points with 17.1 per game, behind only the Warriors who score 20.9 per game. However, over the last 17 games, the Lakers have become the number one fastbreak team, eclipsing Golden State, and have bumped their average up to 20.0 per game. With the fifth youngest roster in the NBA, the Lakers are utilizing their young legs effectively by running, running, running. What’s most unique about the Lakers’ use of the full-court is that they run a semi-transition game even when they get scored on. After the ball goes through the hoop and has to be inbounded, the Lakers still get out and run. The point guard calls for the ball immediately, and starts sprinting down the court to execute the Lakers’ most effective type of offense. The “point-guard” bringing the ball up is one of the biggest reasons behind the Lakers surge.
Brandon Ingram has started to emerge. Ingram has shown his scoring ability throughout the season, but he’s been tasked with more responsibility since Lonzo’s injury. In the last five games, he’s become the Lakers point-guard, or more specifically their point-forward. The Lakers last season tried to have Ingram initiate the offense, with mediocre results. But this season, with an increased ability to score the ball, Ingram has been able to pull in defenders and find open teammates. One of the biggest questions heading into this season was not only whether Ingram could score, but also if he could pass and create for others. Since becoming the Lakers point-forward, Ingram has averaged 19.8 points and 5.8 assists on 56% shooting. He has not only answered that he can score, but he’s also shown that he can be a playmaker. His offensive game has become more complete as his responsibility has increased. And with an increase in duty, Ingram’s confidence has also gone up. He’s attacking the defense and taking control of the offense in a way that we didn’t see last year. Ingram has elevated himself to become the Lakers’ best player. And he is clearly playing like it.
On the year, the Lakers are 23-32. Before the season started, reasonable expectations for the Lakers would have predicted they would win between 30 and 35 games. However, there is a chance that the Lakers could end up going .500. The Lakers have played their toughest opponents already, and only face Golden State, Cleveland, and Houston one more time each. Their schedule has lightened up, and with the way they’ve been playing recently, it’s not implausible that they go 18-9 over their last 27 games and finish 41-41. A lot of this will depend on how well Isaiah and Lonzo play together. One could look at the fact that they are two point guards and assume that they can’t coexist. However, looking closer at their skill sets shows that there is really no redundancy in what they do. Isaiah is a score-first point-guard, Lonzo is a pass-first point-guard. They both bring something different to the court, and shouldn’t step on each other’s toes. And if their minutes are spread out well, then for the entire 48 minutes the Lakers can have at least one of them on the court to ensure solid point-guard play.
The Lakers have grown up as the season has rolled on. How they play in the final stretch will be the ultimate test of their growth.