The writing has been on the wall for the past three years and now the Lakers ‘Rebuild’ is finally underway. The appointment of Luke Walton as head coach was the perfect complement to their young core of players and with the experience he was bringing from his time at Golden State, most were projecting the Lakers to make a huge jump from last season’s 17-65 record (a franchise worst record) and finish just outside the playoff places.
“We’re excited to bring Luke back to Los Angeles, where we feel he’s going to start an outstanding coaching career,” Kupchak said of the appointment. “He’s one of the brightest young coaching minds in the game and we feel fortunate that he’ll be leading the on-court future of our team.”
They drafted Duke university swingman, Brandon Ingram with the no. 2 pick and the young core which had started to take shape last season was starting to look complete. D’Angelo Russell (no. 2 pick in 2015 draft and 2016 All-Rookie 2nd Team) at the point, Jordan Clarkson (2014 All-Rookie 1st Team) at two-guard, Ingram at small forward, and Julius Randle (no. 7 pick in 2014 draft) at power forward. They acquired Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng this summer to strengthen the core as well as provide options from a bench that already included former 6th man of the year, Lou Williams, nightly 3-point threat, Nick Young, and the frontcourt tandem of Larry Nance Jr and Tarik Black.
The veteran duo were supposed to immediately address the problems in defense (the Lakers were 30th in Defensive Efficiency last year) as well as provide a cool head down the stretch of close games. They also brought with them a ton of league experience that was essential for such a young group.
“I’m not putting expectations on it. It is a young core…I’m putting the focus on how hard we’re working, how the staff is helping improve them individually, how we’re getting them to buy into the system and the culture that we’re trying to create here. Those are things that I feel like if you focus on the wins will just start coming,” Walton said after they drafted Ingram.
The season started very optimistically with a hard-fought win against a Harden-led Rockets side, which was followed by three straight losses. Any panic from the losses about where the franchise was headed were immediately quelled by a three-game win streak (something that hadn’t been done since Jan 3, 2016) and at 4-3, they were above .500 for the first time since Dec. 6, 2013. By December, they were 10-10, the first time since Dec. 8, 2013 that they were .500 or above that late into the season. An 8-match losing streak soon followed and was only halted with a victory over fellow rebuilders, 76ers.
Now at 16-33, the Lakers have since failed to put together consistent victories and have only managed 6 victories since November. Things may not be on the up and up any more like they were at the beginning of the season but Lakers fans can take some respite in the fact that at this stage of the season, they’re only 1 win away from their total from last year. With over one-third of the season still to go, one would expect them to eclipse that total and hopefully not finish with the worst record in the Western Conference. The past three seasons have been the worst three in Lakers history and with 1 match still left to play in January, Walton and his randy, dandy band of young upstarts could eclipse the highest win total at this time of the season since 2013.
There’s been some improvement from last season, although that’s hardly surprising seeing how bad last season was but what seems to have come back is energy. The two seasons before the Kobe farewell tour, there was a very palpable lethargy at the Staples Center and among the squad with the only excitement from last year coming from sending Kobe off. Now the fans have been cheering just as hard for their team even though there’s been a dampening since that unfortunate losing streak that sent them on a crash course.
Injuries to key players including D’angelo Russell and Nick Young have also prevented the team from finding any consistent rhythm. Russell has been especially crucial and his absence was felt as the Lakers were routed 73-122 (a franchise record loss) in the first game since his latest injury. He’s been already sidelined multiple times this season and there is growing concern from the fan base about his potential to become a franchise player. He leads the Lakers in assists/game, is second in scoring and if that isn’t enough proof of his importance, the Lakers are better in almost every statistical category with Russell on the floor. This includes effective field goal percentage, possessions assisted on, turnover percentage, and probably the most telling, offensive rating. D’Angelo affects all of these things because he handles the ball when he’s on the floor and creates offense for his teammates with passing skill. If the Lakers are to make the right steps towards progress in their rebuild, they need Russell out on the court playing big minutes.
Lou Williams has been providing a lot of scoring off the bench and leads his team in scoring despite not starting but offense has hardly been the problem these past few years. The defense hasn’t improved from last season and has even regressed despite the additions made in the offseason. The Lakers are giving up an NBA worst 110.3 down from 109.3 last season. They’re playing at a higher pace this season but that means they need better transition defense which has simply been nonexistent. Defending the ball in the open floor must be priority for the Lakers even as they look to speed things up further on offense.
Timofey Mozgov has hardly justified his $64 million 4-year contract and is nowhere close to becoming the defensive anchor Luke Walton envisioned him to be. The Lakers are still giving up points in bunches and must plug the leaks before they can begin to steer the ship in the right direction. Averaging a paltry 7.6 points and 4.9 rebounds per game in 21 minutes, Luke Walton has often opted to play small ball with Randle at center and Deng at PF. The results haven’t been much different though and the young coach needs to figure out a way to get his team running and gunning.
Luke Walton’s brand of basketball is unlikely to shine through yet at the Staples Center given the personnel they currently have and it remains to be seen if they stick with him or keep their options open. The rebuilding has just begun and it’s going to take a while before fans are treated to exciting wins night in and night out. The management, the coaching staff and the players still have a lot of work to get them back into the playoffs but at least the good news is – work has begun to make the Lakers great again.