As the All-Star break approaches, it seems to be the time to look back on the first half of the season for the L.A.Lakers and evaluate where we are and what the immediate future looks like. The Lakers have seemed to achieve the somewhat dubious claim of having both overachieved AND underachieved at various points of the season, and this mid-season reflection is meant to be a more concise summary of the first half of the 2016-2017 Lakers campaign. The questions we’ll address are: What is the main story line of the season? Which Laker has done better than expected? Which Laker has done worse than expected? Will the Lakers be active or passive in the trade market? And lastly: What should we look for from the Lakers in the 2nd half of the season? Let’s get started.
Main story line of the season: Consistency (or lack thereof)
All young teams struggle developing two important characteristics first: an identity and consistency. These Lakers have struggled to evolve either of those attributes, and that is the story of the season. The Lakers started off on a very promising start, going 10-10 in the early part of the season and picking up inspiring wins over the Rockets, Hawks, and Warriors in the process. By the end of November, the Lakers were tied with the Blazers for 8th place, and more than a few Laker fans (myself included) could see a potential playoff berth in the cards. However, just when it seemed like the Lakers were turning the corner on the path back to relevance, the bottom fell out. Just after that encouraging beginning, L.A. proceeded to reel off 8 straight losses. From there, the Lakers could only manage a 5-20 record for the rest of 2016 to settle at where we are now. For the Lakers to bounce back and have a successful 2nd half, OF COURSE they need to work on their defensive tenacity and effort on that end. However, playing a consistent brand of hard-nosed basketball will help this young team moving forward. It is up to coach Walton to set the culture for this team to bring the same measured mentality game in and game out.
Laker who has done better than expected: Julius Randle….and Ivica Zubac
Julius Randle has had a very strong year for L.A., improving on most of his season statistics from last year. His 13 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.8 assists has been solid, and he has easily been the most consistent Laker of the squad. He already has 10 double doubles and 2 triple doubles this year, with one of the triple doubles (against Memphis) being the first against them in almost three seasons. His passing and handle seem much improved, and you have to love his aggressiveness offensively, even with his streaky (yet improving) mid range jumper. The 19 year old Ivica Zubac has also exceeded any expectations set for him, as his energy and impact on the floor has been a boon for the Lakers since he started getting some consistent playing time in the beginning of 2017. In the month of January, Zubac has averaged 7 points and 6 rebounds on 50% shooting in only 15 minutes a game. His ceiling is tremendous with his nice touch around the basket combined with solid rebounding mechanics, and if he keeps up this play Coach Walton will have no choice but to give the young man increased minutes.
Laker(s) who has done worse than expected: Timofey Mosgov and Luol Deng
Yes, the two major free agents for the Lakers are also the two biggest disappointments. Go figure. Mosgov and Deng, who were much maligned for their massive contracts, have not (and had no chance really) to play up to the expectations set for them. Mosgov was signed to be a presence in the post, with bone crushing pick and rolls on one end and a fearsome rim protector and rebounder on the other. Neither dream has been realized. Mosgov is averaging 7.6 and 5.0 rebounds per game. This is actually around his career stats mind you (7.0 pg 5.0 reb) However this is not what the Lakers were hoping for when they shelled out $64 million spread out over 4 years. Deng has not done much favors for himself either, averaging 8.0 pg, 5.6 rebs, and 1.5 assists on 39% shooting (32% from three) after signing a 4 year $72 million dollar contract in the summer. Luke Walton has definitely praised Deng for his mentoring of Brandon Ingram as well as his locker room presence, but when you invest more than $136 million into two players, you need more than glorified motivational speakers.
Will the Lakers be passive or active on the trade market:The word should probably be…opportunistic
L.A. fans know at this point that the playoffs are out of the question. They won’t make any swing for the fences deals to bring in an all-star (or at least they shouldn’t). They also will be hard pressed to part with any of their potential young building blocks (D’angelo Russell, Randle, Ingram) This should be a time for Mitch Kupchak to offload his productive veterans and continue to build for the future. As much as the Lakers would probably want to deal Mosgov and Deng, the market for them is not strong, especially with the contracts that come with them (surprised?) Nick Young and Lou Williams should be able to catch a few fliers from contending teams that need scoring off the bench, and they might yield a couple of picks. Even Marcelo Huertas and Jose Calderon could be available for teams looking for a “third playmaker” (looking at you Cleveland). The point is that there are a number of players that could be moved for L.A., but I think the front office will take a measured approach and only make a deal that’s truly advantageous for them.
What should we look for from the Lakers in the second half of the season: Progress.
Sometimes at low points in the season we forget that these Lakers are still a young team. Eight players on the roster are 25 or younger. Three of those players are under the legal drinking age. I liken this situation to, of all things, banana pudding. When you first make it, it is ready to eat and pretty much delicious on its own. However it isn’t until you chill it and let all of the components blend together that the dessert really transforms into something greater than the sum of it’s parts. Just like that pudding, the Lakers just need to chill. Let coach Walton set the culture, let the young guns grow together, and let’s see the finished product. These Lakers are on the rise, and if they right the ship and finish the season playing .500 ball, then L.A. can look forward to next season knowing they have laid the groundwork to a solid structure.