On Saturday, the Los Angeles Lakers crushed the New Orleans Pelicans 126-99. It lifted the Lakers to a 6-4 start, marking them as unlikely playoff contenders early in the season.
They have been playing in a very un-Lakers way. For much of the franchise’s history, they have been defined by star players. Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, and before them, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, have all built Hall Of Fame careers in Los Angeles.
But this team, led by new coach Luke Walton, has shared the ball amongst their young prodigies and has made them an exciting squad to watch. The Lakers currently rank first in points, yet they have no one scoring over 20 per-game. They have five players with scoring averages between 13.9 and 16.4. It’s a far cry from last season.
Shaking Off the Ghost of Kobe
In 2015-16, the Lakers ranked rock bottom in both points and field-goal percentage. The reason was clear; after Kobe Bryant announced his retirement plans in November, the season morphed into a bizarre farewell tour for one of the game’s greats. It was entertaining for fans to see their hero hoisting up shot after shot, but it was not a winning formula. The Lakers won 17 games – the worst record in the Western Conference.
No one knew what to expect from the Lakers this season. Bereft of their icon and with a new coach at the helm, few predicted them to have such a formidable start. Yet they have defied these low expectations.
The Lakers have been more team-oriented – ranking 10th in assists. They have not left hero-ball behind, but they are extremely efficient in isolation plays. In addition, Walton’s background with the Warriors combined with the young Lakers’ athleticism has made for a pacy offense – they have 100 possessions per-48 minutes.
Of course, despite some solid performances, the Lakers have plenty of room to develop. Their 2016 number two pick, Brandon Ingram, has not yet showcased his scoring ability, which was to be expected. He needs time to adjust to a more physical style of play and add weight to his skinny frame. If he can do that, it’s only a matter of time before he converts his obvious upside into production.
The Lakers have also had problems taking care of the ball; they have the most turnovers in the league. This too was predictable. Their second year point guard, D’Angelo Russell, has seen a substantial increase in his usage and leads the team with 3.2 turnovers per-game.
But Russell can hardly be blamed. The new pass-heavy style brought in by Walton naturally breeds the occasional mistake. But is this a bad thing? The turnover stat can be misleading – last year’s Warriors had the sixth-most turnovers with Walton as assistant coach. They won 73 games.
Fast-Tracking the Rebuild
Los Angeles’ encouraging start has shifted the time frame for a return to the top of the NBA. Their success this season will be crucial to free agency in 2017. Given the quality that is in the next crop of free agents, there is reason for Lakers fans to be excited.
LA will always be a popular destination for free agents. It is a huge market, and it’s a lot warmer than the other big market – New York. What then determines attracting a free agent is the quality of the team. If the Lakers can add this component and prove themselves as a playoff team, they have a real chance of snagging a star in the next offseason.
Seeing how the Lakers would deal with life after Kobe is one of the most intriguing sub-plots this season. Walton has given newfound responsibility to his young squad, as they emerge from Bryant’s long shadow. This is unsurprising. But the Lakers have won six of their first 10 games, despite such a big change in their identity. This is surprising.