The Lakers Are Still “Becoming”

Shout out, JJ Redick.

Remember when the Los Angeles Lakers were 7–5, and Luke Walton was an actual candidate for Coach of the Year?

Seems like a long time ago, and a far cry from the current LA squad that has dropped eight straight, culminating with a loss to the Brooklyn Nets tonight.

That team that ranked near the top of the league in points per possession and seemed to be improving on defense, now sits at 21st in offensive rating and 29th in defensive rating, according to basketball reference.

A group that was looking for a way to cut bait with Nick Young now longs for his defensive prowess (what?). Since Young went out Nov. 29 against New Orleans, the Lakers have lost eight of nine and have gotten considerably worse on the defensive end, allowing nearly 112 points per game during that stretch.

Speaking of Young and his improved defense, well sort of, he’s still displaying elements of his former, “Swaggy,” self. Tonight he went as far as pump-faking a free throw attempt. This puzzled just about everyone in attendance.

The fact that I have word-processed two consecutive paragraphs about Nick Young tells you all you need to know about the state of the Lakers right now. The basketball is not good, and a silly yet entertaining free-throw has been the recent bright spot of the now 10–18 Los Angeles Lakers.

Young’s replacement during his injury was Lou Williams, who has become a mainstay in the morning box scores, averaging 24.3 points per game over the last 10. A greater offensive role for Williams also means he has to guard someone on the other end. It’s no secret that he struggles here. There’s a reason that a year removed from a sixth man award, Toronto didn’t jump at the opportunity to extend his contract. Williams is terrific off the bench, but when thrusted into starters minutes, his defense becomes a problem.

Young’s injury was not the only important one, though.

Failing to mention DeAngelo Russell’s health would be irresponsible. Russell’s early confidence was an essential ingredient to the recipe that had the Lakers thriving early on. Take Russell and Young out of the starting line-up and struggles shouldn’t be too shocking.

The two are back now, and although they are on minutes restrictions, their improving health should get the Lakers back to almost normal.

Is that normal a playoff team, which LA looked like for stretches in November? Probably not, but to think they were ever in the post season conversation would have been a little ridiculous.

The Lakers problem is the same one a team like the Timberwolves has seen. Youth. Barely legal ballers, talented as they might be, are only so sustainable in the NBA. So much has to go right for this Lakers team to compete on a nightly basis, and it starts with having Russell and Young in the starting line-up.

What made the Lakers so different in the beginning of the season was their bench. A group led by Lou Williams’ uncanny nose for the hoop, Jordan Clarkson’s effective guard play, and Larry Nance Jr.’s out-of-the-gym athleticism.

When injuries happen, that depth decreases, and without that depth, the Lakeshow are really just another borderline bottom feeder with lots of talent that aren’t going anywhere, quite yet.

That last sentence is probably LA’s reality, but perhaps that reality isn’t so bad. At least now, they have seen glimpses of what this franchise can be moving forward. For the time being, they have been sliding in the opposite direction, but failure always precedes success.

The talent is there, the coach is there, some holes need filling, but that seeminlgy reckless expectation that the Lakers are a playoff team might not be as far-fetched as it initially seemed.

Their reality is they’re not there yet (Ever see someone use all three forms of there in a sentence?). But that’s ok, with the state of the NBA in 2016. No one’s asking the Lakers to compete with the Warriors or the Cavs (although they did stomp Golden State earlier this season), but just to sniff the conversation and be relevant again. The former may not even be possible this year, but there is a clear groundwork being laid out before our eyes.

Whatever your first thoughts of the 2016 Lakers were, they are almost certainly not the same ones you have right now. JJ Redick has a saying that people have never arrived and are always “becoming.”

The Lakers are “becoming,” something. What that something is remains to be seen, but one thing’s clear: Becoming anything is exponentially better than where this franchise was headed just a season ago.

Take an eight game losing streak for what it is. Basketball is said to be a game of runs. The season, said to be a marathon, not a sprint.

In any event, the Lakers have their full arsenal of players back, and whether they choose to use this stretch as a lesson or throw it out the window is up to them.

The reality is that their reality was a clouded one. Whoever thought this team was headed for the playoffs was out of their mind and whoever saw them as a bottom feeder may have been equally off the mark.

These Lakers are not exactly who you think they are, and maybe that’s alright.