It's time to talk about the Lakers. There have been all kinds of different storylines emerging over the first two weeks of the NBA season, but nothing is more surprising than what's happening at Staples Center.
The Lakers are 4–3, with a better record than teams like the Bulls, Celtics, Grizzlies, and T'Wolves. In the past week, they have beaten the Hawks (good team), the Warriors (best team?), and the Suns (the Suns). But most importantly, the games in L.A. are more fun than they've been since 2009. Everyone should get involved in this experience. Let me try to explain why.
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It starts with the coach. Did you know Nick Young had 22 points on 8–14 shooting in Sunday night's win over the Suns? I swear, he's looked like a legitimately competent veteran presence this season. Think about that sentence. Luke Walton might win a Nobel Prize when all this is done. Meanwhile, D'Angelo Russell looks like a completely different player, and even when he struggles, Walton is able to lean on others without shaming the future of the franchise. Julius Randle has been transformed from a hopeless tweener leading the league in spin moves to a real weapon that's swinging games.
It's always tough to gauge what exactly makes someone a great coach, but the most basic explanation is that the best ones find ways to hide their players' weaknesses and highlight strengths. That's the Lakers through two weeks.
When Walton came on board as the savior in L.A., I was worried. The roster was too young to expect any real success this year, but beyond that obvious handicap, it wasn't all that clear that Walton would be a brilliant coach. His greatest claim to fame was taking over the Warriors and, essentially, giving them the freedom to do whatever they want. That's a good strategy when you have a perfectly constructed roster and the best shooter of all-time, but most other teams require more coaching. The combination of Walton's vague skillset and unrealistic expectations in L.A. seemed like it could be a recipe for disaster, or at least disappointment. But here we are. Walton is one part zen-master, one part super chill deity delivered to the world from a 2006 Manhattan Beach hot tub, and zero parts Byron Scott. Everyone can root for that person.
The context helps, too. The Lakers are in the best phase of development as a basketball team. This is the sweet spot. There's enough talent here to make every game exciting, but there's enough youth on the roster to guard against any real expectations or scrutiny. Nobody is getting nitpicked over defense, or three-point shooting, or efficiency. All that matters are Larry Nance alley-oops and D'Angelo Russell crossovers. Wins are nice, but nothing is critical yet, and everything's better than the Kobe/Byron Scott death march.
It's not like this around the league. Teams like the Clippers can dominate throughout November and December, but that's the baseline for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Basketball fans won't get euphoric over the Clippers until any of this translates to the playoffs. Likewise, teams like the Warriors are psychoanalyzed after every loss. Even teams like the Celtics are being graded on a contender's curve. For the Lakers, shortcomings can be ignored, and every success is an excuse to get drunk on possibilities down the line.
And speaking of possibilities… D'Angelo Russell. Among Lakers fans, the reasons to enjoy this team are obvious. For everyone else, I think Russell is the one who makes this formula addictive. It's not that he's perfect, because he really isn't. His defense is questionable, and his shooting is streaky.
Take the following lines:
32 minutes, 3–14 fg, 9 points, 5 assists
31 minutes, 9–19 fg, 23 points, 8 assists
22 minutes, 5–11 fg, 17 points, 4 assists
28 minutes, 2–11 fg, 11 points, 6 assists
It's hard to say how great he'll be, or what the finished product will even look like, but it's fun to watch him figure it out in real time. He should get stronger over the next few years, and as his game becomes more physical, the James Harden comparisons will become a lot more realistic. But then, he still has to improve his shooting, and Harden comparisons on defense are not a compliment. For now, he's more interesting than anyone else on the team. He struggled through three quarters Sunday night, but in the fourth, he came up with a huge steal before finding Nick Young for a four-point play, and he also added a three of his own to help put the game away. Every time you think you've figured Russell out, he'll make you do a double take. Also, the D'Angelo Russell-Devin Booker rivalry has a chance to be tremendous for the next 10+ years in the West.
So let's talk about the next 10 years. Look at the smallball lineup the Lakers closed with Sunday night:
There's an outline of something truly scary here, especially if you ignore Nick Young's place in that lineup and grandfather in one more shooter over the next few years. In the meantime, Brandon Ingram is 19 years old and already guarding superstars every night. If Durant comparisons are unrealistic, the phrase “Giannis with a jumpshot” is just as insane, and doesn't seem that far off.
Clarkson might have been the only free agent in the NBA who didn't get massively overpaid this summer, and he's a perfect sidekick to Russell in fourth quarters. Meanwhile, the bench has Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac, two players who will be helpful down the line, especially if a) Nance's jumper progresses and b) he continues his mission to dunk on every player in the NBA.
It'll probably take a few years for any of this to turn into something real. And yes, even after three straight wins, they'll probably lose around 50 games this year. But look at the bigger picture, and the Lakers are well positioned to come together with a terrifying blend of length and shooting just as teams like the Warriors and Cavs begin to slow down. Or at least, these are the crazy things you begin to say out loud during the fourth quarter of Lakers wins in 2016.
Some of this Lakers success should have been expected. Remove Kobe and Byron Scott, let D'Angelo Russell go nuts, and obviously things would get fun. If we're talking about the first two weeks and league pass epiphanies, though, the real surprise has been Julius Randle.
He still can't shoot from the perimeter, but so far he's been doing enough of everything else to make him a terror regardless. He's active on the boards, he's scoring down low, and he's making enough plays off the dribble to keep defenses honest on the perimeter. If this progress is real—it's only been two weeks—it changes everything for the Lakers. It means the nucleus is already in place.
For now, I'm pretty sure Randle personifies this team better than anyone. As recently as this summer, he was a potential liability on defense, who didn't space the floor on offense. He was exactly the kind of decent player with outdated skills that modern basketball fans love to dismiss. For the past two weeks, Randle's turned him turn into a mobile, playmaking four and a smallball five—exactly the kind of player that today's basketball fans can't resist.
Can it last? Come join the Church of Luke. Let's find out together.