I became a basketball fan in the late 90s when I serendipitously turned on the TV to see a small guy artistically ricochet into tree trunks and inexplicably lead the league in scoring. His name was Allen Iverson and his fiercely competitive underdog persona reflected the city and franchise he represented.
As my viewing experience for NBA basketball expanded, I would begin to appreciate narratives and storylines from all around the league. On the west coast another team had my attention, building upon its historic legacy of success and developing a new dynasty upon the pillars of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. As Iverson entered his prime the 76ers would peak by reaching the NBA finals in 2001 where the Lakers would serve as foil to his epic exploits in Game 1 by sweeping the next four games for their second consecutive title in the midst of a three-peat. Basketball fans could admire the physical dominance of Shaq and the colossal challenge of facing his perimeter running mate Kobe.
Within the league, the balance of power in the NBA was very clear. For nearly two decades, I have been satisfied with the biblical narrative I created of the Lakers representing Goliath and every challenger they faced in the role of David. Unfortunately, Father Time is undefeated against David and Goliath. Allen Iverson would gradually lose some of the pep in his step and bounce around the league. The Sixers would quickly stumble into mediocrity and eventually irrelevance. Even the Lakers would lose Shaq, become mediocre, acquire Pau, become champs, and slowly devolve into a cranky, aging, decrepit Kobe dropping 60 points in his farewell game before dropping the mic on a 17-win team. The Lakers have not been Goliath for several seasons, perpetually ending up at the top of the lottery instead of the standings, but through 16 games this season that may not be such a bad thing anymore.
The aura of representing Goliath has been a cloak stigmatizing the franchise from moving forward, as management and fans have clung on to the last vestiges of a glittering past. This is what makes the surprising beginning to the season even more impressive. Byron Scott is gone and Luke Walton has his young players playing a fun, up-tempo brand of basketball, and the results have been positive albeit in the small sample size. Allowing the youngsters to actually get playing time and giving them freedom to operate in an offensive system predicated on constant ball-and-player movement, Luke Walton has accomplished much more than a surprising .500 record. The Lakers are smoothly transitioning from a dislikable Goliath into a lovable David and becoming an exciting show for all basketball fans alike. With their Staples Center floor-mate Clippers sporting the best record in the league, the role reversal of Los Angeles franchises is complete. Embracing the underdog role serves the baby Lakers well, as they abound with infectious youthful exuberance. The Showtime Lakers were must-see, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers enthralling. Chasing shadows of past greatness is fool’s gold, yet the Baby Lakers are quickly developing into a fascinating and exciting new show.
It all starts and ends with Luke Walton. Replacing Byron Scott, Luke has brought with him a completely different culture than the isolation individual star-oriented system Scott was running by sticking to an offense overly reliant on a 37-year-old Kobe Bryant. Reluctance to play his promising young players, in particular D’Angelo Russell, would be Scott’s ultimate downfall. Last season Russell was only used sparingly as a primary ball handler and struggled with confidence and consistency. This season as the focal point of the offense, the same swag the Lakers saw at Ohio State before they drafted him is on full display once again. While he is not playing heavy minutes, Russell’s role is defined, and with the ball in his hands the outlook of his future keeps getting brighter. Bringing an old-school, fundamental bag of tricks to the PG position with his nifty ball-handling and change of pace bursts, Russell will be a handful once he combines his shooting range with his ability to get to the hoop and finish at the rim. D’Angelo’s 32 points and seven treys in their recent victory versus the Nets is a harbinger of what he can do when he is feeling it. However, getting to the line more than three times a game will be the next facet of his game to develop.
Besides allowing the Lakers’ brightest prospect to play with a sense of confidence and joy, the team this season has had two unexpected developments; Nick Young’s dedication to the defensive end and Julius Randle’s improved efficiency on the offensive end. Nick Young has for many years played an exciting brand of basketball reminiscent to that of J.R. Smith, where highlight, off-balance contested 3’s and dunks in traffic on offense bring the fans out of their seats. Unfortunately, those moments are too few and far between to mitigate poor effort on defense. Lacking dedication to both ends of the floor throughout his career with rumors of him being on the roster bubble in preseason may have been the tipping point for a change in his mindset. At 6-7 and boasting freakish athleticism, Young’s issues with defensive breakdowns were never of physical nature but rather between the ears. So far this season he has consistently stayed alert both on and off the ball, moved his feet, and simply stayed focused to sticking with the defensive concepts of the system. This development cannot be underestimated, as he essentially has transformed himself from a fringe player to a productive wing in a league that loves its wings. Hitting a game-winner against the Thunder is the cherry on top for a guy with self-proclaimed ice in his veins.
Randle’s skill set coming out of Kentucky was easily defined, an explosive big with a refined set of post moves, spins, and strength in the paint. A terrible knee injury in his first pro outing would complicate his career outlook as he came back the next season lacking rhythm and showing significantly less explosiveness. He has admitted that it took him a full season to finally start trusting his body, and it is showing this year as he has removed all the hesitancy in his moves that slowed him down last year. Julius has been extremely productive scoring in the paint, which was always his strength coming into the league. The surprising development in his game has been the willingness to play within the flow of the offense and actively take advantage of individual mismatches to seek out open shooters. 13 points and eight rebounds were always realistic expectations for Randle in his second healthy season in the league, but the four assists per night is an exciting prospect if he can continue to take advantage of the ball-movement offense. It is no coincidence that the two games where he had 10 and eight assists were also Lakers victories and his best +/- of the season. Now imagine if he develops a dependably mid-range jump shot ala Zach Randolph.
Precious few teams in the NBA can sustain a winning record without a deep bench. Even the most optimistic Lakers fan may not be projecting a playoff spot for this team in a highly competitive Western Conference, but if the magic does not run out the bench will be what sustains the Baby Laker show into the postseason. In fact, the Lakers second unit has been the most effective bench in the league through the first month of the season. Jordan Clarkson has proven to be a capable guard in the league and has admirably tried to fit in despite his ever-changing role. What he lacks in shooting consistency he has made up for with defensive activity and offensive penetration. Larry Nance Jr. has continued to be an extremely capable big off the bench providing highlight dunks and generally solid defensive fundamentals. He may never learn how to shoot but nobody is asking him to be Blake Griffin. Lou Williams has not changed much since being Mr. Basketball in the state of Georgia at South Gwinnett High School and Allen Iverson’s apprentice in Philly. He gets buckets, gets to the line, and can single-handedly win a game with his supernova explosions off the bench. His extremely hot shooting to start the season spells a cold streak around the corner, but they will really need him the next few weeks given Russell’s knee injury. Brandon Ingram is the player with the best opportunity to improve over the rest of the season. Right now he has simply picked his spots and tried to remain a solid role player within the system. Remember this is the same kid that was drafted second overall in June and drew some comparisons to Kevin Durant while playing for Duke. The expectation should be for him to become more aggressive in the second half of the season and hopefully make the starting lineup. Tarik Black is still a foul machine and generally overmatched by true centers, but continues to rebound at a good rate. As for the last two members of the rotation, the fourth and fifth options in the starting lineup; Luol Deng has probably been a more effective as a locker room presence than he has on the court, and although Mozgov may never fully justify the $64 million contract, he adds a solid presence on both ends of the floor when Coach Walton isn’t going small.
Finishing above .500 should not be an expectation for this group of players, but 16 games in it doesn’t seem quite as unfathomable anymore. Injuries are very unpredictable, and missing Russell for an extended period of time will significantly test their depth. As much as they have improved on offense, their defense will be a work in progress all season. These are young players still figuring out their way in the league, but the joy they play with is sustainable and the positive vibes are in sharp contrast to the last few seasons. Going into Friday’s matchup with the Warriors, general consensus would be for this happy bunch to end up below .500 by the end of the week. Nevertheless, the Lakers are one of two teams to hand the Warriors a loss this season. Last night’s drubbing in Oracle without Russell and Randle amplified how delicate the balance of the roster can be. Allowing 80 first half points is generally inexcusable for any team, but the mitigating factors of missing their two top young players while facing a historically daunting offense on the road cannot be totally dismissed. The culture in the lockeroom is significantly more positive from previous seasons and bad losses can be key to the learning process. With youth you never know quite what will happen on a game-by-game basis, but their journey this season should continue to be fun regardless of the final outcome.
Now we can all enjoy the ride without narrative remorse, and selfishly I can enjoy the added bonus of their success taking away some of the spotlight from a potential Goliath developing on the East Coast. Joel Embiid is waiting and hopefully someday not too far out on the horizon a 2001 Finals rematch will take place between the two historic franchises. This time the roles will be reversed. As long as we all Trust the Process.