The Lakers are coming off an impressive victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, improving to 30-36, and have broken the 30-win barrier for the first time since the 2012-2013 season. It’s been a long time that the Lakers have had, at least, a somewhat respectable record. They are 19-9 in their last 28 games, one of the best records in basketball over that stretch.
The #LakeShow take it!
Randle: 36 P, 14 R, 7 A
Lopez: 22 P, 8 R
IT: 20 P, 5 R, 9 A pic.twitter.com/Q0bHc4i2ZO
— NBA (@NBA) March 12, 2018
Only 16 games are remaining in the season, and the playoffs seem like a total pipedream at this point. However, this home stretch is still essential as the younger players will get a chance at development, and the front office can see who they want to keep and let go. With that being said, here are the things we want to see from the young Lakers as they close out the season.
1. Consistency from Julius Randle
Randle has arguably been the team’s best player this season. Before his huge game against Cleveland, he was averaging 15.2 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 2.5 assists-per-game in just 25.4 minutes-per-game. That comes out to 21.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per-36 minutes. Not to mention his astounding 56% field goal shooting.
Then he proceeds to drop 36 points while collecting 14 rebounds and dishing out seven assists Sunday night, on 14-18 shooting. He is locked-in, and with restricted free agency approaching, Randle is making a strong case to remain with the Lakers for the long-term.
One part of his game that has gone under-the-radar has been his improvement on defense. He is buying into what coach Luke Walton has to say and is taking pride on the defensive end. Randle is a huge reason for the team’s massive jump in defensive improvement.
While he may never be an elite interior defender, his size, strength, and speed can turn him into a valuable and versatile defender. And he is strong and athletic enough to at least survive inside the paint.
He has always been an inconsistent player because of his up-and-down mental focus. However, since mid-January, he has taken off and has done so consistently. Consistency was one of the big things holding him back from taking the next step, but if the last two months have anything to say, it is that he has found it.
It would be great for him to finish out with 16 more strong games in a row. We do not want to see eight great games and eight subpar ones. He is emerging as one of the elite young power forwards in the game, and if he can do it, that would be 39 straight games of excellence and a sign that he has taken the next step. It would make this recent explosion harder to be skeptical of.
Improving his jump shot would also be another critical area that the Lakers would love to see have improved a little. As of right now, you’d like him to forget about the three-ball and work on getting a reliable jumper. If he shows signs of one, then it makes the decision of keeping him that much more comfortable.
2. Signs of Shooting Improvement
The Lakers were the 29th-ranked three-point shooting team in the league ahead of Sunday’s game. They proceeded to shoot 13-34 from long-range, improving on their 34.5% three-point mark as a team. We are in an age where, if you cannot shoot the three-ball, you will not win, so the Lakers need to improve if they want to become a genuine playoff threat next season.
They do have guys that can shoot from long-range. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting 39.2%, Brandon Ingram 38%, Josh Hart leads the team at 39.7%, and Kyle Kuzma has shown flashes with his 36.5%. And for a seven-foot center, Brook Lopez’s 33.7% is not too bad. He has games where he explodes from deep. You just want to see a little more, especially from the rest of the team.
Hart and Ingram shot the ball well in college, so expectations are high for them as long-range snipers. Improvements in their shooting stroke will come naturally as they develop.
Lonzo Ball’s shot has been the talk of the team for much of the season. He has had a season to forget regarding shooting numbers, but he has improved as the season has gone on. Before the stinkers in his last two games, he was shooting an elite 41.2% on his three-point attempts in his previous 22 games, making 2.5 per game. He too, like Hart and Ingram, shot it well in college, so he has the potential.
As mentioned before, improvements will come naturally as they mature and develop. If you expect first and second-year players to shoot lights-out from Day One, you are delusional. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are the exceptions, and no one expects Ingram, Hart, or Lonzo to be among the five best shooters ever like that duo.
We just want to see improvement, like we have seen it recently. Los Angeles has been the second-best three-point shooting team over the last 15 games at 40%. They need to carry this momentum and finish the season out strong in this department and become a respectable team from deep.
3. Continued Defensive Improvement
What a difference a year can make. After being at or near the bottom the last four season on defense, the Lakers have jumped up to 13th this year. For being the youngest team in basketball, that is impressive because defense is mostly about IQ and effort.
Brandon Ingram has taken steps, using his elite length to continuously harass his opponent into blocks and steals a basketball player with an average wingspan would not be able to make. The additions of Caldwell-Pope and Hart have worked wonders because they are the team’s best perimeter defenders and have brought a better mentality for the team.
Lonzo Ball, while not a great one on one defender, is a good off-ball and team defender, and will only get better. He is a reason that Los Angeles is top-ten in steals. Julius Randle, as mentioned earlier, has improved as well. The team as a whole has terrific length and athleticism that allows them to be versatile and switch-off whenever and swarm offensive players into numerous deflections.
You don’t want to see any slippage as the season wanes. You expect younger guys to get better if anything. The 17-spot jump up to 13 is arguably the biggest reason why the Lakers are on track for an 11-win improvement from a season ago. Their length and athleticism have the makings of an excellent defensive unit. Now it’s just up to continued effort and improved IQ.
Overall Progression of Youth
This is the ultimately the most critical part. Brandon Ingram has taken a considerable step forward in his sophomore season. Let’s just hope that he can come back soon from injury, so he does not miss too much more crucial developmental time. The more games, the better. These last 16 games will allow us to see if Julius Randle has developed consistency or if this breakout is just a mirage.
The rookies, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, will also have to show us something. Ball has improved as the season has gone on and been great (for the most part) since his return from injury. You want to see if he can continue this or if he reverts to early season form.
Kyle Kuzma has slowed (expectedly) after a fast start to his rookie campaign. Now it is up to him to adjust back to the NBA. If he cannot, then it will give you some pause in evaluating his long-term value and potential. The other rookie, Josh Hart, came on strong during February but ran into bad injury luck and is supposed to be out a few weeks with a broken finger, so he is missing out on valuable time.
You never want to see young players moving backward as the season comes to a close. That just does not make you feel good as a fan or front office member. The future is bright in Los Angeles, but if the core of the baby Lakers can continue to improve, not only will that give others hope, but it will help the players themselves, and make the city of lights more attractive to star free agents.