If the Los Angeles Lakers’ losing ways have turned viewers away, it’s time for them to take a second look. The purple and gold have seemed to turn a corner, winning 10 of their last 15 games, most of which were won without second overall pick Lonzo Ball on the court.
Admittedly, the schedule they have faced during this stretch has been far from daunting. However, L.A. has taken down some postseason contending opponents in the Boston Celtics, Indiana Pacers, and Oklahoma City Thunder, who the Lakers have defeated twice.
There are multiple factors at play in Los Angeles’ recent winning ways. First and foremost is their ability to share the ball. The Lakers are currently sixth overall in the NBA in assists as a team, averaging 23.7 per game. In their 10 most recent wins, the team has averaged 28 assists per game.
The return of Ball, who has been out with a knee injury since January 13, has helped bolster L.A.’s already strong passing game. Ball is averaging 5.5 assists in the two games he has played so far. In those two games, the Lakers are averaging 30 assists.
Second year small forward Brandon Ingram has also been making a splash as of late, and is becoming the offensive center-piece that Los Angeles hoped he would be. For the season, Ingram is averaging 16 points to lead the team. In the nine wins Ingram has played in during this 15-game period, he has averaged 18 points per game. An area in which he can improve, however, is efficiency. His true shooting percentage is 53 percent, which is not terrible, but will need to be better if he is to make the next jump in his development.
Fortunately, Ingram is not tasked with carrying the offense on his own. The Lakers boast one of the best scoring benches in the league, which averages 42 points per game. The second unit was at one time led by Jordan Clarkson, who is now on the Cleveland Cavaliers. Clarkson was fourth on the team in scoring, with 14.5 points per game.
His departure doesn’t spell doom for Los Angeles, as they still have rookie sensation Kyle Kuzma to provide points when the starters need to rest. Kuzma is currently second in scoring on the team with 15 points per game, and has a true shooting percentage of 54 percent. Like Ingram, there is room for growth in efficiency, but Kuzma is far exceeding what everyone expected from the 27th pick in the NBA draft.
Los Angeles was also not left empty handed when losing Clarkson, as the team received Isaiah Thomas in the trade that sent Clarkson to the Cavaliers. The court of public opinion seems to have shifted on Thomas, who was once lauded as a hero for playing in the playoffs for the Celtics despite the death of his sister, along with a hip injury that sidelined him until January 2 against the Trailblazers.
Thomas has been working his way back from said hip injury, and in doing so, has lost some of the scoring efficiency that helped him average 29 points per game last season. With Cleveland, Thomas had a true shooting percentage of 49 percent, a number he has increased to 56 percent since moving to LA. He is also helping to account for the loss of Clarkson by chipping in 13 points per game off the bench.
The improvements the Lakers are making on offense shouldn’t overshadow how pivotal their defense has been, not only in the past 15 games, but for the season as a whole. They are among the NBA’s best defensive teams when it comes to their defensive rating. This stat breaks down how many points a team’s defense allows per 100 possessions. L.A. is currently 11th in the league in defensive rating, allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions.
One would assume that Los Angeles’ defensive numbers would be better in the stretch of games being discussed, but they are actually slightly worse. Teams are averaging 109 points against the Lakers in the past 15 games. L.A. has been able to hold two of their tougher opponents to low scoring nights, with the Pacers notching 86 points in their loss to L.A., and the Thunder scoring just 81 in their second loss.
The return of Ball should also help bring the Lakers’ defensive numbers back down, as Ball is currently Los Angeles’ leader in defensive rating, allowing 102.7 points per 100 possessions. This leaves him at 17th in the NBA, but it will be interesting to see how Ball’s defensive rating fluctuates now that he is playing again. It could be that missing 15 games has helped keep his defensive rating artificially low, but only time will tell for certain.
The Lakers are a proud organization, but one that is currently in a long transition period. They have yet to smell the playoffs since the 2012-2013 season, a five-year stretch that is unheard of for a team that was at one time a perennial lock to make the postseason. This is the first year that there is a sense of hope in Los Angeles, a jolt of life that comes from adding incredibly talented and young players.
It would take a Herculean effort for L.A. to make the playoffs this season, especially in the ever-powerful Western Conference, but it feels as though the team is just a few good moves away from breaking out of the five-season slump they’re in. It’s only a matter of time before the Lakers rise again, and when they do, expect them to stay at the top for a long time to come.