NBA

Walton's Lakers Setting Up Hollywood Ending

After Wednesday night in Chicago, the Los Angeles Lakers will be through a quarter of the 2016-17 NBA season

After Wednesday night's game against the Chicago Bulls, the Los Angeles Lakers will be through 20 games of the 82-game regular season, which translates to just about a quarter of the season.

So, what have we learned?

For starters, the Lakers have been a fun team to follow because they continue to fight and win games they, seemingly, have no business winning. Save for perhaps the overly ambitious expectations that sit inside every NBA locker room at the start of a season, the Lakers have already crushed preseason predictions. Even after Tuesday's loss in New Orleans, LA is on pace to finish with 39 wins.

ESPN had the Lakers winning 25 games and finishing bottom of the Western Conference, which fits in line generally with how experts' predictions have gone in 2016: "Wrong!"

Approaching the quarter mark in the season, LA has been jumping in and out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference and has three times as many wins as last place Dallas. The Lakers may well end up in the lottery and miss out on the postseason, but this team currently looks just as likely to sneak into the playoffs and matchup against the likes of the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs or (fingers crossed) the Los Angeles Clippers.

Who wouldn't welcome a hallway series at Staples Center?

As the Lakers deal with the injury bug with hopes to hydrate and get back on their feet rather than end up on their backs in bed, the reality is that the Lakers are still a work in progress more so than most other teams. A new coach means new systems, roles and methodologies.

Thus far, Lakers coach Luke Walton has been a master motivator in terms of getting effort from his players, as the team is still adjusting to meet the coach's demands with regards to execution.

"When you break down film, you see a lot of mistakes, and as coaches, you're probably nitpicking and it's probably not fair," Walton said before his team started the current road trip. "But there's a lot of stuff we need to clean up and get better at."

Walton spoke in the wake of Sunday's win over Atlanta, when the Lakers had improved to 9-9: "The fact that we're 9-9 now, I think, speaks a lot to the effort our guys are playing with, the trust they're having in each other and not as much on the execution of the plays or getting the defensive schemes down pat, which is where we want to be."

Walton continued, "But in the meantime, if we can keep playing hard and competing, I'm confident that we'll get the more complicated stuff down as well and then, we can make real growth happen, as well."

In short, the Lakers are a work in progress and far from the finished product, even if they do pull off wins on a semi-regular basis.

Over the next 15 games, though, even injuries and inevitable losses cannot hamper the team's long-term growth. These young Lakers have already tasted enough success to continue buying into the coaching staff and playing hard more often than not. Scheduling will play a role in the standings as the season progresses, and the current stretch illustrates that point.

Including Wednesday's game in Chicago, the Lakers play 11 of their next 14 games away from Staples Center. So, the schedule decrees that LA should experience a fair amount of defeats in the coming weeks as road wins in the NBA are tough to come by. And yet, the team should continue to experience growth in terms of understanding what the coaching staff is asking for, beyond the effort.

The other side of that scheduling coin features the Lakers setting up for a fairy tale finish.

Following the All-Star break in the middle of February, LA plays 16 of the final 24 games of the season at Staples Center. Technically, one is an away game against the Clippers, but going to bed at home, going through pregame rituals at the practice facility in El Segundo and mentally getting prepared in the home locker room has value for players. Also, a fair amount of Lakers' fans tend to get into the building for those local rivalry games.

If the start of the season is any indication, Walton should have his team playing hard on a nightly basis at the least. Over time, the execution should improve. As the young team grows more comfortable with the coach's concepts, continues to build chemistry in the systems on both ends of the court and generally improves with much-needed game experience, that final stretch of the season sets the stage for a comeback story that feels all too familiar in Hollywood.

Walton summed up the present reality against the end of season hope: "The effort and the competitiveness has [sic] been off the charts almost every night for our guys, but we need to get the execution up to par with that."

With Walton's assessment in mind, one can easily see the Lakers struggle in the coming months and be counted out before putting together an impressive finish to the season that lands LA a postseason berth. The Lakers have not made the playoffs since the 2012-13 season, when Kobe Bryant tore his Achilles and knocked down a couple foul shots to help LA get into the playoffs. The Lakers did not win any games and were promptly swept by the Spurs.

Coming off a franchise worst 17-win season, though, making the playoffs would provide the perfect Hollywood ending for the 2016-17 Lakers. Only, for Walton's Lakers, this season is only the beginning.

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