After 60 Games, Lakers Showing Measurable Improvement

With 22 games remaining, the Los Angeles Lakers have already matched the 26 wins the team managed for the entire 2016-17 season

The Los Angeles Lakers winning 26 out of 60 games may not sound impressive, but it is definite, measurable progress for a team that won 26 games over 82 games in 2016-17. The season prior, the Lakers only managed 17 wins and the year before featured 21 wins.

With 22 games remaining, the Lakers should easily reach 30 wins, which would be the first time since 2012-13 the purple and gold hit that mark. Modest as it may be considering it would still be well shy of a playoff berth, the Lakers are on the upswing and should be an entertaining, fun team to watch down the stretch. Also, the Lakers have no incentive to tank since they do not own their first round draft pick.

Monday's game in Atlanta provided a fun lopsided 123-104 victory for the Lakers and the first time the team had nine different players score in double figures since 1987 according to the team's PR staff. As a reference point, Corey Brewer, Luol Deng and Channing Frye are the only three Lakers on the current roster that were alive when the Lakers accomplished that feat. Lonzo Ball would not be born for another decade.

On the topic of Ball, he can shoot.

It's time to kill that tired narrative that his shot is broken and needs to be fixed. Yes, his shot is unorthodox, but the kid can stroke the basketball from distance. He's played two games and made six three pointers out of nine attempts since returning from an MCL sprain that forced him to miss six weeks.

In a vacuum, that two-game sample size means nothing, but going back to Ball's past 20 games, which takes us all the way back to Nov. 22nd in Sacramento, the rookie point guard is shooting 38.5 percent from three-point land. His last 10 games, that number is actually 40.9 percent from three.

Ball was awful from distance for the first month of the season, particularly at STAPLES Center, but he's been pretty darn solid from three-point range for a while now. He isn't shy when he's open even if there are a few extra feet between him and the line, and the numbers suggest he has every reason to step into a shot and take it with confidence.

Speaking of confidence, Brandon Ingram is growing by the game in that department. One has to keep in mind that Ingram is not even two full months older than Ball and still not old enough to legally buy an alcoholic beverage in the United States. Ingram is special and has the intangible and tangible ingredients to become a great player in the league.

Ingram is a documented gym rat and passionate about basketball, putting in the work in practice and enjoying the process. Beyond his attitude, Ingram possesses elite length that provides an unfair advantage on both ends of the court. More than any other player on the roster, Ingram clearly possesses all the ingredients to become a top five player in the NBA one day. With every passing game, he seems to figure out how to have a greater impact on a nightly basis, and the fact that he appears to relish the defensive challenges only further pushes his potential greatness.

Ingram's 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against Atlanta meant that the 20-year-old averaged 18.6 points, 5.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks on 52.2 percent from three-point land and 54.5 percent from the field for the month of February—a moderate sample size of 10 games.

Consistency is the key for Ingram, and the Kinston, North Carolina native is playing the most consistent basketball of his young career. Monday's win in Atlanta marked the 13th straight game that the no. 2 pick in the 2016 NBA draft scored in double figures, which is the longest streak of his career. Sixty games into the 2017-18 NBA season, Ingram leads the team in scoring at 16.1 points per game and is becoming one of the most consistent players on the team.

Again, it's easy to forget that Ingram is only 20.

When discussing consistency, Julius Randle has more of an impact on a nightly basis than any other Laker. Randle, who started the Lakers' lottery rebuild back in 2014, is putting together an impressive run of 17 straight games scoring in double figures with seven double-doubles embedded in that set. Over the Lakers' current three-game winning streak, Randle has two double-doubles and a triple-double.

Randle's been so strong that the bruising forward is regularly drawing double teams, but that seems to only increase his impact on the game.

Randle, Ball and Ingram may be the three names at the tip of the tongue when discussing the Lakers these days, and all three of those players provide clear evidence of measurable improvement, but those players only scratch the surface of what Luke Walton is doing with the Lakers. The Lakers' coach has been obsessed with the defensive end of the floor since his arrival, and that obsession is yielding results.

The Lakers are playing defense.

Numerically speaking, the Lakers have a defensive rating of 105.3, which means they allow 105.3 points per 100 possessions. That ranks the Lakers 11th in defensive rating in the NBA out of 30 teams, which is a dramatic improvement on ranking 30th or 29th the past three seasons. What Walton has accomplished with the team's defense over the first 60 games of the season is possibly the most impressive aspect of his tenure thus far.

Offensively, the Lakers have struggled all season long. Isaiah Thomas may not be 100 percent healthy or able to hit the heights of a season ago, but Walton has thus far utilized the veteran point guard and pushed him to his strengths. Those strengths focus on Thomas making decisions on the offensive end of the floor, an area where he is the most successful player on the roster from a historical standpoint. A season ago, Thomas ranked third in the NBA in scoring and was considered the top fourth quarter scorer in the NBA.

How Thomas ultimately fits into the Lakers' future or even the end of the season is yet to be determined, as Walton will likely alter lineups down the stretch. Thus far,  Thomas appears to fill a shooting need and improve the team in an area that needed addressing.

After Monday's win, the Lakers rank 24th in offensive rating, so adding a player with Thomas' offensive instincts shouldn't hurt as long as he keeps sharing the basketball. Ten field goal attempts, five assists and only one turnover in 27 minutes against Atlanta on Monday served as a reminder that Thomas is a playmaking point guard that understands how to move the basketball and feed teammates.

While Thomas' long-term future is up for debate, rookies Josh Hart and Kyle Kuzma don't expect to go anywhere anytime soon. Both have both played vital roles in improving the Lakers from a season ago. At 39.3 percent from distance, Hart is the team's leading three-point shooter. His tough defense has been an asset throughout the season, and the rookie's addition to the starting unit has been so successful that Walton did not immediately push Ball back into the starting lineup upon his return. After three straight wins, Walton may well wait for a loss before he decides to shake up the starters.

Kuzma's move to the bench earlier in the season reduced the rookie's scoring numbers, but the 22-year-old forward's smooth three-point stroke looked to be on target in Atlanta. Kuzma made three three-pointers on Monday and brought his three-point shooting percentage to 35.8 percent for the season, which ranks fourth on the team. The rookie from Flint, Michigan is down to averaging below 30 minutes per game for the season, and that is likely due to the coaching staff managing minutes after calling on the rookie to play 35-plus minutes in eight straight games at the end of December. Kuzma went over 40 minutes in five of those eight games and seemed to be tiring heading into the All Star break.

After that eight-game run of heavy minutes, the rookie out of the University of Utah has not played over 40 minutes even once and only topped the 30-minute mark four times in the 25 games played in January and February of 2018.

Seemingly, everywhere one looks, the Lakers have improved from the team that finished 26-56 a season ago. At 26-34, the Lakers can point to measurable improvement. In fact, even the 26-34 doesn't entirely represent the strides the Lakers have made. A two-week period that stretched from Dec. 22 to Jan. 5 featured nine straight defeats. Remove those two weeks of the season, and the Lakers would be 26-25, a shade over .500. If the Lakers can play .500 basketball over the final 22 games of the season, LA would finish with 37 victories and count the season as a massive step in the right direction.

Before the season started, the Lakers promised to be more competitive, put out an entertaining product on the court and display improvement. Sixty games in, the Lakers have kept their promises.

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